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NELSON Mandela's casket was draped in a lion skin, an ox was ritually slaughtered and a family elder kept talking to the body's spirit. These rituals hail from the Xhosa tribe, to which Mandela's Thembu clan belongs.

The majority of South Africa's seven million Xhosa people live in the southeast, and their language, Xhosa, is famous for its three-click sounds.

Veneration for the world of the ancestors plays an important role in their culture, and the slaughtering of animals is one way ancestors are called on for help.

Following a tradition called Thetha, Xhosa culture requires a family elder to stay with the remains. "The body must be informed of what is happening," said Nokuzola Mndende, director of the Icamagu Institute for traditional religions.


The deceased must be wrapped in a special garment. For people of a high rank like Mandela, the body is wrapped in lion or leopard skin.

Xhosa tradition also requires that an animal be slaughtered. After the ritual throat-slitting, it is eaten by mourners, usually outside the house.

A year after the burial another ox will be slaughtered and eaten to mark the end of the mourning period. A further year later, there is a ceremony to "bring back" the deceased into the family so that the dead person can look over their relatives.