How death is handled in Ethiopia

The more I think about it, the better and more openly we handle the death of loved ones, the easier the process of grief must be in the long run.

Here’s what I have learned about handling death in Ethiopian culture.

When somebody has died in our neighborhood, I immediately know it. There is a guy whose profession is to blow a horn and inform the people living in that area that somebody has died today, please donate money. The money is collected from the surrounding community to cover the funeral costs. I hear the horn at least once a week. If somebody dies in the middle of the night, then the horn is also blown at that time. No exceptions.

When somebody dies in Ethiopia, it is a big deal. There is no way you would go to work on the day your mother or father or uncle or sister dies. Not even the day after or the whole week. That is a time for mourning. You take time of work and your colleagues will respect that. Most likely they will collect some money to donate to your family in these difficult times.

When you mourn, you are supposed to cry out raucously. When people cry at your funeral, it is a sign that you were adored in your lifetime. In case funeral guests have difficulties finding tears, some funerals have specialized funeral singers who will tell stories and sing songs about the deceased person.

Mourning is a big deal. In some parts of Ethiopia, you are expected to cause yourself physical pain in your mourning. For example, some people might scrape their faces with a thorny fruit. Some might beat their chest.

My fiancé was once invited to attend an Ethiopian funeral. The day before he asked about the dress code. What colour should my clothes be? Doesn’t matter, no problem, was the answer. So he wore the usual western funeral costume, a black suit. He arrived at the funeral and was the palest dude on spot rocking a black suit – among Ethiopians dressed in all-white. Doesn’t matter. No problem.

After the actual funeral the family of the one passed away host guests for three days. Guests will come and go and bring injera and bread. There is also a tradition where people try to wash the feet of the family. These feet washers are supposed to bring some laughter into a sad period. The family will try to escape the feet washing. This is part of the game.

There are cemeteries in Ethiopia, although not nearly all have (big) gravestones like in the west. Burial is usually done as soon as possible. If you are widowed in the countryside, you may never remarry.

When the mourning period is over, life goes on. It has to. Or as the Amharic proverb goes: Little by little, an egg will walk.

12 thoughts on “How death is handled in Ethiopia

  1. Moi Laura, I have enjoyed reading your blog. Some time back in ethiopia, I have also been to funerals and made two observations. For women: the way you wear your scarf, the stripes in front, shows the mourning. And as a woman, you shave your head, when you family member dies. The loud crying really reminded me on karelian crying women ( karjalaiset itkuvirret ja itkijänaiset).

    1. Moi, thanks for reading my blog. I did not know that about women wearing the scarf in a particular manner. Very interesting. The shaving of the head is very common in the countryside, do you know if it is only related to mourning or required from some women anyway? Yes, you are correct about the crying women of Karelia!

  2. Just landed on this page by accident. It is interesting to read how the culture looks for someone from another background. Funeral is a big thing in Ethiopia, since the culture is community oriented, grieving also is done as a community. There are ‘associations’ based on neighborhood or work or friendship or etc that you pay into and when emergencies like this happen members gather to help out. FYI, the man who is blowing horn is announcing to the member of the ‘association’ that the diseased belongs to come together.

    1. Hi Hana, so interesting to read your observations as a representative (?) of the Ethiopian culture. Often my observations are based on assumptions or stories of one person, and I am always curious to hear feedback on my writings. Welcome to the blog! I hope you come back.

  3. It is only half factual. Good attempt, but lacks all the tells. Dont just write, just because you want to, write if you have the complete picture for readers would think that all to it.

    1. I write to learn and to interact with readers like you. Tell me more about what I don’t know about this topic, I am curious!

      1. some part of your writing is to much to tell or i don’t know my people Culture can you please say something which part of Ethiopia did you attend?

      2. Ok now i know you lived there but the money they collect for is not by forcing or asking i need some correctionfor that we call it EDERE and the person or some one from the family was the part of the that edere so that person use to save some amount of money every month so when somthing happed that money and other part of save that is what they collect finally i am so happy on you because you show about ethiopia for the world.

      3. Hi Amdetsion, thank you so much for telling me this! It helps me understand the practice much better.
        It is my pleasure, I love Ethiopia and I will always keep writing and learning about it!

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