Lartey to look at death rites, rituals in African cultures



As one of the greatest sources of human anguish, death is a natural interest.

That is, in part, why it makes sense Emmanuel Lartey has studied the topic, he said; the L. Bevel Jones III Professor of Pastoral Theology, Care, and Counseling at Candler School of Theology at Emory University also comes from Ghana, West Africa, where the culture and religious traditions fueled his interests. During his lecture, “Death is Like Birth: Death and Life in African Religious Traditions,” Lartey will speak about different conceptions of life, death and ways death is understood broadly in African cultures at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

“There are many different — and sometimes contradictory — practices around death and dying, funerals and burial rights and so on, although there are very many in line with the fact that this is a huge continent and a huge diaspora with many different traditions,” he said. “There are common threads that sort of point in particular directions about life and about death and the afterlife.”

Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “From Here to Hereafter: Facing Death with Hope and Courage.”

Lartey will attempt to explain African rites and rituals and why people would engage in them, as well as open up windows of dialogue with other cultures and religions. Lartey’s work interests include pastoral care in cultural contexts, and he will draw comparisons and distinctions between different cultures’ practices around death.

“In American and Western traditions, there tends to be a stronger sense that death is a termination. Death brings an end to something, and that’s kind of, like, that’s it,” he said. “Whereas in African cultures in general, there is a very, very strong sense of continuity of life beyond death — that life does not end with death — and so there’s also a greater tendency to pursue relationships with the dead beyond their death.”

For this reason, rites and rituals around the dead, such as funerals, generally take much longer in African cultures than they do in the U.S., Lartey said. There is no “better” way; a great deal can be learned from recognizing how cultures differ, he added.

One thing that should not be encouraged, however, is telling people to “get over” death. Although it’s possible for “morbid lingering” to go on too long, one can learn from being sensitive to others and recognizing grief is normal and natural, Lartey said.

“I think that grieving, which is an essential and crucial part of dealing with death — especially the death of close persons — grieving is something that happens in all cultures and rituals,” he said.

Lartey will draw other parallels between cultures; although African religions place great emphasis on honoring ancestors, Americans partake in similar practices that play out in different ways, such as by naming bridges and buildings after people who have died.

“There is a strong sense of honoring and respecting and continuing to value and to be in relationships [with] those who have gone before,” he said. “When we quote and cite these late, great persons who founded disciplines — and, in terms of religious traditions [like] the sources of the teaching the theology and so on — that is what we are doing.”