Cultural assumptions and consulting the dead


With Heritage Day having just passed I thought I should have a go on the subject of culture. I am also spurred by an incident that occurred on a Christian resort my wife and I stayed in while on a brief holiday in George. While we were having a meal and sharing a table with others a lady excused herself and told us that she is going outside to sit on a bench she has erected for her deceased parents. She told us that she often sits on that bench and talks to her parents.

I was stunned by this because in conversations we were having around the table I got the impression that this lady was a Christian and also by the fact that she is a white lady. I suppose we make our assumptions and I had assumed that white people do not consult the dead. The response I got to my post on Facebook on this very issue assured me that, like black people, there are whites who consult the dead.

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Someone informed me that there are many of these benches in Jeffreys Bay which made me think that this is perhaps a cultural issue. In defence of this practice someone suggested that when people grieve they should be allowed to communicate with the deceased as part of their healing process, as long as they do not do rituals or petition the dead for help. This pragmatic approach immediately presented problems for me.

The Bible is clear that we should not consult the dead and creates no leeway for us in this regards. Necromancy is expressly prohibited regardless of the reasons why people choose to engage in it. This reminds me of another incident that occurred while I gave a lift to some people on a trip from Port Elizabeth to Bhisho. I was generous that day and gave a lift to three people travelling on my route and this is something I seldom do.

On the way we almost got into an accident with an impatient motorist and one of my fellow travellers informed us that it was the ancestors who had protected our vehicle. Being a Christian I was intrigued by the idea of being protected by dead people because I have been taught that it is God’s angels that protected me. If in African tradition the belief is that the living are protected by the dead then what happens when a person converts to Christianity?

I asked this passenger about the vantage point of the ancestors. In other words from where did they jump from in order to cause the errant driver’s car to swerve and avoid us. There were four of us in the car and therefore I was also curious as to which set of ancestors actually intervened on our behalf. According to African tradition, each of us are supposed to have our own distinct set of ancestors, especially if we are from different clans. I did not get much in terms of answers. This now brings me to the question: how much of a person’s life should be a construct of his culture and how much should be a construct of the Bible? Culture is man-made and therefore if it informs a person’s identity that essentially means that identity is informed by man’s values and opinions. Culture is also man defining himself in his own terms and therefore it is inevitable that there would be a conflict between man’s culture and the Bible.

The Bible is God’s view while culture is man’s view of the world. When I showed my book ‘Christianity and the Veneration of the Dead’ to the lady at the resort she asked me if it has been translated to any of the African languages. I had showed her the book because I thought it could help her but in her mind she thought it is African people who need it and not her. When we discuss culture we should all look at everything that is hindering us from obeying God.

We all have rituals and it is insignificant whether we do them by slaughtering a goat or by erecting a bench that acts as a contact point between us and our deceased loved ones. To me, the bench is not different to the totem poles that are erected by people who venerate ancestors.


  1. Michael Cromhout

    I understand the point that Africa is talking about But My question is then why do we palce gravestones on the resting place of our pat family and some people visit and place flowers would this not be considered as consultingthe dead

    • Hi Michael,
      If people use the gravestones or the places where they place flowers to somehow connect with their deceased loved ones then they are consulting the dead. There is a difference between a memorial and an object used to talk to a deceased person.

  2. With all due respect, I think it might be a good idea to lighten up on this issue. It is running the risk of becoming a ‘religious’ thing.~ In another but similar context and as a young Christian in those days, I asked a pastor with great concern: ‘How do I know that I am not praying soulish prayers ..?!’ His reply: ‘Don’t worry about it; God will just ignore them :-)’ QED So in the context of dedicating benches or putting up gravestones and placing flowers on graves, I am really convinced that God is bigger than that: as long as we love Him with all of our hearts and confess Him with our mouths, that is all that He asks of us.

    • Hi Barbara,
      If this issue was insignificant then God would not be specific on us not consulting the dead (Deuteronomy 18:9-15). Your example about soulish prayer doesn’t apply to this issue. The consultation of the dead is idolatry and God never ignores idolatry (Exodus 20:1-3). The consultation of the dead is a religious issue because people deify their dead and talk to them instead of talking to God. The consultation cannot be wrong for those who do it under African culture with rituals and right for those who use contemporary methods. Our practices must line up with Scripture unless we are following relativism.

  3. I agree with Barbara .. its not that the bench was erected “in memory of” .. but how that bench (or gravestone) is being used, that is the issue. Consulting the dead is a no-no … putting up a bench or a gravestone is in itself not wrong.

    • Hi Erika,
      In the case of the example in my article the bench was not only erected “in memory of” but people sit on it and talk to the dead. In other words they use the bench as a contact point to the deceased loved ones. Therefore they are using it to consult the dead but not only as a reminder of them.

  4. Peter McGregor

    Dear Africa, I want to thank you for your persistent drive towards the Truth of The living GOD and your unwillingness to accept the “Watered Down” Gospel.The Holy Spirit is our Teacher and He never lets us down.God Bless,……..Peter.

  5. William Mponwana

    thank you so much for such insight. i have been in constant debate with my folks about my view on ancestors ever since i got saved but i have never had the right words to say to them about this as they see me as “too young to understand” this issue they claim has existed ever since (issue of ancestors)..thank you :)