NSW: South Sudanese Burial Rites

According to the latest census count, just over 5,000 people in Greater Western Sydney reported having a Sudanese ancestry. Over 90% of them came to Sydney from South Sudan. The Community of South Sudan and Other Marginalised Areas Association (CSSOMA) is the peak body in NSW representing the South Sudanese community. CSSOMA provides South Sudanese with culturally appropriate support Services and advocates on their behalf. Here, we learn about the importance of proper burial rites for the South Sudanese, primarily of the Dinka religion.


By Emmanuel Kondok* and Atem Atem**

One of the support services CSSOMA offers to South Sudanese is culturally appropriate funeral and Burial support. When a person of South Sudanese background dies, CSSOMA is expected to help in getting the community together and raising the necessary funding needed to cover funeral and burial expenses.

South Sudanese are culturally and ethnically diverse. However, in Sydney the overwhelming majority are Dinka speakers. For the Dinka, and for other South Sudanese communities, elders were revered because they were placed at the top of the spiritual hierarchy mediating between the dead and the living. The dead were more revered because they interceded between the living and Nhialic (god). The challenge for South Sudanese, then, was sending the dead off in the most respectful and dignified manner possible.

Any disrespect shown to the deceased might lead to terrible consequences for the family and the entire community.

The Community would do everything in its power to show respect to the dead. One way of doing this was to care for the family left behind. If the deceased left behind a vulnerable family, for example young children with a child-bearing age mother, the family is placed in the hands of a male relative who will ensure that ‘the fire’ continue burning in the absence of the deceased. The male delegated to look after the family offers care, protection, and companionship. This also ensured that any resources accumulated by the deceased were protected and made available to his family. Any children born by the wife were considered the children of the deceased although they would be begotten by the male delegated to look after the family.

In the South Sudanese culture, cremation was never heard of. The dead were buried. The burial rite was long and would go for weeks on end. Community members would come to the deceased house and stay there for a week. During this period of time family members were offered continuous counselling and support in such a way that it was age and gender appropriate. After 2 or 3 days, the deceased was buried and prayers were made so that the spirit of the deceased is received well and his ‘fire’ remained burning (his family continued to grow) on earth.

After the burial week, community members dispersed but would continuously come back to visit the family of the deceased to offer counselling and support. On the 40th day after the burial ceremony, a final rite is conducted. For a well to do family, this rite is a celebration of the life of the deceased. There is singing and dancing. Stories about the deceased were told that glorified him. Since this ritual marks the end of the mourning period, the family of the deceased stopped wearing black. The family was officially delegated to a male relative.

In Sydney, Community of South Sudan and Other Marginalised Areas Association (CSSOMA) steps up to help South Sudanese families fulfil their cultural obligation to send the deceased off in a respectful and dignified manner. CSSOMA also provides culturally appropriate counselling to South Sudanese families left behind.

The Community of South Sudan and Other Marginalised Areas Association works with the family of the deceased and the wider South Sudanese community to raise the funds needed to pay for funeral and burial costs such as burial site and an appropriate burial ceremony. Some of the funds raised would go to ensuring that the family hosts the community for a week and the community get together to celebrate the life of the deceased as appropriate at the end of the process.

The challenge for CSSOMA is securing land for burial sites. The Catholic Cemeteries, the organisation that manages Catholic Cemeteries, has been assisting CSSOMA with obtaining burial sites quickly and at a subsidised rate. CSSOMA could access some burial sites through Catholic Cemeteries but would need funds to enable burial land to be reserved for CSSOMA on behalf of the South Sudanese community.

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