#17 The Timely Death

The importance of the shades in Zulu life and thinking cannot be overestimated… The few variations in thinking that may be traced are related to differences in rural and urban settings and the tendency for urbanized Zulu to be more sophisticated in their thinking. It is true that the symbol through which thinking is expressed at times may change, largely due to local conditions of life. But the interpretation given to the symbol is, again, remarkably uniform. Zulu living in the stone-covered areas of the Msinga district bury their dead with a stone place at the feet, over the head and under the knees of the corpse, while people in a district where stones are not plentiful will use pieces of broken clay vessels for the same purpose. But both the stones and the pieces of burnt clay are interpreted similarly. “He is like a stone. So we are burying him with stones,” was said in the Msinga district, while people living in the stone-lacking area, defining their symbol, said: “The dead man is like the hard clay which is the vessel. It is stone-like… That is why we bury him with these things. They are no good to us any more. His body is no good any more. The clay and the corpse are the same.”…

The existence and presence of the shades is not doubted. They are a reality which is so strongly interwoven into kinship relations that a world without them is not possible. Faith is not in the first instance approached critically. It is generously inclusive. It is only of recent date that scepticism is finding its way into Zulu thought-patterns and expressed essentially among intellectuals, particularly those in urban settings…


There are essentially two concepts of death. Firstly, a timely death which presupposes a number of children and grandchildren who survive the deceased. Secondly, there is death which is untimely and is regarded as a serious interference in a human’s life. The quality of such a death is included in the English idioms annihilation or extinction. A timely death is in the Zulu language expressed by terms such as ukugoduka, ukudlula, ukuhamba and ukuqubeka, which all give notions of a passing on, a continuation. An untimely death is described as ukufa, ukubhubha, and ukugqibuka which imply a breaking off of life.

Ngema [an informant] was emphatic that physical death, when it comes at the correct time in life, is in itself not evil. It is to be regarded as a natural continuation of man’s existence. “When a man has completed his work in that he is old and of ripe age, then he is happy because things have gone well with him. He sees that there will be those that will do his work for him (ref. to ritual killings) when he has passed on. So he is not fearful because of death. He can even say to his people, ‘No, I am now tired of living.’ He says this because there is nothing more he can do.” Discussions with a great number of Zulu on the issue of death at a mature age indicates that Ngema was not expressing only personal views but ideas representative of the people.

When old people die they are not mourned. “To the old death does not come unexpectedly. We do not mourn them because we knew that it was coming. They were not taken unaware.” People expressing sympathy with friends whose aged parents or senior relatives have passed away show no signs of grief and will say: “We do not say anything. He was of ripe age.” Or they may say: “Do not complain. It was her turn now. Even the teeth revealed that eating was painful.” “You must not weep. Did you not know that he was ready for this thing? So why are you distressed?”

Death of an aged person is not of necessity considered the work of sorcery or witchcraft. It is a natural development and accepted as such.

Literature on the Zulu makes mention of the now obsolete custom of ukugodusa, sending the aged further. Informants who have knowledge of this custom agree that it was by no means common although done occasionally. It was certainly not looked upon as cruel. Informants themselves accepted the custom as intelligible, saying that they did not see anything wrong with it other than that “today the magistrate and the police do not allow it.” An old man who had been messenger at the battle of Ulundi said that one of his father’s brothers had been treated thus. He recollected hearing the man asking his sons to godusa him “since he had no teeth and not even the sun could warm him any more.” After a few days the old man was no longer seen in the homestead and nobody inquired about him, “everybody knowing what had been done”.

[#17] Zulu: “The Timely Death,” from Axel-Ivar Berglund, Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism, New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1976, pp. 78-81.

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#17 The Timely Death

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