Funeral Culture

AIDS, Work, and Culture Change in an African Kingdom

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Casey Golomski
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , June
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


African’s love for the dead is so resilient that funeral rites are performed no matter the circumstance surrounding a person’s death. These rites cut across almost all African cultures. Casey Golomski’s Funeral Culture: AIDS, Work, and Culture Change in an African Kingdom is a good documentation of “what life and death means culturally in Swaziland” (176) amidst an HIV/AIDS epidemic of tremendous proportions and resulting in mass deaths across the land. Themes such as HIV/AIDS, cultural change and body politics, culture (polygamy and obligation to extended family), history, commercialization (insurance and parlor), traditions, life, and afterlives are covered in this monograph. 

The theme of HIV/AIDS is strong when Alan Whiteside, a health economist, and his colleagues call it a “humanitarian emergency” (3), and later, when HIV is declared a “national disaster” by King Mswati III of Swaziland. The author—having lived with the people—offers an account of how both the government and ordinary Swazis dealt with the “death” rate using African traditions as well as modern mechanism Whiteside vividly describes the issues that come with these deaths including “corpse custody and burial location disputes, exhumations, court cases and police interventions, stolen mourning gowns and funerary goods, and scandals at hospital and funeral parlor morgues of abandoned, missing and rerouted bodies” (4). These disruptions are often labelled as “unSwazi” by the Swazi culture itself. Contemporary funerals are organized differently than in previous generations and “death and dying is more uncertain” (2); more frequent, and somewhat less “traditional” in today’s Swaziland. Among the changes in funerals is a shift from the traditional to the more modern and the inclusion of material cultural items such as flowers or cards. HIV has changed the entire dynamics of the funeral culture. Whitehead also collects stories of how companies, organizations, and individuals have intensified awareness of the disease, insisting that those who get tested and were diagnosed make changes to their lives through support systems, enabling these individuals to live with HIV rather than die from it.

Modern-day funerals are themselves important to the historical consciousness of Swaziland, with the changing forms of funerals sparking conversations about the meaning and value of culture (10). Themes of funeral culture emerge practically, but central to this volume is a bigger picture that should not be unfamiliar to many—wellness, religion, gender and sexism, family, and the right, ability, and will to do something that matters (14)—but it is the concept of a “dignified funeral” that explains today’s funeral culture in Africa. The authoroffers accounts of two forms of funerals in Swaziland, introducing us to what are “unSwazi” versus “Swazi,” “dignified” versus “pauper,”, and “dignified” verses “funerals.” A “dignified” funeral is with a well-prepared kulunga kahle, and is well attended—kuba khona bonke in siSwati (6). It is believed that a person should not be buried like an animal—a pauper’s funeral—which is not dignified (5). Pauper funerals are regularly organized by the state given that the cost of funerals in Africa has some families disown their “own” due to an inability to afford these services, however, the “dignified” funerals are organized by the families.

According to the text, this change in funeral culture is here to stay as this highly-commercialized and “dignified” branding of funerals has been normalized and carefully situated alongside traditional African values and the universal ethics of the quality of life. Golomski cites an advertisement of one such funeral parlor which states that “we appreciate that in our culture we do not only look after ourselves but also have the responsibility of our parents and family” (6), making such funeral rites a necessary evil despite their unaffordablity. In highlighting the cultural and economic inequalities in funeral celebrations, Golomski threads the needle of history to demonstrate the growth of dignified funerals across Africa, and to connect these rites to the rise of urbanization and materiality. What has happened to ubuntu (humanity) such that a person must pay expensive insurance premiums in preparation for their death so that they receive a “dignified” funeral, and not that of a pauper? What becomes more important is that this person is dwelling more on what a “dignified” funeral is and that the “dignified” and modern celebrations are accorded more value than the traditional ways across Africa. 

Perhaps what it most intriguing in this work is Golomski’s elaboration on the socio-cultural changes in Swaziland while at the same time offering a nostalgic longing for what the Swazi love the most—traditional culture in its popular forms of singing, dancing, joking, stories of folklore, and practicing imvunulo—sometimes referred to as the Swazi’s traditional religion. Golomski stresses the baggage of culture amidst extensive social change, and that the culture of polygamy gives leeway to men, though it brings with it a tension within families, and later, obligations to the legal family as out-of-wedlock children are considered part of the extended family.

In other African countries, such as Ghana, funeral parlors are minimal, and these few are often found only in the major capital cities. These parlors are a luxury, accessible to only the few families who can afford them. In other African countries, funerals are still handled purely by the families and the clan as, for example, in the time from which a person falls ill until his death and final funeral rites, The Asante, the Dagaba in Ghana, and the Hottentots of Namibia play roles in the funerals for both the paternal and maternal kinsmen. The bathing of the dead, the lying-in state, and the burial are systematically shared between paternal and maternal kinsmen (Kwabena N. Bame, Profiles in African Popular Culture, Clear Type Press, 1991). It is these differences between Swaziland and other African cultures that Golomski acknowledges in this great work. A question that still needs answering is what is a traditional funeral? and what is a modern one? Have funerals homes or parlors always been a part of the Swazi culture, or are they a contemporary concept in the wake of HIV/AID epidemic? Are there funeral parlors in both the cities and villages? or are they only in an urban culture? 

Notwithstanding this inquiry, Funeral Culture offers a detailed ethnography of funerals in South African Swaziland, and scholars and students alike can breathe fresh air with this comparison of the neo-funeral cultural changes amongst the Southern African countries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Genevieve Nrenzah is Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Casey Golomski is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Hampshire. His work has appeared in journals such as Material ReligionSocial DynamicsCulture, Health, and Sexuality; and American Ethnologist.


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