Death Ceremonies

Sun, 15 Apr 2018


Dr. Amel Osman Hamid


This Paper includes detailed description of the whole ceremonies practiced by the Donglese Nubian society in North Sudan linked with the death of one of its individuals. The Paper reveals the combination of the ancient traditions and ceremonies linked with death and those rituals later on entered with Islam.

The Paper followed the descriptive analytic methodology.Various of these ceremonies have been shifted and practiced by other groups out of the Nubian area.




Death rituals are considered as the last rituals in life. Death event is a major social event which based on the expression of social solidarity. The Paper displayed the death alarm signs due to their tight link with the death event.  The Paper also surveyed:

  • Death alarm  signs
  • Notification  of  death
  • Preparation  of the deceased and shroud
  • Wife  lock-up and end of lock-up
  • Protection rites of wife and her surrounding persons
  • Mourning

The above-stated rites are considered as death-resistance factors and celebration of life. They protect the society from the involvement in sadness and confusion and lead it to a new stage of social integration and consolation for the sake of its psychological and social balance and stability.

Many cultures in the world have their similar activities regarding death and each one has its distinguished manner in dealing with it. But, all of them agree that death is a social event of high importance and similar to birth and marriage events[1].

The majority of cultures are convinced that death is not an entire end of life as they believe in the subsequent life and this involves other establishments such as religion.[2] This necessitates the study of death rites and ceremonies. The studies show that, with exception of some negative practices such as wars, burying and killing children and cannibalism, the social practices, in general, are devoted and dedicated to life. The human societies are remarkably interested to learn and teach the relevant tools and methods to decrease and minimize death events. In this concern, these societies are interested in birth-control, for instance, but the increased birth is the historically followed method to compensate the deaths. The decrease of population endangers the existing social and political system and death arises the feeling of danger to individuals.[3]

The death rites are attributed to the common and private social motive to produce a state of social solidarity. Such rites are performed by the whole society members and under the control of such society.[4]

Darkeim says: The main role of death rites is to compensate the grieved part of the society for losing one or more of its members and to help it to gradually restore to its normal life.[5]

The social solidarity, with its related rites and ceremonies, comes as a priority in the first stage of dealing with a death event.[6]

People of various cultures are, in general, unwilling to talk about death. Prof. Hureiz stated that while he was collecting data about the passing rites, he remarked that the interviewed persons were not interested to talk death while they were more interested to talk about other affairs.[7]

The ancient cultures were very keen about the interment process as they believe on the other life. So, the deceased person will be buried with his possessions to be used by him in the other life.[8] Such rituals are apparently shown in the graves of Nile Basin civilizations and especially in Marawi and Nuba antiquities.[9]


Death: The Passing Rite in Dongula Area

The death rites in Dongula area are linked with those of the ancient Nubian civilization.[10] The Nubian civilizations were highly interested on death, due to their belief on the other life and the resurrection.[11]

Presently, the grave is a pit with two headstones of small stones, pottery vessels, palm branches or similar materials.[12]

Here, we will talk about the beliefs relating to death, as an essential event, and the surrounding rites and ceremonies starting from the moment of its announcement, the mode of interment, the consolation ceremonies and the changes thereof.

Evil Omen and Death Alarm

The Nubians in Dongula area are pessimistic toward a number of events which they believe as tightly connected with death e.g. some sorts of dreams which include blood. The Narrator Khadija Abdul Karim stated that the popular opinion is that: Seeing the meat in the dream indicates the death of a relative, an if such meat is seen with a bone, it means the death of a parental relative and if seen without a bone, a maternal relative will die.[13]

They also believe that the feet creepiness is a sign of a relative’s imminent death.[14] The Nubians in Dongula area are pessimistic toward seeing the late persons in the dreams as stated by Sit El Kul Mansourawi:

“Upon the death of Fatima, Butheina saw Sharifa (Fatima’s dead mother) who told her that she wants her daughters. The late Diab, Fatima’s sister son, told me on Friday that Fatima will come to them”.[15]

The Nubians of Dongula area have another pessimist inner feeling called”Aru” where they believe that it obstruct their deeds and plans for an unknown reason.[16]

Various studies showed that this type of pessimism is limited to women only.

One of the signs of death is the serious sickness which will prepare the society to receive the death news. Women are usually more eager to receive such news.

If the late person is a man, men will prepare his coffin for the interment, and if a woman, this job will be performed by the elder women. Usually, the death of elder persons and newly-born children is of less intensity compared with the death of young persons.

The sudden death is more severe to the society and also the cases of group death in the traffic accidents and drowning. In the past, the unmarried deceased will be subjected to marriage ceremonies and rites.[17]


Notification of Death

Mainly, in the cases of sudden death and where the deceased person lives out of Dongula area, a person will be assigned to notify the death news. The informer, whether a man or woman, is usually of middle age and will be instructed to perform this difficult job in the most perfect and polite way. This direct notification reflects the ability of men to receive such sad news. Women usually take more efforts by the woman informer who may collapse upon watching the concerned woman.[18]

Presently, the death notification is performed by Radio, telephone or SMS massages. This change has decreased the role of this traditional notification tool.[19] This change comes at the cost of the emotional contact of people and it is applied not only to the Nubians in Dongula area, but, it was spreadto the whole Nubians, Shaigiya, Jaalyeen and other Nilotic culture societies.[20]

In the past, the Donglese convey the death news by away called “Kabudaar” which means declaration or notification, performed by a specified person only who roams the areas and villages on a donkey back for this purpose.[21] Upon being notified, all persons go to the house of the deceased person to escort him to his grave.[22]

The deceased family used to wait for their relatives before their moving, otherwise, it will lead to their protest and refusal to participate in the escort and interment.[23]


Preparing the Deceased Person

The main two jobs are the preparing the shroud and washing the corpse. If the deceased perso is a woman, she will be washed by some elder women, and if a man, he will be washed by two or three of his relatives.

Washing performed according to the Islamic way. The Donglese used to put the palm branches on the deceased’s bed, but they left this habit.[24]

The shroud will be prepared. Usually the elder men and women who prepare the shroud had already prepared their own shrouds for their certain day. So, a shroud can be borrowed.[25]

The deceased person will be washed and perfumed by Hanout and smoked by the same incense used in the occasions of marriage and circumcision.[26] The shroud will be covered by a sheet and the deceased person will be put on the bed “Angreib”. Presently, they use the valuable and imported carpets instead of the mat previously used. These rites take place in a locked room. If the deceased person is a young man or woman, he/she will be subjected to Jartiq ceremonies.[27]

The men exchange carrying the bed.[28] If the late person is a woman, her bed will be surrounded by palm branches to be similar to a howdah and covered by a white sheet.[29]


The Interment Rituals

Upon the death occurrence, a group of youth accompanied by elder expert persons go to prepare the grave. They select the most suitable place for this purpose. Then they prepare mud blocks to fill the grave gaps before burying with sand. In many Nubian villages in Dongla areas there are some persons who prepare the mud blocks for the sake of Allah.[30]

After the readiness of the grave, the attendants read “Al Fatiha” in the Islamic way and take the bed to the grave. Two or three of them descend the grave inside the grave while keeping the sheet to the last moment. Then they pour the sand and bury the corpse. Then they read “Al Fatiha” again and return to the consolation house.[31]

One of the basic rites linked to death is the visit of the grave after two weeks by the elder women of the deceased’s relatives with the possibility of taking some young girls with them. They perform the rite of “Kasr el Turba” i.e. putting some palm branches, small stones and pottery vessels on the grave.[32]

The studies showed that these interment rites are ancient in the Nubian culture with some aspects added by Islam.

In the past, the consolation lasts for forty days containing dates of meetings:

  • The 3rd Day: “Sadaqa Day”
  • The 5th and 7th Days: No reason is known for the meeting in these days. Maybe for rites later on cancelled.
  • The 15th Day: The said visit to the grave.

The consolation period ends at the 40th day by a meal to the attendants.[33]

Presently, the men attend for a period not exceeding three days.

The Researcher, during the fieldwork in 1997, remarked a strong movement to decrease the consolation days to only two days and she was informed in 1999 about the approval of this decrease.

Men console by raising their hands and reading “Al Fatiha”, and women by weeping with high voices. Men console women by reading “Al Fatiha”. Women console men by putting hands on their left shoulders while telling some sad words.[34] This is the situation in cases of normal death, but if the deceased is an important man, a youth or in cases of group death, the women hit their cheeks, spray ash and sand to their heads and the elder women repeat the lamentations.[35] In the latter cases, men may weep with the women and restore their patience and ask the women to calm.


Funeral Services

During the funeral days, a big number of relatives and mourners attend. This necessitates the provision of food, drinks and accommodation to them. In the past, this was not a big problem as the food was made by the local materials, in addition to the food provided by the relatives and the meal brought by the neighbors :”Funeral Tray”.[36]

This situation is changed, and this duty has become an onerous burden to the family of the deceased person. 

Women used to contribute in the funeral expenses by paying amounts of money called “Al Mujib” and men also record their financial sharing in a book. This indicates the effective social solidarity in the traditional societies.

In the past, the neighbors used to share in the three daily meals, but in Dongula it was later on agreed that every seven families shall prepare one meal. Still, the bigger financial burden of the funeral is borne by the deceased’s family.

The funeral financial affairs are directed by a man assisted by a prudent woman.[37]

The jobs of cooking, washing, cleaning and serving are performed by women, and especially the young girls under the supervision of the elder women. The young boys serve the men and the youg girls serve the women.

This occasion avails an opportunity to the  boys and girls to meet together.


Woman Lock-up

The stay of the deceased’s wife in the house and her avoiding to meet foreign men is one of the provisions of Islamic Sharia, In Dongula, they firmly apply this provision and prevent her to leave her house to the end of the end of the specified period  and then she can practice her ordinary life, unlike the situation in the past[38] where she was locked in a room and wears white “Dammour” clothes. In this room, she sits on a mat on the ground for the first two weeks and then on a reversed bed without a mat for forty days.[39] She was not allowed to do the morning  prayer before sun shining and shall totally cover her face and not allowed to talk before the sun shining and before the evening prayer.[40] A brass vessel was put beside her containing a copy of Holy Koran, a piece of salt, kohl (eyeliner) stick (and sometimes replaced by a nail) and some black cumin. Also, she should be watched for the whole day.[41] She was only allowed to dress her hair by a method called “Karfat” i.e. dressing the hair in one thick lock and then in three locks for a period of time and then in five locks for a further period and then in seven locks to the end of the lock-up period.

The food of the locked-up woman, for the first forty  days, consists of “Weika” or local bread with water and salt to the end of the lock-up period.[42]

The end of the lock-up period and the exit of the subject woman to the community take place through specific ceremonies and practices. Narrator Zeinab Abdul Karim says in this concern:[43]

“ Upon the end of the lock-up period of four months and ten days, the elder women bring a piece of a mud vessel called “Gihf ” where she sits and washed. Then, a woman will break that piece indicating the release of the woman. Then she will be dressed new clothes, taken to the Nile and celebrate her release.”

Afterwards, she will visit her late husband’s grave and stay in the house for one year and share only in the occasions which had happened during her lock-up period.”

The Mourning

The Nubians, up to the 60s of the 20th century, are so rigid in dealing with the mourning which may last for years. They quit adorning and rejoicing during the mourning period  which may extend in cases of further death events. So, it is normal to meet a woman in a mourning state for about ten years.

The mourning clothes are the white Dammour dress “Ganja”. The men perform the mourning process by leaving their beards unshaved.

The mourning clothes are the white Dammour dress “Ganja”. The men perform the mourning process by leaving their beards unshaved.[44]

Presently, the mourning is performed by the close relatives such as the mother, daughters or sisters.

The mourning period has been decreased and limited to the funeral days or more according to the deceased’s age and death circumstances. Women may quit wearing the golden jewelries and continue making Henna and wearing their usual colored dresses.


Every society has its group of customs and their accompanying ceremonies and rites which, together, constitute and determine its point of view and concepts toward its surrounding world. Such ceremonies have their vital role known well by the concerned society and accordingly leads it to preserve and keep them. Anyhow, time may provide new beliefs and concepts which may influence the current rituals and replace some of them to enable the required consistency with the current life.   


[1] Sayed Hamid Hurreiz: Birth, Marriage and Death Initiation Customs and Beliefs in the Central Sudan,

  M.A. University of Leeds, 1966, p 146.

[2] op. cit

[3] International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Vol 14, the Macmillan Co. New York, p 28.

[4]  io.cut    

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.        

[7] Sayed Hamid Hurreiz: Birth, op.cit, p 146-7

[8] International Encyclopedia, op. cit, p28

[9] Mohd. Ibrahim Bakr: Introduction to History of Ancient Sudan, Modern Press, 1980, p 27-28

[10] Vantini: History of Christianity in Ancient Nubian Kingdoms and Modern Sudan, Khartoum 1978, p21

[11] Ibid.

[12]  Ibid. p 32. For more details about finding pebbles on Nubian graves see:

     M.W. Cavendish: The Custom of Placing Pebbles on Nubian Graves. S.N.R vol 1966, p 151-155.  

[13] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3674

[14] Ibid.

[15] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3677

[16] Ibid.

[17] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3676

[18] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3676

[19] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3681

[20] About the traditional notification tools, see:

  • Sayed Mohd. Abdullah, From the Heritage and Life of the Nubians in Sakout Area, Sudan Studies Branch, August 1974, p 68.
  • Ismail Ali El Fiheil: Death Customs in Hamar Society in Sudan. Popular Works Magazine, Doha, 8th year, issue No.30, April 1993, p38.       

[21] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3681

    IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3674

[22] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3674

[23] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3681

[24] Ibid.

[25] Amna Abbas Ali, Interview, Khartoum 1999.

[26] Ibid.

[27] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3674

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

    Hassan Dafalla stated that ‘Garmasis’ and palm branches are placed only on the graves of women, similar to

    Donglese practice. For more details see:

     Hassan Dafalla : The Nubian Exodus, Khartoum University Press, 1974, p 54.  

[30]  IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3681

[31] A. Rahim El Kheir Osman, Interview, Khartoum 1999.

[32] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3677

    IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3674

    IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3681

   On placing palm branches, pebbles and pottery vessels on graves, we found similar practice in Egyptian Nubians,


  • John G. Kennedy: Nubian Ceremonial Life: Studies in Islamic Syncretism and Culture Change, University of 

           California Press, Cairo Press 1987 p. 221-230. 

  • John Lewis Porkhart: Porkhart Journies in Nuba land and Sudan, Maarifa Press 1959, p 31.
  • M.W. Cavendish: The Custom of Placing Pebbles on Nubian Graves. S.N.R vol 1966, p 151155

[33] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3781

    IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3677

    The meal of the 3rd, 7th, 25th or 40th day : the Donglese agree with most of the Sudanese tribes. For more details,


  • Hassan Dafalla : The Nubian Exodus, Khartoum University Press, 1974, p 54.
  • Sayed Mohd. Abdullah, From the Heritage and Life of the Nubians in Sakout Area, previous reference, p 70.
  • J. A. Crowfoot: “Customs of the Rubattab”, S.N.R. vol1, 1918, p. 233134.
  • C.R.K.: “The Anuak”, S.N.R. vol 1, No.1,  1918, p 123124       

[34] Researcher’s Observation and Remarks

[35] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3677

    IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3674

    Staining the faces with ash was practiced by the Egyptian Nuba and all Sudan. For more details, see:

  • John G. Kennedy: Nubian Ceremonial Life, op. cit. 1, p 225227.
  • Spencer Trimingham: Islam in the Sudan, London, Oxford University Press, 1983 p 183.

[36] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3676

[37] Researcher’s Observation and Remarks

[38] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3676 

[39] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3673

    IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3676

[40] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3681

   Dawlat Ahmed Yousif has linked between the refusal of the locked-up woman to talk at the sun shining and sun   

   set time with worshipping deity Amon:

  • Dawlat Ahmed Yousif,  Woman in Kosh Kingdom 570BC, Master degree dissertation, Faculty of Arts, History Department, September 1996, p.27. 

[41] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3674

[42] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3672


[43] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3674

Breaking the pottery piecy upon the exit of the locked-up woman is linked with the custom of emptying the pottery vessels of the deceased’s house from water upon the announcement of his death to avoid the return of his soul to them. See:

  • Kennedy: Nubian Ceremonial Life, op. cit. 1, p 229.

[44] IAAS Archive, Tape No. IAAS/3681



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