Hermeneutics of Death in Igbo World View And its Socio-Anthropological Implications

Hermeneutics of Death in Igbo World View And its Socio-Anthropological Implications

Every society has its own philosophy that is her own perception, belief and explanation about the issues of the world, life and beyond. In as much as there are diverse philosophies among the societies of the world, there are yet some who share similar beliefs with others. In this particular chapter, we shall delve deeply into Igbo people’s philosophy  and culture to unveil and expose their ideas of death, what they think about life, the relationship of the two concepts as well as their contentions and positions concerning the circumstances encircling the phenomenon of death. More so, in this context, we shall search to ascertain the Igbo and African as well as allien individual philosophers whose ideas and beliefs about death are  synonymous with those of the said culture

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The Igbo people’s idea of death lays emphasis on the solution to the universal and philosophical questions of the world, life, the stuff of the being of man, the meaning of death, life after death and reincarnation. Man generally is seen to have contributed nothing to his existence. His coming and departing the earthly existence is like a drama. He saw himself thrown into life through birth, grows, dies and decomposed; the force or principle underlying this is beyond his imagination. However, this drama of human life prompted the question of the meaning of life and death as well as the nature of the being of man and his fate after life.

In regard to the question of the meanings of life and death, the Igbo offer solution; “Life is the integration of spirit mmụọ and body ah – the self and its physical vehicle – into a single entity.”1 This is equivalent to Aristotle’s hylemorphic and J.I. Omoregbe’s integrated theories of the mind (soul) and body or, matter and form as the unified nature of man. The Igbo people’s concept of life goes beyond the material world. It includes life with God which they believe is the source of life and all there is. This also involves life with the community of men in the maternal world, with the ancestors, divinities and environment. Highlighting the Igbo/African concept of life, Njoku summarized as follows:

First, “God is the originator of life, the creator of man, the universe and the sustainer of creation.”2

Second, “the ancestors play an important role in the communal life. They are not cut off from the living, for they may still reveal themselves in dreams or appear to the living relatives to guide or correct them.”3

Third, “life is a communal affair. It involves relationship and communion between man, God, divinities, ancestors, other men and the land. This relationship must be based on certain rules and regulations for it to succeed.”4

In consonance with the Igbo concept of life, Opuku, Awolalu and Dopamu support Njoku by saying that “in addition to creating men and the world, God also owns the world, man, and the society, and also sustains them.”5

The Igbo as a cultural entity sees life as an act of existing in time and space. For them, life is, “a rhythm or cycle which includes birth, puberty, initiation, marriage, procreation, old age, death, entry into the community of the departed and the company of the spirits.”6 In conformity with this, Mbiti says, “this implies that God created man with the potentialities of passing through these stages of life. Every human being must go through them, although they vary according to culture and time.”7 Life and death according to the Igbo are two opposites that complement each other. As life is the beginning of man’s preparation for the encounter with death and the journey of after life, death is in turn, the road to new life. Death according to the Igbo means, “The dissolution of the body ah and spirit mmụọ into two separate entities – a separation of the spiritual self from that which was once a vehicle or house to that self.” Death, although, a dreaded event is perceived by the Igbo/Africans as, “the beginning of a person’s deeper relationship with all of creation, it is the complement of life and the beginning of the communication between the visible and invisible worlds.”9 The Igbo believed, “death is not a complete annihilation of a person’s authentic self, but can be seen as a departure from one state of life to the other or a portal from one state of life to a wider world beyond.”10 The Igbo concept of death includes therefore, the relationship of the living, the dead and those yet unborn. The dead members according to this group of people are said to be more interested in the affairs of the people as it is through the living members that they could seek re-entry into the world of space and time.

The Igbo conceived life nd as true human existence. This for them has a number of connotations and modes. This simply implies an existence in which a being still functions in his natural mode, that is to say that, the principle or whatever is the animating force of his activity is still active. In that case, when the Igbo say, that an object is effective, it means being alive id nd. To say to a man– you are dead inwula, means that such a man is inactive or incapacitated in respect of a certain functions expected of him as a human being. To say to a man d nd means that some particular role or function is being actively executed. Life in Igbo conception and belief involves physical and mental as well as social/biological capability. Thus, to be alive in Igbo culture also involves one being capable of fulfilling the roles expected of him or her by virtue of the communal values and ideas. But if one physically exists and is ineffective then he will be described as d nd nw ka mma Alive but dead. Life nd for the Igbo people is thus, “the activating principle sustaining all existences and also regulating all actions.”11 Life is a continuous process, it never ends. Although, there is a belief that, thoroughly wicked people may die complete death in the spirit world which means a final end to thier lives nd. But, if such deads still have descendants in the visible world, the Igbo believe that the living are capable of bringing about good fates on the dead by prayer and invocation of the gods and ancestors. The Igbo believe that man goes to the spirit world after death. But the questions are: Does he go there as a full human being? If no, which part of him experiences that?

In the solution to the problem of the nature of man, the Igbo believe that man mmad is both spirit and non-spirit. He possesses two main parts –spirit mmụọ and body ah. The spirit part mmụọ in-coporates the elements of immateriality, intelligence, feeling, emotion and conscience. It is also associated with the Mkpr obi soul which is located in the heart. In Igbo culture, the spirit and soul are used interchangeably. But the spirit which has no particular shape or form, but only compared with breath or air, abodes itself in the soul which is material by nature. According to the Igbo, the spirit mmụọ is what survives death and reincarnates after death. For them, man does not die completely; there is yet another life after death. The Igbo believed in the existence of ancestors and that the goal of every man is to commune with them after death. For them, “death is not the end of life but a transition to the world of the ancestors and spirit.” 12 At death, the spirit departs the body and transforms itself into the gloomious but blissful spirit realm. Thus, death is, described as, “a transformation from the bodily existence to the spiritual existence.”13

Man, for the Igbo and other societies of the world is said to resemble God. He occupies the fourth position in the hierarchical structure of being. He is in the centre of the universe and communicates the interactions between the beings of the spirit world (i.e. God, deities, and ancestors) and that of the space and time. The Igbo believe that, the ancestral existence is the most authentic existence while the earthly life is the prototype of the spiritual existence. More so, they believed that the spirit mmụọ of man, at death, exists both in the spirit land ala mmụọ as ancestors and also interact with the living relatives in the visible world. Human spirit has the potentiality to exist everywhere (omnipresence) and to have the knowledge of all earthly reality (Omniscience) features. However, they (spirits) exist in the land of the dead and also shuttle between there and the material world of space and time either to protect, advice or message their relatives.

In the Igbo concept of death, life and after life, much emphasis is placed on ancestor hood to the extent that the goal of every Igbo is to join their cult. But, who are these ancestors? What functions and position do they occupy and perform in the eyes and minds of the living that every one strives to join them? The ancestors according to the Igbo are, “the departed heroes and heroines of the various tribes.”14 Specifically in Igbo tribe, ancestors include, “the spirit of the departed forefathers, parents and relatives, they include also the spirits of the departed heads of the kindred’s and communities.”15 Belief in the ancestors is based on the general notion that life continues after death and that communion and communication are possible between those who are alive here on earth and the deceased. The ancestors are believed to have power to influence the affairs of the living for better or for worse.

In Igbo culture, every dead person does not necessarily become an ancestor for the simple reason that certain conditions must be fulfilled to qualify one to reach such height apart from the fact of death. The first criterion is adulthood, which is determined by marriage status. Such adult must have died a natural death, for unnatural deaths of all sorts are believed by them (Igbo) to have been caused by the person’s hidden crimes. In the Igbo concept of death, life after death and ancestral communion, there seems to be discrimination. The ancestral bliss is for those that lived good life on earth, while some people are seen as not qualified to attain it. However, those that are disqualified include the people that died through unclean diseases such as; leprosy, epilepsy, sleeping sickness, madness, small pox, swollen stomach and so forth. These set of people in Igbo custom are believed to be wrong doers who were inflicted with unclean diseases as punishment for their crimes. The natural inference is that only good people become ancestors. Such high moral and ethical standards required for ancestor hood together with the meaningful contribution to the total welfare of the community, places the Igbo ancestors in the category of the holy people as it is in other religions.

In Igbo culture and African as a whole, ancestors are believed not to be separated from their earthly families by death. But rather, they are still considered a part of them. Indeed, in this cultural context as cited in the beginning of this chapter, the family is constituted of the dead, the living and the generations yet unborn. The people thus have personal memories of the ancestors, who are believed to return to their human families from time to time, and share meal with them symbolically.

The belief of the Igbo is that, the affairs of the family are the concern of the ancestors. They know and have been interested in what is going on in their families. When they appear in dreams generally to the eldest members of the family, they enquire about family affairs and may even warn of impending disaster and rebuke those who have failed to follow their special instructions.

The role of the ancestors in the life of the Igbo families and communities at large cannot be underestimated. They are the guardians of the family affairs, property, traditions, ethics and activities. They punish those that have offended in one way or the other. Offence in this matter is against the forebears, the divinities and ultimately God, the source and upholder of the social and moral orders. In this regard, the ancestors act as an invisible police force of the families and communities. They are the unseen presidents at family gatherings. In other words, the ancestors are the spiritual superintendents of earthly families of which they remain members and not mortals any more.

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Igbo people perceive the ancestors as the nearest and closest link between the people and the spirit world. They believe them to be bilingual. They speak and understand the language of men with whom they lived until recently and also that of the spirit and God. The Igbo understand the reality of the spirit world through the ancestors. They see ancestors as best intermediaries between the divinities and God,and men on the  other hand because they have full access to the channels of communicating directly with the divine beings. As intermediaries from above, they have delegated authority from God. They have the mandate to reward right conduct and to punish the whole tribe, clan, kindred or kinsmen, family or individual for crimes against the society.

With their delegated power and authority, the ancestors naturally command awe, fear and respect from the people. As a result, great care is taken to ensure that the ancestors get befitting burial/funeral rites. Thus, all rituals done during burial ceremonies of the ancestors in Igbo land are carried out meticulously to avoid displeasing them. This is because any negligence attracts their wraths with misfortune. This also prompts the living to follow as instructed by the ancestors prior to their death on how to carry out their funeral rituals. The ancestors in Igbo tradition are fed by the living through citation and food (i.e. by placing it on the tables overnight or sometimes, food is left in the pot in the kitchen because, they are believed to eat the  food when they visit the house at night) as well as offerings as the case may be. While doing these, the Igbo also make request of prayers to them such as, granting of fertility (children), food, life, prosperity, peace and so on and so forth. This sense of dependence on the ancestors by the Igbo prompted their counterpart religion (Christianity) to view them to be worshipping the ancestors. In contradistinction to this criticism, it must be noted that in the Igbo cosmology, the ancestors dispense their roles and kindness on behalf of God Chukwu. Thus, the ancestors nd ichie na nna nna any ha are the immediate representatives and intermediaries of God and the living. So, they are to us some sort of big brothers and ambassadors.

Ancestors in Igbo culture and tradition are accorded much value. They are given significant place in ritual at the national level in connection with ancestral cults. Every town in Igbo land does celebrate one festival or the other through which they perform rituals for their ancestors. In such activities, kings Nd Eze, na Nd Ama ala ma b nd Aka ji fr and village heads (his cabinets) from different kindred, are the people that perform the rituals and, they are the links between the living and the dead. Typical examples of this are; the new yam festival rituals that are performed by every town or community in Igbo land as well as the celebration of cola acuminata Emume j Igbo by Ezinifite Mbaise of Imo State. Others include; Imo festival of Awka Emume Imo Awka and Nwafor festival emume nwafor of all the communities in Idemili North L.G.A of Anambra State etc. The Igbo perceived ancestors as divine, therefore, the kings Nd Eze, Aka ji f na Nd ichie and the heads of various villages that constitute all towns or clams in Igbo land are seen to occupy divine position because they perform rituals and offer sacrifices to appease the gods and ancestors respectively.

The aforementioned attention paid by the Igbo to ancestors seems to be sort of worshiping.  But, is this actually worship? Truly, the Igbo and Africans generally do not worship their ancestors. Rather, what they do is veneration. They venerate them in the sense that, ancestors are perceived as the channels through which the people reach God and gods or divinities. In Igbo culture, it is not only the kings and heads of the communities and kindred’s are conceived as the representatives of the ancestors. However the eldest sons and fathers of every family are included in this category. These distinguished set of men regard the ancestors as the heads and superintendents of every family despite the fact that they are dead, while they that are living are their representatives here on earth. Moreso, the ancestors are perceived as those that lived good life when they were living an earth. The ancestors also perform functions like; “distribution of favours, exercise of disciplines or enforcement of penalties, guarding the families both ethically and otherwise as well as preventing anything that may cause disruption.” 16 Thus, the ancestors are factors of cohesion in the Igbo land. This is illustrated in the fr symbol in Igbo land (which is the supreme symbol of the ancestral genius of the tribe or nation) fr symbol is thus, “that which gives the nation a sense of coheshion.”17 Since the ancestors were no longer in the world of ordinaries, the way they are approached must necessarily be different from the approach given to them during their earthly lives. They are the spirits and, are approached as spirits, even though they are spirits with difference as a result of their family ties with their earthly folks.” 18

Africans and the Igbo in particular, do not place the ancestors on the same footing with God or the divinities. They do not worship the ancestors, but merely venerate them. In practice however, there is every danger of veneration slipping unawares into worshiping, especially as the veneration becomes so intense. But this is virtually the flaw in all religions. In Christianity the reverence or veneration paid to the saints can easily be said to become worship. Similarly the veneration accorded to Muhammad in Islamic religion during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca is applied to all religions and not just Igbo/African traditional Religion alone. It must be noted that some elements of worship in the ancestral cults like libation have become in contemporary societies an action performed to project Igbo and African personality as an aspect of nationalism. Thus, the issue of ancestor worship is neither here nor there.

In Igbo land, ancestors are remembered and revered in every day activities especially when kola nut (kola accuminate) is been presented to people. The eldest man among them will pick up the kola oji and call upon God and ancestors


Nara ekele chukwu maka nd inyere any

nara ekele nd nna nna any maka nchekwa

na nduzi unu n’ebe any n. Onye wetara

j, wetara nd na ihe dim ma. Any na-

arịọ n nd mmụọ nwe ala n’any, ka n

gozie j nkea, wepu ihe j d n’ime ya

gozienu onye wetara j a, taanu n’ogbe

ka any taa n;ibe. Isee…19 


Thank you God for giving us life, thank

You our ancestors (forebearers) for guarding and guiding us well, Thank you for this kola nut. He who brings kola brings life. We pray you divine spirit and owners of land and us to bless this kola, remove all the ill things in it. Bless he that brought this kola, eat in whole so that we will eat in parts, Amen…20

Libation ig fr does not stop here, it is also applicable to every activity in Igbo land such as new yam festival Emume Iri Ji hu, masquerade ceremony gba Nmanw, marriage ceremony l Nwany , age grade initiation Emume ba n’otu gb, etc. The position of ancestors in Igbo culture cannot be over emphasized because it is the goal which every man is striving to attain at death.

The Igbo believe in the existence of two types of death viz; natural death nw chi and unnatural death aj nw. Natural death means,” death at a very ripe old age.”21  It is the death of those who lived transparent, honest and moral life and died good death and as well received appropriate funeral rites from their children.”22 One is said to have died good death when he/she must have grown morally well, become initiated into the age grade cult, marry, procreate, died, buried by receiving a well planned burial ceremony from his children or kinsmen. Any Igbo man that died and passed through all these stages has reached the conditions or standards for the attainment of the blissful spirit world ala mmụọ where he will continue to live with the ancestors Nd ichie and eventually return to join his kith and kin here in the human world through the process of reincarnation il wa, in wa On the other hand, unnatural death involves all manner of bad deaths. These include premature death nw erugh eru like deaths of youths and infants. Others are; suicide and homicide, deaths by accident, leprosy, swollen tummy, drowning etc. In some communities in Igbo land, those that died prematurely are not given funeral rites. Those that died as a result of swollen stomach, leprosy, suicide etc are thrown into evil forest aj fia. This is because such people are believed to have committed one taboo or another, hence, they died mysteriously. However, one thing that is certain in the traditional Igbo culture is that, this caliber of people, do not reincarnate to new earthly life after death.

Nevertheless, the Igbo are fond of natural death and, if they were to choose, they (every Igbo man) would prefer natural death to unnatural or bad death. This is because, natural or clean slate death is an avenue to the community of the ancestors which is the goal of every Igbo man. One Igbo adage says “ihe ma iga emere onye nwr anw b igwu ala lie yaone good thing to do for a dead is to dig a grave and bury him.”23 Unlike the Hindu and its extreme Hindu religion and philosophy which is Buddhism”, the Igbo adopt grave method of burial. Burial ceremony as it is, is one of the conditions for attainment of ancestral land. There are two types of burial rites; the burial of titled men and (that of the ordinary or non-titled men) as well as the burial of the married women. Burial ceremony in Igbo land undergoes two stages. The first stage is called Igbasu Ozu which lasts for 14-15 days and the second stage is also called ikwa ozu or ili ozu. This particular stage lasts for few days in the contemporary era. It attracts the presence of mada daughters of the community or mụọkp as they are called in some part of the Igbo society. mụọkp as their name imply are, “distinguished set of women born in every family in Igbo land.”24 They are the typical daughters of the soil or land. Their presences are highly needed in every funeral ceremony in Igbo land. No man or married woman in their families, kindred’s or communities have ever offended them and go scot free. Any person that offends them is said to have offended the ancestors. This is because mụọkp are assumed to command recognition and respect from the ancestors. They are the peace makers in the various communities where they were born. They would neither allow their brothers to maltreat their wives for no cause nor their wives to disobey them for no reason. They make justice prevail when there is problem in the families or communities where they were born. They scold any of their brothers or relatives who go contrary to the rules and regulations guiding their families, communities or clans irrespective of the person’s status or position etc. mada or  Umukp are the custodians of moral and ethical principle of do good and avoid evil in Igbo land. The Igbo believed that the presence of mukp in any funeral ceremony in Igbo land is the confirmation that such dead is welcomed by the ancestors. Every Nwakp in Igbo land is treated and handled with care otherwise, if they find one guilty, the person will face their wrath. No police, no court can find them guilty. Any woman married in their father’s house must accord them respect and treat them like their husbands. Sometimes, the married women fear them more than their husbands etc.

In the traditional Igbo era, widows were customarily ill-treated in the community. They were meant to mourn their deceased husbands for the period of two years without taking bath, they eat without washing their hands, their freedom of speech and movement were also restricted and, they were also customarily forced to marry their deceased husband’s brother even against their wish Nkuchi ekpe. Though, in this contemporary era, specifically with the advent of Christianity and consequently upon increasing cost of living, the mourning iru ju ma ob ekpe custom has reduced drastically even amongst the traditionalists. In the present day Igbo society, burial ceremonies are performed for the same purpose with that of traditional Igbo era which is to enable the dead to get his or her share in the spirit world. Burial ceremony in this contemporary time is more expensive but, the mourners invariably realized what they spent at the end of the ceremony through the condolence visits paid to them from people. Moreso, those obnoxious mourning customs have been changed definitely by the present day Igbo. Mourning period is no more 2 years but 6 months or a year as the case may be. Widows are granted their natural right of freedom as human beings. They have the right to decide what to do and also argue on those customs they feel does not suit them well. No one dictates to the deceased children what to use to celebrate their father’s or mother’s burial. The issue of the inheritance of the deceased man’s wife and property by his brothers or relatives has ended. In fact, all those obnoxious customs have been abolished in this present time. In the present Igbo society, funeral ceremony attracts also the presence of friends and well wishers from all nooks and crannies of the world including the relatives and kinsmen mnna of the deceased person. Hence the Igbo parlance; “The day of one’s death is better than his day of birth “bchi nw mmad ka bch amr ya mma.25 During the Burial of a dead man, every person that visited the arena shows grief. The grief is because of the loss of the physical presence of the person in question. But, in the other way round, they console themselves bearing in mind that the person did not die completely and that, he is always close to them spiritually. Based on this belief, the Igbo conceived death as, “a change of life for better life beyond.”26

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The Igbo believe so much in reincarnation. But what is this reincarnation? How does the Igbo perceive it? The solution to these questions has evoked many opinions and beliefs from people. Generally, reincarnation is “a process or a belief which upholds that the spirit of the dead person returns to inhabit a new earthly body after death.”27 According to Igbo people’s belief, reincarnation il wa means, “an act where the spirit mmụọ of the dead returns to earthly existence via birth by his children or relatives.”28 They also described it as, “gesture or gratitude manifested by the dead to the living, it is an act through which the dead pay back to their sons, daughters and relations for the good things done to them when they were alive.”29 Reincarnation can be used as a means of modifying or completing all the deeds which the dead did not amend or finished when he was alive. They believe that where a person did not finish bearing the consequences of his past evil deeds, the person will try to modify them when he or she reincarnates back to time and space. Some Igbo people see reincarnations as a means to denouncing what they did not like when they were alive ike ekpe. For example, some Igbo used to say; “I will not suffer the way I do now when I reincarnate in my next life”, “I will become a man in my next life” etc. This shows that for the Igbo, reincarnation is true and should be believed etc. This is because without it, human world would have ended. Reincarnation and birth maintain the permanency of earthly existence.

In Igbo culture and tradition, there is a belief that man cannot die without cause. They uphold the philosophy of cause and effect. Thus, they believe that majority of the people’s death are not natural. Natural death according to them occurs on rare occasions. Hence the Igbo parlance, “Onye Igbo adgh anw nw gbara aka Igbo African man does not die without cause.”30 The Igbo  believe that man can die either natural or unnatural death. But their belief in unnatural death overrides that of natural death. Igbo man however, can die as a result of strong sickness, accidents, sorcery, witchcraft, suicide, homicide etc. In all, the Igbo people’s beliefs in death and the circumstances encircling it imply that:

Death is not the end of human existence but, there is another existence beyond the earth. Man by nature is composed of flesh ah and spirit mmụọ at death nwu, the flesh ah decays while the spirit mmụọ transits to spirit world to exist as ancestors and then keeps on interacting with the living relatives.

The spirit of the dead is always near to the living and they also observe all their activities; it has the capacity to transcend the visible world to enter the world of ancestors from where it shuttles from there to the material world, to exist closer to its descendants to protect, message, warn, advice and even punish them when they deviate from the instruction given to them. The spirit of the dead sees and knows all the activities of the living even though we don’t see them.

The spirits of the dead exist in the mind of their relatives. They are remembered by their descendants even to the fourth and fifth generations. There are kinds of spirit viz, the spirits of the living dead (those that are still remembered by the relatives just as mentioned above), the ghost spirits (i.e., those that are not remembered again because the people that know them do not exist any longer). These spirits exist in the trees, waters, mountains and other objects etc. They are believed by the Igbo to be the type of spirits that frighten people when they encounter them. The diviners, witchcrafts and sorcerers even use them to do evil and strange things. These spirits are still perceived as human spirits but when they possess people, they often torment them but, people can in turn use the power of spoken word to exorcise and expel them etc. However, these calibers of evil spirits as classified by Prof. Obi J. Ọgụejiọfọr involve; ekwens devil gbanje repeaters akologoli”spirits of those that did not received burial rites from their descendants, Ogbomike spirit of those that died by acident or at young age.

The goal of every Igbo is to join the ancestral bliss. And that, for one to achieve this, he or she must fulfill the standards of moral and ethical principle of do good and avoid evil, marriage, procreation and receiving appropriate burial rite from his children etc. Life is permanent; it does not end; man’s earthly life is believed to be brief; hence, the authentic life is the spiritual life with the ancestors. The Christian doctrine of heaven and hell is not for the traditional Igbo. Hence the question of  judgment and its explanation is not clear for their thinking. Hence they believe that the spirit of the sorcerers, witchcrafts, suiciders and killers of all sorts including those that died at young and infant age  are not welcomed in the ancestral community and they do not reincarnate.

In fact, the Igbo idea and belief of death implies that, man must contribute to the stability and continuity of the human life here and hereafter by living a good life, marrying, procreating and receiving proper and befitting burial rite from his children. Man must live for the common good of the community of the space and time and beyond etc. The Igbo used to say, “ka esi eme ya n’mmụọ b ka esi eme ya n’mmad as it is done in the spirit, so it is done in the physical”.  This also means that, as there is community of men. mnna in the material life, so there is in the realm of ancestors. So man must be morally good for him to attain such level.

Children outlived their parents and through them, parents and forebears become immortalized on earth.

Every people, society or individual has her own perception and belief of death. As we have looked into the various reflections, thoughts, explanations and beliefs of different societies, peoples and religions about death, we shall then turn to individual or scholarly views.

According to T. Uzodimma Nwala in his book Igbo Philosophy, death means, “dissolution of the flesh.”31  He is of the view that the grief felt at the death of man is usually because of the sense of loss of his physical presence. Specifically, death is taken as a transformation from this life to the yonder world with the possibility of reincarnation

 G.T. Basden, an early writer of literature on Igbo people’s culture and life discussed death and burial in his book Among the Ibos of Nigeria. Describing death and funeral rites, he said, “for the Igbo, death is like having gone home or simply having gone to the spirit realm and the mourning of the survivors is that of those who have said farewell for the time being only.”32 In consonance to Basden’s view, J.P. Jordan who had spent several years of missionary work in Igbo land, said in his book Bishop Shanahan of Southern Nigeria: “death for the Igbo people is a necessary end and a going home to occupy one’s original place permanently in the spirit world”.

According to O.U. Kalu, “death for the Igbo is not terminus; the spirit keeps existing in the spirit realm until it reincarnates or acquires new body again.”33

S.A. Okafor speaking about death, burial, funeral and widowhood in the Catholic Diocese of Awka, describes the Igbo idea of death as the conclusion and the way out of earthly life, an inevitable consequence of life on this earth and the necessary means of reunion with the ancestors in the spirit world. Going further, he said; the earthly life is a pilgrimage which ends with death – a trip to market for business at the end of which one returns home. Igbo people buttress this with the following maxisms; bara ije nwe la/na a visitor will surely leave for where he comes from. wa b aha, onye zr laba The world is a market place which one returns home after accomplishing transaction. This implies that the human world is not permanent but temporal. Therefore, death is simply a gateway that switches life from the temporal world to eternal realm.”34 Thus, in this passage, Okafor’s view seems to have laid emphasis on the elements of the Igbo which run counter to certain fundamental elements of Igbo cosmology; the integrated world of the Igbo where the three worlds of ancestors, the terrestrial and the yet unborn-merge and exist in the here and now, the cyclic concept of life and time, and the consequent belief in reincarnation. Okafor further differentiated three types and causes of death viz: nwchi. Natural death, aj nw” bad/shameful death, and nw akamelu” death brought about by human agents. He also described the various burial and funeral rites and made a serious distinction between them. Thus he said:

In the traditional Igbo society, burial rite is distinct from funeral rite. While the former is the interment of the body of a deceased, funeral rite follows as rituals designed to ensure his or her safe arrival in the spirit land. Both rites however constitute the rite of passage and take place concurrently.35

Funeral rites he said enables the spirit of the dead to reach the spirit land. Without rites, the dead keep wandering about on earth and then causing havocs on human beings. Okafor truly recognized the difference between the two concepts of burial and funeral rites, but did explain it when he said that both take place concurrently. Burial as it is, can take place without funeral rite depending on the circumstances that arise from the side ones relation. Well, one may not be surprised about Okafor’s interpretation because the Igbo Christian practices frown at funeral rite long after burial. They termed it ikwa ozu nkwa aba second funeral ceremony. Okafor also made it known that:

There are gradations in both the burial and funeral ceremonies of the traditional Igbo. For those who suffered bad death aj nw, burial is very simple and quiet….with lots of rites to purify the land….For people who died well, they are laid to rest in bosom of the earth amid pomp and pegeantry…After their interment, an elaborate…”ikwa ozu” commences, and this, it is believed, is necessary to usher the deceased into the abode of the ancestors. It complements the good moral life already presumed of a good death.36

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Edmund Ilogu in his Christianity and Igbo Culture introduces the element of the Igbo tenacious holding unto life.  Here he remarks:

I have not come across any death that any Igbo accepts as natural and biological end…After many inquiries, I realize that to the Ibo, life is eternal and man, because of his share in the Supreme God Chineke through the chi particles in him, is meant to be immortal.37

In another version of his thought he said:

The philosophy behind the people’s concern about life and death is that all the visible world around us and the invisible world beyond. The divine and human, the past and the present, the living and the dead all form a harmonious entity. Death is one of the disturbances of life disturbing this entity, but because the dead themselves belong to this harmonious entity all that is necessary as to ensure that this balance in life’s harmony is not upset when one member of the group is transformed through death to another level of existence; viz the spirits of the dead who make up the unseen part of the community.38

Emphasizing more, Ilogu said that “the burial rites and ceremonies therefore are the means by which this transition is effected to ensure that the dead received secure place in the spirit realm which will help the established order of life to go on uninterrupted”. He added that “the spirit of the dead members of the community cannot rest or find secure place among the dead uncless proper burial rite and ceremonies have been performed.”39

  1. Abanụka in his book A New Essay in African Philosophy while discussing the reality of the ancestors observes that the dead are not far from the living and those who are still living are conscious of their journey to join those that have gone before them to the land of the dead. He further states that “in certain sense, death is located at the boundary between the living and the dead/ancestors. Death is significant not just because it is the end of earthly striving and achievement, but because it marks the entry into the abode of the ancestor.”40 Thus, the above scholars commonly agreed that death in Igbo belief is a transition from the physico – spiritual force to pure spiritual form. Thus, Francis Arinze in his book Sacrifice in Igbo Religion confirms the above view by stating that:

The Igbo have a firm belief in a life after death. When a person dies, his spirit mmụọ wanders till it is received into the blessed company of his forebears on condition that the relations on earth celebrate the funeral ceremonies. In some places, this belief requires also that the person must have been a good man on earth or at least that a cleansing rite be performed over the corpse before burial. The main passport however is the performance of the funeral celebrations, without these ceremonies the restless ghost of the deceased would return to haunt and harass his merciless relatives.41

In spite of the above conceptions of death however, the Igbo have a lot of negative attitude to death. Thus J. Obi Oguejiofor in his article “Eschatology, Immortality and Philosophy of Life” remarks:

The positive Igbo attitude to life is accompied by a negative attitude towards death. Death is also personified and there are proper names that express the deep Igbo desire to keep it at bay. Egwu nw fear of death, nwzruike let death rest nwghal let death allow etc.42

Going further, Oguejiofor observes that despite these countless wishes expressed in countless names, the Igbo are as well aware of the fatality of death, hence he avers, “ogbenye nw, galanya nwụ” the poor as well as the rich are destined to die

In the same view, L. Mbaefo  observed the negative attitude of the Igbo towards death when he said that:

In the Igbo traditional self understanding, death is the ultimate tragedy, the unmitigated calamity. It signals the end of ambition, the wiping away of grandiose plan for self advancement. Every sort of means is employed to stave it off or at least delay it. Its folklore contains the saga of a delegation to God, the story of dog and the toad intended to lobby for physical immortality. In Igbo mythic consciousness, nobody dies except through the mechanization of an enemy….People’s names and Igbo treasure of wisdom stored in its proverbs warned people of the ultimate enemy death is lurking at every stage of human life.43

From this scholarly view point, it becomes obvious that the traditional Igbo conceived death as the worst evil that can befall a man yet he does not see it as the ultimate and which is capable of annihilating the human person, because the human being has been endowed with spirit capable of reincarnating after death from the ancestral realm. Hence life in the Igbo is conceived primarily as a process of birth, living, death and reincarnation.

John. A. Noon in his article “A Preliminary Examination of Death Concept of the Ibo” supports the above idea by saying:

Individual existence becomes a continuum of alternating periods of life in this world and in the spirit land an mmụọ, and death is the portal to one phase of existence as birth is to another. Both phases are extricably interwined. Indeed, death is the cause of birth or living and vice versa. It is a continuum, one face of the roller and life the other – aspect in a continous action.44

This implies that, for the traditional Igbo, death is fatal, but its fatality does not signify finality of life. Hence C.B. Nze in his book Aspect of African Communalism described the traditional Igbo conception of death as, “a withdrawal, a submergence of life into death and death into life”. From this, Nze contends that if death is a loss, it is “only a physical loss because the constant communion or communication between the dead and the living brings them into daily contact so that death continues to be a positive phenomenon wearing a negative appearance.”45 Death for the Igbo is the end of life as well as the beginning of new life because life comes out of death only to return to it. It is a return that is never final and definitive, but a process of departing and returning etc.

 For J.S. Mbiti, “death is a process which removes a person gradually from the Sasa period to the Zamani. The Sasa period means the time of physical existence on earth and the period after death within which the departed is remembered by relatives and friends who knew him, when that last of the survivors die off, the departed now enters the Zamani “which is complete death.”46

Throwing light on the meaning of death, K.A Opoku States; “death is not the end of life, but a transition from this world to the land of the spirit. He also explains that death does not severe family connections, but the dead become ancestors.”47

 According to Rosalind Hackett in her Book Religion in Calabar, “death is a journey to the underworld with the hope of reincarnation for the maintenance of permanence in earthly life.”48

According to Kalish R.A in his book, Death and Dying in a Social Context, “death is a process of transition that starts with dying and ends with being dead.”49

 Emphasizing on the concepts of death and dying, Atchly says, “a dying person is one identified as having a condition from which no recovery can be expected. Dying process is a period characterized by the loss of organism’s viability (decline in functioning). Furthermore, he defines death as the point at which a person becomes physically dead. He believed that when one is said to have died, the inference is made to its final production.”50

Kastembaum explained the meaning of death at social aspect of life. For him, man can be said to be dead socially. This is when we no longer treat him as a human but as an unthinking and unfeeling object. This view re-achoed in the famous dictum of a renowned French philosopher, Rene Descartes who asserted existence base on thinking “Cogito ergo Sum – I think therefore I am. According to him, social death occurs when people talk about a dying person rather than to the dying person even when the dying person is capable of hearing and understanding what is being said. For him, social death occurs before physical death.51

Speaking on the concepts of death, Booth, in his work, African Religion; A Symposium, describes death as the failure of the positive force and disintegration of man into his constituent parts etc. 52

To Veatch, death is “a complete change in the status of a living entity characterized by the invisible loss of those characteristics that are essentially significant to it.”53 Anchoring on Robert Veatch definition of death, there are essential elements observable (inherent) in the idea of death. Such include; universality: all living things eventually die. Death is all inclusive, inevitable (unavoidable) and unpredictable with respect to its exact timing. Irreversibility: Organism that dies cannot be made alive again.

Epicurus, the Greek philosopher once reminded us that wornout tissue cannot forever renew themselves. Non functionality: death involves the cessation of all physiological functioning, or signs of life and occurrence of death etc.

Death in Igbo world view and its social-anthropological implications is a unique topic that needs to be researched on. This is so in the sense that no thorough study has been done on this particular area. Literature on death in Igbo world view is very scanty. The existing ones are either drawn from the socio-anthropological background or from the religious point of view, even at that, death as a concept is discussed as sub topic emphasizing mainly on burial and funeral rites and ceremonies. It is on the back drop of this, that the researcher sees it necessary to delve deeply into Igbo people’s world view to do complete search on their conception and interpretation of death as well its effect on man as a being in the Igbo world.

In sum, a critical review of the available literature reveals that death in traditional Igbo thought is conceived as negative phenomenon which often prompts the people to deify and personify it. However, the traditional Igbo never understood death as a total annihilation of life rather as a transition of life to the ancestral world which is accomplished through good life and subsequent good death. It also reveals that, that which is called death, for the Igbo is not death as such. It simply means a change of life for a new life via reincarnation. This research however gives in details everything about death and all the circumstances surrounding it. All the reviewed scholarly perspectives of death are not out of context with the traditional Igbo belief and explanation. The traditional Igbo people’s interpretation of death has both positive and negative implications on human being. These however, encapsulated in their concepts of natural and unnatural death which impose on man either positive or negative reward. These must be accompanied by appropriate burial and funeral rites worthy of the victim’s social and moral status in the community. However, the deficiency observed in these reviewed literatures is not only their understanding and discussion of Igbo notion of death, but that all discussed death either as an aspect of general interrogation of Igbo culture or as a religious rite in which they mostly concentrated on discussing death and burial/funeral arrangement as part of the rite of transition. None has actually taken up death as it relates to Igbo world, its interpretation and its implications on man as a being in the Igbo tribal universe. Therefore, the mission of the researcher is to do thorough hermeneutical investigation of death in Igbo world view to fill this lacuna.

Hermeneutics of Death in Igbo World View And its Socio-Anthropological Implications


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