Dying as Transformation to Ancestorhood: The Sherbro Coast of Sierra Leone

People who live in the Sherbro coastal area of Sierra Leone have a social organization based upon descent from named ancestors and acestresses. Ancestors, the living, and those not yet born constitute a great chain of being. This continuum of existence is punctuated, and made discontinuous, by rites of passage (birth, puberty, death). Dying is a period of categorical ambiguity in which a person is still among the mundane living, but babbles of the past, a sign that he or she is also in the process of becoming one with the ancestral shades. Indeed, senility is positively interpreted as a sign that the person has begun to slip across into that other aspect of being, in close communication with ancestors. Since ancestors are the ultimate source of blessings (and misfortune), the dying are treated with great consideration. The ambiguity of senility and dying is resolved through rituals which ‘carry’ the immediate deceased through this betwixt-and-between stage, placing him or her unambiguously into the category of ancestors. Until this is done, the period of ambiguity is perceived by the community as a period of danger. Post-mortem examinations of internal organs are routinely done by officials of Poro, the men’s secret society, to look for signs of the true character of the deceased (a possible witch). These signs have a bearing on the specific content of the death rites. The paper will consider the status of moribund males and females, in descent systems which are patrilineal, matrilineal, or cognatic (as with the Sherbro). Although the paper is based upon 15 years’ intermittent field work in coastal Sierra Leone, this analysis of death in societies structured into descent groups will be relevant for most of Africa, and many other non-European societies as well.

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