Among several West African ethnic people, death does not immediately entitle a person the status of ancestor. Traditionally there is a space of time between physical burial, which is quick, and the ceremonial burial that requires an established ritual, after which an individual joins or becomes an ancestor to the community. Among the Igbo, even issues surrounding inheritance and property cannot be settled until the elaborate second burial is completed. The usual time lapse between physical and ceremonial burial is approximately 40 days during which the family and friends mourn, assess the person’s life, perform certain customs, and travel to a location for the second burial believing that the spirit is roaming and not yet settled.
In 2013, MPCPMP wrote a post entitled Both Sides, which stated that whether African descendants lived in the New World or in Africa we had lost contact with our ancestors because of the transatlantic human trade. It is believed by some that this largest forced migration in human history affected the practice of tradition in which we honor ancestors and they in turn protect and intercede on behalf of the living.
It is the responsibility of the living to assist the person’s spirit through the transition into becoming an ancestor. Present day remembrance ceremonies, libations, and rituals performed by the descendant communities are the “second burial.” Not only is there a personal and communal healing occurring, but the living are fulfilling their responsibility to the dead – to those who died in the Middle Passage (two million) and those who survived (10 million) from whom we descend. There is the belief that “without a proper second burial, the extended family would be harassed and victimized by the hovering restless spirit of the dead.” [Eliott J. Gorn, “Black Spirits: The Ghostlore of Afro-American Slaves,” American Quarterly 36 (Fall 1984): 549-65]. Well into the 20th century some African Americans believed that unless there was a proper burial or “preached” funeral, the deceased was a restless spirit and could not be with other ancestors to protect the well-being of living children. If that is the case, then, we who are descendants are assisting through remembrance ceremonies, millions of our fore bearers who died in the Middle Passage and those who survived. We are, in effect, making them ancestors. What a powerful act!
Spirits by Birago Diop
Listen to Things More often than Beings, Hear the voice of fire, Hear the voice of water. Listen in the wind, To the sighs of the bush: This is the ancestors breathing.
Those who are dead are not ever gone; They are in the darkness that grows lighter And in the darkness that grows darker. The dead are not down in the earth; They are in the trembling of the trees In the groaning of the woods, In the water that runs, In the water that sleeps, They are in the hut, they are in the crowd: The dead are not dead.
Listen to things More often than Beings, Hear the voice of fire, Hear the voice of water. Listen in the wind, To the bush that is sighing: This is the breathing of ancestors, Who have not gone away Who are not under earth Who are not really dead.
Those who are dead are not ever gone; They are in a woman’s breast, In the wailing of a child, And the burning of a log, In the moaning rock, In the weeping grasses, In the forest and the home. The dead are not dead.
Listen more often To things than to Beings, Hear the voice of fire, Hear the voice of water. Listen in the wind to The bush that is sobbing: This is the ancestors breathing.
Each day they renew ancient bonds, Ancient bonds that hold fast Binding our lot to their law, To the will of the spirits stronger than we To the spell of our dead who are not really dead, Whose covenant binds us to life, Whose authority binds to their will, The will of the spirits that stir In the bed of the river, on the banks of the river The breathing of spirits Who moan in the rocks and weep in the grasses.
Spirits inhabit The darkness that lightens, the darkness that darkens, The quivering tree, the murmuring wood, The water that runs and the water that sleeps: Spirits much stronger than we, The breathing of the dead who are not really dead, Of the dead who are not really gone, Of the dead no more in the earth.
Listen to Things More often than Beings Hear the voice of fire, Hear the voice of water. Listen in the wind, To the bush that is sobbing: This is the ancestors breathing