Basotho Twin Burial Ritual

Mirror, Mirror: when I look into a mirror it is her face I see. Her right is my left, double moles, dimple and all. My right is her left, unblemished- Unknown

Mpho and Nyane Lebajoa( Basotho twins)

The great bond twins hold that could either be psychological or emotional is viewed as a blessing or a curse in the Basotho (Lesotho inhabitants) culture. Reason being twins hold tremendous powers, and the disincentives and incentives they encounter will have to be shared between the two.

Dissimilar to traditional funerals whereby family and friends will gather for a burial ceremony, with twins an immensely traumatising event takes place. The night before the burial, the body of the deceased is brought home from the morgue whereby an all-night ritual is performed. A sheep is slaughtered, and hymns are sung so to guard the dead against witchcraft and negative energies. During the ceremony, the corpse is removed from the casket, and the living twin is ordered to sleep in the casket- wearing garments of the deceased twin. After a while, the body of the dead twin is put back in the coffin. Post the removal of the alive twin; the sheep slaughtered at the beginning will then be eaten by the people at the ritual.

On the day of the burial, a more psycho-social event takes place as the twin who is still alive is accompanied to the grave by a few family members, by dawn and is asked to lie down in the grave. Proceeding that a religious petition is passed by the priest such as “Lord God, in the resurrection of your son, you have shown us that life is stronger than death. Support us as we travel towards you on our pilgrim journey and bring us one day to a fullness of life” Shortly after the petition soil is poured into the grave and the twin is pulled out. A different route is then taken back home as the twin isn’t supposed to walk into his/her deceased partner anymore.

As they arrive home they will find a tub containing water with aloe in it paced at the gate- the water is used to wash hands and feet so to remove the omen of being at the graveyard. A burial ceremony isn’t held as the other twin is still alive; however the grave of the deceased is covered with soil, and a clay pot (i.e., lenyatane in Sesotho) is placed on top of the grave containing mainly pumpkin, maize, sorghum, and pumpkin seeds. Basotho have a firm belief that death isn’t annihilation but a stepping stone to eternity, the ‘pumpkin seeds’ are so that the deceased can grow in the next lifetime.

On the day of the burial, a cleansing ceremony takes place whereby family members shave their heads and wear a black cloth around their necks also known as ‘a black tie.’ The black-tie represents loss and a mourning period within the family; however, family members aren’t supposed to cry or show any heavy emotion towards the twin who is alive.

After the cleansing ceremony, clothes belonging to the deceased are taken to the river to be washed and dried before storage. Only after the mourning phase (during this time the home of the dead is a sacred place, there will be no slaughtering of animals. The house will be lit all times, and an honourable family member will be present at all times to guard the widow and the clothes of the departed): when the black tie is removed can the family decide if they burn the clothes or keep them.

For the removal of the terrible omen, the father then has to slaughter a cow which will be fed to the people present at the closing of the cleansing ceremony. A usual burial ceremony is only held when the second twin dies: reason being that when one twin dies, it doesn’t symbolize death as a whole as the other half is still alive and could also be a catastrophe for the living twin.

It’s crucial for Basotho to follow their culture and practice rituals performed in their homeland but to which extent could they be pushing the boundaries? Death already has a biological and psychological long-term effect on humans which leads to health deterioration: is it essential to put a burden on a human by placing them in a casket and grave of their loved ones all in the name of culture and tradition? Or could the indiscreet practice have a much more powerful meaning than what it resembles?


8 thoughts on “Basotho Twin Burial Ritual”

  1. “It’s important for Basotho to follow their culture and practice rituals performed in their homeland but to which extend could they be pushing the boundaries?Death already has a biological and psychological long term effect on humans which leads to health deterioration: is it really necessary to put a burden on a human by placing them in a casket and grave of their loved ones all in the name of culture and tradition?Or could the indiscreet practice have a much more powerful meaning than what it resembles?”

    Sometimes i find it easier to frame this discussion of culture, especially the practice of it, within this whole concept of multiculturalism. Because that is the heart of the issue here. The boundary that gets pushed, between Basotho and the Other. Looking at the rituals and their practice in their new melting pot might give a little insight into the both the boundary itself, and what lies on either side.

    This is not really to compare a Basotho funeral and rites to a traditional generic western one, but one has to accept that that comparison does play a large part in answering the questions addressed in the last paragraph. And to do that, the assumption is made that all the details of the generic western funeral are known to the reader, for them to make the internal comparison. Opening up to the idea that the reader could be from anywhere in the world, one would and could replace generic western with whatever you may think of. The fact remains that the comparison is to the dominant culture of the reader, be that Xhosa or Afrikaans or Muslim.

    Looking at the question again, there are some assumptions that become evident, the more time you spend unpacking just this 1 concept. The main one staring me in the coffin is that, in the homeland, where the rituals might be practiced, is the same act not as traumatic as it might be in the city. What changed in the act, that a different location, increases the level of trauma?

    Perhaps is has to do with the new place. The western city that doesn’t have the full social network to provide the care that a traumatized person might receive in the homeland? Its a difficult issue to resolve, and i feel an easier way would be to forgo the thinking that the ritual might be more traumatic in place versus the other.
    What does that leave us with then?

    Part of multiculturalism is then of course the dominating western cultural ideology. With all its feelings and privileges checked. Maybe this is where the root of the trauma lies. One has to wonder what the function of the ritual is? Does it provide the same opportunity for closure/healing/goodbyes as other ritual burials?

    A large part of the question was role of the trauma inducing coffin nap.

    Do the twins in the homeland know of trauma? In cultures where norms are created, and perpetuated not all events or actions are perceived the same in other places. Kids growing up on a farm have a very different relationship to their meat than city kids, and this is due to their close relationship and understanding of death. I wonder then if the same disconnect appears where the city kids are unfamiliar with death and ritual?
    Is there an assumption being made here somewhere?

    I don’t think this was the right track either.

    But i think somewhere along the way i glanced at it.

    Questioning the rituals and culture is what the youth do. The Elders might not have the same hold on the culture like they did in days gone by. We know that only change is constant. And perhaps that needs to be the way in which we look at these rituals, as being in flux, or constantly in a state of change. and not toward a set goal of ours, and sometimes not even forwards. regression is change too.

    To take one aspect of a culture, a ritual performed in the case of the death of the first twin, a rare occurrence, and make determinations/changes from that. Sure you can do it. But it leads to more change. It leads to the same thinking being applied to other rituals. Change happens.

    For many in Lesotho, I can image the way of life hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years, or even 50. The pace of change in the rural areas is slow, much slower than the hubs of progressive ideas like cape town. But even these places are slow to adapt to the changing world. And maybe, because of that, these questions are never answered. We never match the pace of what is happening, only glimpsing it as it passes. We can, and do however, see it clearly after some time.

    Maybe up in the mountains of Lesotho, you need these rituals.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. But usually there are ceremonies that are held when both twins are alive to separate them to relieve them of those burdens of being one and some are even separated on the day prior to holding the funeral. On light note a carcass belongs to animals but we human beings have corpses.


    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and sharing some light on the twin rituals Zulu Ntaote, I’ve already made a change to the Corpse/ Carcass situation, realized that was also causing confusion to some of my readers.


  3. thank you very much for this Palesa, Are you in the light that, the twin s burial can be normal like the normal person if the family decides to slaughter a sheep meant to separate the twins before their death. by their funeral ceremony will be like any other person. contact me for further info.


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