African Diasporic Bereavement Stories in the UK Through ‘Repatriationscapes’: by George Gumisiriza

I could smell something,” said a Gambian participant in my pilot focus group, a group I assembled to research contemporary studies on death in the UK in order to understand how studies have ignored Afrocentric perspectives and how Western stories have evaded Afrocentric deaths, grief, and losses only confining them to outside the mainstream.  

The focus group, by this time, broken into small groups, consulted with each other in their native languages expressing a deep-seated emotion over not only the idea that their fellow Gambian had not been sent back home for proper burial but also that where he died in Europe was unknown.  This unresolved death had a profound impact on the Gambians at home and abroad because many in the focus group appeared bewildered by the experience. Reportedly, the body had been stuck in a European country due to lack of funds leading many Gambians in the UK to make contributions to support the repatriation process. The confidentiality in failing to disclose the European country where the death occurred may have protected the identity of the decedent but it also intensified discontent.  Not knowing where the person died made it hard to pinpoint religious affiliation which is key to proper last rites.  Ultimately, the deceased was interred at his ancestral burial grounds, a Muslim only cemetery in Gambia.

As I sat with the findings of the focus group, I realized that this study was a long-awaited opportunity for reflection and questioning each other’s conscience.  It was also necessary due to the lack of space for public death ritualization and mourning. Even more so, it was a chance to centre bereaved African diasporic stories because these stories, rituals, and mourning/grieving patterns matter. The significance of these stories highlight the positioning of Afrocentric perspectives of funerary rituals within the dominant discourse and how these characterize ethnic minorities in the UK.  This marginalization and erasure have perpetuated power, authority, racism, and marginalization by creating an academic gap.  It has also created a dangerous sameness in attitudes towards migrant communities in death matters.

Repatriationscapes Created and Defined

Mourning is a major funerary ritual practised among Africans in the UK. My study revealed that the presence of the dead body in the UK before being repatriated maintains the solidarity among diasporic concerned communities and allies. Repatriationscapes is a term I have coined as a framework for exploring death and the process of repatriation of the deceased among African diaspora in the UK (Gumisiriza, 2019, forthcoming) .  This term encompasses the physical space and emotional aspects within social, cultural, religious funerary rituals and practices.

Repatriationscapes becomes a complicated term to define in a strict sense because it represents concepts that inhabit shifting positions in Afrocentric death and body disposal perspectives.  It is a process that can be understood within the framing of rites of passage. There are pre-liminal rites  (separation), the liminal rites (transition) and post-liminal rites (incorporation), within death and  funerary ‘rites of passage’ (Gennep, 1960, p.1-14, 146-165). However, the lines of demarcation are not fixed and may occasionally overlap because grief is a shared aspect in how I position the term as a framework. The Covid-19 pandemic has expanded the physical space in Repatriationscapes through technology, but it has also halted it through restrictions in the early days of the pandemic in some countries.  However, the emotional dimension remains constant while shifts in the way they are perceived as possible.

The practice of repatriating dead bodies to the countries of origin is widespread among African diaspora in the UK. There are no simplistic answers as to why people repatriate their dead. The Gambians in Newport South Wales consider repatriation of their dead as a significant aspect of cultural belonging. In her story, Nadia Elbhiri says:

more than 180,000 African Americans, some free born, some escaped slaves, served in the Union Army My father’s dream was for him to be buried in his birthplace and have the call to prayer resonate over his grave. London was his home, but Morocco was always in his heart.

Hakim, 2015

Repatriationscapes, therefore, is firmly conceptualised in the concepts of home and belonging the social cultural and religious perspectives. However, the political dimension is key in because in determines the borders for and the structure of the framework.

Repatriationscapes and the Bereaved Diaspora in the UK

The process heavily relies on negotiation whereby each country has their regulations governing the repatriation of human remains. The time factor within the Repatriationscapes framework often has a significant impact on the whole process. These combined make repatriationscapes more complex as practitioners like Funeral service companies tend to exploit this area, for example, regarding repatriation costs (Dignity with distinction, 2021).

Ordinary bereaved people are more likely to be affected by the ambiguity of policy more than repatriation of a political dead body framed in international relations of a nation. The fear of shame, compliance  to regulations and the diverse perspectives of understanding of death and grief create mourning margins that ought to be recognized in the UK. For example, the transnational negotiation and interaction between the Gambian diaspora and the Gambian locals before body repatriation often relies on mandatory clearance from the UK  authority to succeed (Rowland Brothers International, 2021).

Monuments to the Confederacy honor a horrific past and the horrendous legacy of slavery, while good men like Silas Chandler are abused in their time and forgotten by history. For every statue of a white confederate man on a horse, there are thousands of enslaved African Americans whose stories died with them – silenced and buried beneath the dirt with little left to be exhumed.

Funerals in Repatriationscapes – Impact due to COVID-19

Those in the African Diaspora evoke the power embedded in death ritualization which is regularized in the UK. It was not possible to repatriate bodies at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Africans in the Diaspora were frustrated as were their folks in the home countries. Technology involving live streaming of funerals became popular to enable the cross-border interconnections during body disposal. Locally, virtual funerals became popular within limits of COVID-19 restrictions  (Mwine-Mugaju, 2020). The rites of passage were altered but still prevailed. Without any more restrictions of repatriation of bodies, the virtual funeral events persist framed within Repatriationscapes. Ordinarily, the rites of passage reduplicate within each stage. For example: In the process of repatriating a body from the UK to the Gambia, virtual funeral events may involve a home going service/gathering in the UK. This falls within the rites of separation and transition rites (liminal rites).  When the body arrives in the home country, the full cycle of the rites of passage reduplicates ending in the rites of incorporation (post liminal rites).

My research demonstrates direct experience on perspectives of mourning among the Gambians in the UK. One participant stated it this way:

The way people mourn here is different because we tend to mourn internally rather than loudly. Whereas in Africa when people are bereaved, sometimes they wear mourning clothes, and other localities will conduct certain rituals for the deceased, over a specified period of time. It is not possible in the UK.  

This contribution explains the adaptation to Western/Eurocentric death perspectives, but also highlights the erasure of Afrocentric death norms to fit in the dominant social expectations. Conversely, the narrative of grief after body repatriation is expected to “fade” or get “tucked-in” and moved forward. COVID-19 has controlled the physical space for in-person attendance of funerary rituals, but shifted  margins for mourning in the virtual space. However, regarding technological invasion of African death-ways nowadays, who is benefitting from the loss?  Gambians say that prior COVID-19, Funeral services would hand over the body to the family on arrival in the country of origin. Some may argue that modernity has altered using technology to ensure cross-border interconnectedness during bereavement and loss. How does it interfere with the traditional funerary rituals and practices such as mourning loudly? How has the value of a virtual image simplified the concept of a grave in Afrocentric death-ways? The African diaspora ontological foundations of death narratives blend  into the idea of “transcendence” (Davies, 2017), which is more likely to be fulfilled in their home  countries. Africans point to  graves of  deceased love ones, refer to places of burial during formal African introductions, visit the grave for additional rituals. Arguably, the technological invasion perpetuates mourning on the margins while further marginalising bodies of ethnic minorities with no extra costs to access such facilities both locally and abroad.  

The turning point in Repatriationscapes

The scenario described at the opening describes how minority ethnic communities occupy their space to express defiant voices of grief against systems, regulations, and prejudices. “I could smell something” narrative in Repatriationscapes depicts the reclamation “Matter out of place” for  proper placement  (Douglas, 1966). The Gambians prefer burying the dead in the Gambia, at their ancestral burial grounds, in a Muslim only cemetery. “I could smell something” appeared therapeutic. It appealed to the untold story or stories restrained by diasporic peculiar factors. The availability of funds, cross border negotiations among the bereaved, local authority clearance for the repatriation of the body are more complex impacting on the process (Hakim, 2015). Smell has significance in death scenarios and can be a confrontation of death and grief after the loss.  The smell of the Gambian corpse blended the gap between Afrocentric perspectives and talking about grief. It was the turning point for all Gambians in the diaspora to belong to associations like The Senegambia Association (NEWSA) (NEWSA, 2016) in Newport for support. Gambians resolved that cross-borders networking and contribution towards body repatriation are paramount. The interconnectedness through Repatriationscapes renders this case relevant for discussion in the UK and beyond. It attempts to address the questions about whose body is lying in the morgues for longer than usual in Europe, the UK,  and the USA? The impact of the dead lying in storage for longer periods is symbolic of power, ambiguity of policies in host countries such as body clearance, high costs and  invisibility of the ethnic minority deceased and the survivors. The lack of Afrocentric academic literature in mainstream symbolises authority of the dominant discourse.  

Afrocentric perspectives in death, funerary rituals, bereavement, and grief after loss for African Diaspora are essential in the Repatriationscapes framework. It is crucial to have these perspectives in the academic mainstream literature to enhance positionality of African diaspora in UK. The policy and regulations that frame Repatriationscapes remain ambiguous in addition to lack formal support for African diaspora in death matters.


References

Davies, D. J. (2017) Death, ritual, and belief : the rhetoric of funerary rites. Third. London:  London : Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 58(69 of 321),  65(76 of 321).

Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. New  York: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. doi: 10.1177/003803856700100211.

Dignity with distinction (2021) Body Repatriation. Accessed May 23, 2021.

Gennep, V. A. (1960) The Rites of Passage. Edited by B. M. Vizedom and L. G. Caffe.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Gumisiriza, G. W. (2019) Repatriationscapes: The Significance of the Repatriation of Human  Remains as an Aspect of Cultural Belonging among the Gambian Community in Newport,  South Wales. University of Bristol.

Hakim, N. (2015) ‘Why Africans in the UK pay so much to send relatives bodies home’, BBC News, 30 December.

Mwine-Mugaju, E. (2020) ‘I buried my father on Zoom. Was I laying my culture to rest?’, Mail&Guardian, May. Accessed May 23, 2021.

NEWSA (2016) Newport Senegambia Association New paths Project. Accessed May 20, 2021.

Rowland Brothers International (2021) International Repatriation from any country to any destination. Accessed May 23, 2021.

Troyer, J. (2020) Technologies of the Human Corpse, Technologies of the Human Corpse. doi: 10.7551/mitpress/11261.001.0001.

Walter, T. (2017a) ‘Bodies and ceremonies: is the UK funeral industry still fit for purpose?’, Mortality. Routledge, 22(3), pp. 194–208. doi: 10.1080/13576275.2016.1205574.

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