Culture: Funerals in Rwanda

In Rwanda…like any other place…death is a part of life. This part of the culture contains some similarities to other parts of the world and some differences. The current average life expectancy at birth in Rwanda is about 66 years old and many of the common causes of death are from communicable diseases and other “problems related to inadequate water, poor hygiene and lack of adequate sanitation systems.” (NISR, 2014)

When someone passes away, the time of mourning (called ikiriyo) begins immediately where family and friends come to the home of the remaining family members to pay their respects. The length of time for ikiriyo as well as burial location, finances to be used for the funeral, and other preparations are decided by the family leaders. This period of ikiriyo often lasts from three to seven days, with many people coming to the house to support the remaining family members. During the night, they build a fire of remembrance and may sit around the fire, sharing Fanta (soda) and some snacks as well as stories about the person who has passed away. Some of these visitors may stay overnight and others generously contribute financially. One person in the family is designated to be the one who “buries” the family member. This means that they prepare the body and put on the burial clothes. The rest of the family decides on a special gift for the person who carries out these difficult duties.

The body of the deceased person is kept in the morgue (with a daily fee accruing) until the family is able to make arrangements for the ikiriyo and burial. Usually, the family tries to minimize the fees at the morgue and within a day or two takes the body from the morgue to the home. There is a time set aside for family members and friends to come to the home to pay their last respects. The bodies are not embalmed or treated in any way with preserving chemicals. The casket remains closed, but they are built with a little window to be able to see the face of the deceased person.

After this time of viewing in the home, the ceremony proceeds at the burial site. Most often the body is laid to rest in a cemetery but in no particular order. Here, they do not purchase a family plot or anything ahead of time and the bodies are just added in the cemetery in the order that whatever unrelated folks pass away. There are different areas of the cemetery for burial based on socioeconomic status. If the family has more money, the grave is dug and lined with cement and tile, the casket lowered, and then sealed with more cement and beautiful tiles and marker. If the family has less money, the grave is dug but not lined and the casket is enclosed in dirt and marked with a simple white cross bearing the name, date of birth, and date of death. At the graveside, the family leaders share testimony and the preacher shares some Scripture and then the casket is laid to rest in the grave.

The graveside ceremony is followed by “gukaraba” which is a “washing hands” ceremony. This could take place at the family home or at a location close to the cemetery. There is a ceremonial hand washing as well as a final time of remembering and sharing Fanta and testimony. In the days and years to come, sometimes there is no effort made to remember the person who has passed away and they are forgotten; however, some other family and friends do go back to visit the grave and continue to remember the person’s life and legacy.

Example of a grave marker in a Rwandan cemetery.

Recently, the mama of one of the families and students that we work with passed away. Though she had been sick off-and-on for a little while, she suddenly fell into a coma and passed away within a few days. As a widow, she leaves behind her four children and the oldest, Uwineza Benjamin, is now the head of the household. Mama Muhire’s passing is a great loss but we know she leaves behind an amazing legacy in the way that she loved and cared for her family and many others.

Hannah Ingram
Program Director

(National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda. Fourth Population and Housing Census, Thematic Report: Mortality. 2014.