A rite of passage is a ritual that serves to celebrate a person’s transition from one life stage to another. It usually consists of three separate phases: separation, transition, and introduction. Rite of passage ceremonies can come in so many different forms, including religious ceremonies, marriages, funerals, births, naming ceremonies, coming of age, and reaching certain goals (e.g., becoming a warrior). Most people think of the rite of passage as being something practiced by indigenous tribes or ancient civilizations, but there are also some modern examples, such as bar mitzvahs or graduating high school and going off to college. Even still, the majority of traditional rites of passage are, indeed, practiced by remote tribes (e.g., Masai of Africa) or specific communities (e.g., Amish). One such tribe, the Igbo from southeastern Nigeria), have a special and unique ritual that they perform when people die. The following essay will describe the Igbo’s funeral rite of passage and show how it matches up with the three stages described above.
Before delving into the particulars of the ceremony, it is important to first introduce the Igbo’s concept of death (Nehring, n.d.). When someone dies within their community, a highly ritualized ceremony takes place that is filled with immense mourning and sorrow. The event actually includes preparation, a wake, and two funerals, to make sure that the person is properly honored and sent into the spiritual world in peace and tranquility. The ceremony can take up to several months, where the body is preserved until the entire ceremony is completed. For the Igbo, elders are highly respected, especially those that have reached the title of chief (i.e., Ozo or Ndi Nze); thus, they deserve the honor of a proper burial ceremony. This is not to say; however, that every person who passes away in the community does not receive the same ritual.
The first phase is called the separation phase, during which people usually lose a former identity in lieu of another identity. In many cases (like coming of age ceremonies), the person is abruptly and violent taken away from the community and placed into isolation. In the case of the Igbo; however, the separation is when the person dies and transitions from living to dead (Nehring, n.d.). I will include the immediate preparation in this phase because it does not perfectly fit into any phase, while the wake and first funeral do fit into the transition phase. Once the person dies, he or she is immediately laid out onto plantain leaves and the body is thoroughly cleaned with water. After that, the body is rubbed down with a dye made from camwood, which marks it as being sacred. The deceased is then taken into the living room, and laid down with his or her feet facing the door; however, women are often seated upright.
The second phase is the transition phase and it is typically marked with lavish ceremonies and rituals, which is when the person has given up their old identity, but has not fully “transitioned into their new identity.” With respect to the Igbo, this is when a number of rituals, including a wake and the first funeral take place, in order to prepare the deceased for transition from the “earthly world” into the “spiritual world. (Nehring, n.d.).” The wake is first and consists of the eldest son welcoming everyone from the community into the home, offering palm wine and kola nuts. Everyone prays throughout the night, asking ancestral spirits to come inside and escort the deceased person’s spirit out with them. Finally in the morning, a shot is fired to alert everyone in the surrounding area that someone has died. Soon after, everyone gathers for the first burial. The body is actually buried into a grave that was dug in the living room, along with the deceased person’s most valuable possessions and lots of cloth. The body is then covered in wooden planks.
The third phase of the rite of passage is called the introduction phase and it is when the person is reintegrated back into this community or has made the transition to another phase of life. For the Igbo people, this occurs at the end of the second burial (Nehring, n.d.). It could be several month or years after the body was first placed into the grave, that the second funeral takes place. This is when everyone gathers around to feast and celebrate the deceased. It is often accompanied by singing, dancing, food, and lavish dress. In essence, this time the people are celebrating instead of mourning. Once the second funeral is completed, the person is said to be able to rest in peace because he or she has made the final transition into the “land of the dead.”
As one can see, even funerals differ greatly around the world and can be considered to be a rite of passage. For the Igbo, is a very important ceremony that is filled with specific rituals, because the deceased need to be properly honored (and the body prepared) so that he or she can transition peacefully into the spiritual world. All three phases can be seen (separation, transition, and introduction), even though they may not be as clear as a coming of age ceremony, for example. Death and the preparation serve as the initial separation, the wake and first funeral serve as the transition, and the second funeral serves as the introduction.