Exploring migration, repatriation, and African funerals

George Gumisiriza from the Centre for Death Studies at Bath University

Six minute read

The death of a friend prompted George Gumisiriza to study the importance of repatriation after death among African diaspora in the UK for his PhD.

He found a rich area of study which had been barely explored before. We talked to George about his research, why repatriation matters, and how people working in death care can better support the needs of the African diaspora.

“I’ve lived in the UK for 13 years and have many friends here,” explains George. “One of my close friends was a lady I worked with in Uganda. She loved to sing — she was so beautiful and kind. We would exchange messages all the time.”

But after a while, the messages stopped and George’s calls were left unanswered. Eventually, he discovered from a mutual friend that his friend had died, and her body had been returned to Uganda.

“I was angry. I was heartbroken. I couldn't understand — what was this thing about taking bodies back?” remembers George. “At the same time, I had to submit a topic for my MSc dissertation, so I said I wanted to look at the repatriation of dead bodies to Africa.”

My motivation to study

Initially, George faced resistance from his university tutor about choosing this topic.

“She's not of African background, so she was not aware,” he explains. “She didn't really understand. She didn't see my pain and my grief. So, I went to the library to check what was available on body repatriation among the African diaspora.

“I found nothing.

“And I thought, what does this mean? It means the grief of a whole people or peoples, is missing. And my motivation to study this topic rose.”

George did go on to study this area with Dr Dafina Paca as his MSc supervisor.

“I'm always proud to mention her,” he says. “She's not originally born in the UK, but she lives here now. She immediately saw me and saw my grief, and she took me in. She encouraged me that this could be a PhD topic.”

This research has now blossomed into a PhD at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society (CDAS).

Why repatriation matters

We asked George to explain why repatriation was so important to many in the African diaspora.

“People talk of homeland, but that's not quite true. If somebody has been in the UK for 50 years, in most cases they have established their lives here, they have children and grandchildren in the UK.

“So, it’s about returning to a country of heritage connections. It’s about belonging and dignity. Taking people to a place where the grief will be seen and understood and where the memorialisation will be done.

“Wanting to be buried at their ancestral burial grounds is about belonging and continuity. Funeral traditions and ritual are about transcendence to the afterlife. When someone is buried with proper rituals and the rites of passage, then they are more likely to go to where they are meant to be.

“Here, we might look at the person as a dead body, but there they will give the body some personhood. They will say, ‘Send back our son’, ‘Send back our daughter’. They don't say, ‘Send back the dead body’. They will gather and wait for that person to return.”

Family and friends in the UK also have an important role. “After someone dies, they too will gather every evening — until the body is released — to share food, talk and sing. Then they will view the body.

“When the repatriation happens, normally the body will be accompanied at least by two people on the same plane. When they arrive, the rituals are done again. Sometimes you find that funding for that comes from people in the UK.”

Not everyone can be repatriated. For example, when someone dies in a fire or their body is badly decomposed, they cannot be returned.

However, if for any reason, repatriation doesn’t happen, they are other ways to maintaining a connection with the person’s homeland: “If someone is buried here, nail clippings and hair can still be repatriated for rituals.”

A village in Tooro Kingdom in Western Uganda, East Africa in the 1980s. Burial grounds are often located in Banana groves. Snow-capped Mt. Rwenzori in the background. Picture taken by Tim Heywood.
A village in Tooro Kingdom, Western Uganda, in the 1980s. Burial grounds are often located in banana groves. (Photo: Tim Heywood).

Returning home to die

Other members of the diaspora choose to return to Africa if they know they are dying. This was the case for George’s cousin.

“He was HIV positive. He didn't tell me he was going back home to die, but I knew that's what it was,” remembers George. “So many people came back home to die and they would never be judged. They would be received with care and respect.

“It is a way of the dying person saying to death, ‘You're not having the last word — the last word is with me’. People will visit and the person who is dying has the opportunity to say, ‘I want to eat this kind of food’ or ‘I want to speak to so-and-so and put things right’.

“It’s about reconnecting with the land and the family tree — knowing that when they die, they are going to be buried next to their close relations.

“Before they leave the UK, this person is already grieving for the land where they come from and longing for home. They want to see the landscape, to hear the sounds, and to know the rituals will be done properly when they die, that they will be washed and shrouded in the right material.

“People in the diaspora sometimes collect money to support this person when they have left to say, ‘We have not forgotten you, we are sending you care’.”

Ancient rituals, new technology

Ancient rituals can be enhanced using new technology. For example, the availability of video streaming now means that people in the UK can watch funeral rituals taking place in Africa, or crowd-funding websites can generate funds for repatriation or the funeral itself.

Choices around what happens to the body after death are another example of tradition and technology starting to come together.

“Most Africans do not cremate, they bury their dead,” says George. “The meaning of the grave and the connection with it is important. Recently we saw South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu choosing ‘water cremation’, yet his ashes were still interred in the cathedral which is an old tradition.”

Understand, listen and never assume

What can UK funeral directors, and others working in death care, do to support people within the African diaspora?

George is very clear: “Seek to understand, to listen and not to assume anything.

“Migrant communities, and migrants themselves, are so diverse, so when talking to someone, see them as a person not just a client; ask them what they need and be clear about the services that are available.

“The traditions are really enormous and you're not going to learn everything. You simply need to learn enough to help carry you through.

“If you handle a funeral of, say, a Ghanaian or a Nigerian, that should be a learning point for you to say, ‘What more is there behind this funeral? What more can I learn?’ Direct experience helps you to ask more questions, including the difficult ones.

George also mentions the importance, for funeral directors who work with repatriation partners overseas, of making sure that their services are good quality.

“In Uganda, we never used to have funeral directors, but now it's a requirement that when you send a body, it must be received by a funeral director. It's important to see exactly who you are dealing with. How is the quality service going to run through until the end? Is the other person going to exploit the bereaved people?”

From the margins to the centre

For George, the personal and the academic have always informed each other — the stories of the people he knows and the people who have shared their experiences with him influence his work.

“I'm trying to draw Afro-centric perspectives on death from the margins to the centre of academia,” he explains. “I’m also trying to help people talk about death as a subject, to bring it forward, and I hope that this might help people deal with their grief, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At Poppy's, we support clients from all backgrounds and religions, do get in touch to find out more about how we can help you arrange a funeral.

Read more interviews on Talking Death — hear from Aama Sade Shepnekhi about Rastafarian funerals or Laura D Pusey, founder of the Federation of African Caribbean Funeral Operatives.

To stay in touch with all the latest news and updates from Poppy's by email, sign up here or contact us if you need help planning a funeral.

Discover more articles