Of Babies, bathwater, and breaking hearths

The November before my mother died she sent out a Christmas letter and hand wrote short notes on accompanying cards.  Morning after morning she sat down at a card table in the living room with carols playing, and persisted. She enlisted the help of her home care aides to address envelopes.

She died on Boxing Day after we lost a last battle to yet another bout of pneumonia.

I spent much of the first two weeks of the new year answering my mother’s Christmas mail. I felt as though one by one I was tying knots in and cutting the cords that bound her to this earth; writing letters to her dear friends, many that I would likely not communicate with again.

I understand something about closure.

I had returned  from Africa to care for her and my father through their last illnesses.  We still make our primary home here.  I moved into her den, and took over her desk, and her filing system: gradually merging what was mine with what was hers.

I understand something about inheritance.

And, I am indeed, meandering toward a point.

Cooking hearth

The Nkonyas have a Custom called “Breaking the Hearth.”  It is  performed perhaps a year after an adult woman dies, after the first painfulness of a death has passed. It is a ceremony both of closure and inheritance. It is also a time when extended family bonds are re-affirmed

It is performed on Odɛ Kulihɛ́, the fifth day of the traditional Nkonya week, a day set aside for honoring the ancestors. At that time the woman’s cooking hearth is broken into twenty-one  pieces and seven mature women make three trips to the dunghill to throw the pieces away. The kitchen and courtyard is also ceremonially swept and the sweepings disposed of.  At this time the woman’s earthly possessions, her cooking dishes, cloths, and beads are displayed and distributed.  Representative women from her family-Oldest aunts and and sisters and cousins receive token dishes, lesser ones a share of her “salt” and “spinning cotton.”  The majority of the inheritance is released to her daughters.

Closure, inheritance, strengthening of extended family ties:  all good and important things, surely.

And yet, I remember hearing Sister Agnes, a leading elder in one small Christian assembly, stand up at a funeral gathering and declare.  “When I die, do not break my hearth!”


A good question to ask when looking at customs is, “What will happen if I don’t perform this?”

And the answer here is.  “If you do not perform this custom and break the hearth, your mother’s ties to her possessions will not be broken and she will not be free to travel to the ancestors.  She will bring sickness and death on the family until it is done and she is freed from her misery.”

If I have become a Christian, and believe that “absent from the body, is present with the Lord,” if I believe that as soon as death occurs I will be in the presence of Jesus and at peace, then I am freed to say, “Don’t break my hearth, let my daughters cook on it.”

The problem for the Christian community is how to achieve closure, strengthen family ties, and pass on an inheritance, and at the same time affirm their freedom in Christ from old fears. How do you keep the baby, and throw out the bathwater?


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