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Fearing Desecration, Congolese Resurrect Ancient Burial Rites

In the DRC, families increasingly send the remains of deceased loved ones back to their home villages rather than bury them in the city. It is both an age-old tradition and a way to protect against irreverence.

A traditional funeral ceremony in Duakombe Village, DRC.
A traditional funeral ceremony in Duakombe Village, DRC.
Mathieu Mokolo

MBANDAKA — When a shopkeeper from the Bikoro territory died suddenly earlier this year, his body was rapidly repatriated by his family to his native village to be buried there. A few weeks earlier, two other bodies took the same direction. One of them was returned on a motorized boat to Bomongo, more than 300 kilometers north of Mbandaka.

Watching the funeral procession heading towards the village with watery eyes, a sixty-something Ekolo Paul promised himself, "I, too, would like to be buried beside my relatives. As soon as I get my pension, I'll save a bit of money to organize my funeral." These past few months, being buried at home has become a ritual for those living in the town of Mbandaka.

M’bokolo Elima, who works for the state and lives in this capital of the Equateur province, explains that the gradual return to this tradition can be explained by better roads but most of all by the lack of respect some city residents have for the dead. "It is now possible to drive to locations that used to be isolated and afford the luxury of burying family members there," he says.

A "journey" for wealthy people

Very popular in the past, the custom of burying loved ones close to home became very rare in the 1990s, after the Congo's socio-economic situation broke down, particularly in the Equateur province. Paul still remembers the years when the wish of any member of the community who wanted to be buried beside their relatives was respected.

"At the time, we had an association regrouping people from the Bikoro territory," Paul says, nostalgic. "Thanks to contributions, we had enough funds to cover the funeral costs. It really didn't affect us financially. Even children who died in town were buried in the village."

The custom has now returned, but only certain wealthy and privileged people and those who belong to clans with a large number of members can afford this "journey." In some cases, regional politicians help families.

The wish for an eternal ancestral connection is why families choose to repatriate mortal remains to home villages. According to Samuel Kinda, another Bikoro native, many people ask that, when they die, they be buried beside their parents, children or other relatives.

"In this case, the wish of the deceased must be respected," he says. "Otherwise there could be a curse." Another factor is that people fear the obscenities and profanities that can happen during mourning or the funeral, which is very common in the city.

"Here, the dead are buried, and people desecrate the graves," Kinda says. "In the village, it's not the same. Respect towards the dead is a principle there. Graves are sacred and are treated with great care. They are considered as true places to rest in peace for eternity."

In the collective mind, being buried in an "Elali" (a clannish cemetery) is the sign that the dead belong to a community that entitles the deceased or their family to certain rights in case of land-related disputes or during the creation of a remit with investors.

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