Babalú-Ayé does not play a formal ritual role in the itutu, the funeral ceremony for those oricha priests that have passed away. However many elders contend that he delivers the body of the dead person to the cemetery on a cart, and so he is always strongly linked to death. Given the recent passing of friends, I have seen several itutus lately, and like most ceremonies in the religion, they invite reflection.
The itutu brings transformation, as the deceased moves from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Essentials from the priest’s initiation are placed in an open gourd on the floor within the egun altar. We sing oro egun, the nine songs to praise and move the ancestors. For first time, we name the spirit of our departed colleague as part of the invocation, and we sing to them as an egun. We also feed the new spirit with a bird. For those of us who regularly honor the ancestors, their presence is constant, but we never lose track of the fact that we are living on Earth and they are living in Heaven. The gourd contains many of the things placed on the head at the time of initiation, and by placing those things with the ancestors, we are helping to direct the spirit from Earth toward Heaven. It is chilling and unforgettable to stand before the ancestor altar and call the name of a loved one who has recently died. The songs we sing are full with the gravity of grief. The process cuts through denial, and the reality of loss begins to set in.
The itutu brings rupture. As we tend the spirit of the departed, we pull apart each of her oricha necklaces over the gourd. Because the strings stretch then snap suddenly, the beads usually scatter across the floor. What was whole, organized, and beautiful is now broken, chaotic, and formless. After the orichas speak their will, some depart with the deceased, and we must break their vessels once and for all. The presiding priest passes from one oricha to the next, striking their vessels with a hammer. The sound of shattering porcelain sends shivers through those in attendance. After all of this, it is impossible to deny that life for our fallen friend and for us has been shattered in some way.
The itutu brings continuity. Some of the orichas stay with blood family and ritual relatives. The elders teach that these inherited orichas stay because they want to guide and protect those left behind when the priest or priestess passes. We do not work these orichas but simply tend to them with simple offerings and candles. In tending them, we quite literally tend the memory of the egun from whom they came. For those of us already in the religion, these inherited orichas become reminders of the people who have passed. We cherish them as containers of the love that exists between us and the egun from whom they came.
The itutu brings new knowledge and new relationships. For blood relatives who are not in the tradition, inheriting an oricha is often the moment when they actually begin to learn about the religion in more detail. The inherited orichas require additional ceremonies like “removing the tears” (quitar las lágrimas), and the process often creates new relationships with people in the religious community. Similarly those who inherit an oricha need to learn how to greet and tend the oricha, and this often opens the door to a deeper engagement with the orichas. Again many family members adore their inherited oricha and experience a deep sense of connection and continuity with the ancestor who left the oricha to them. (Sadly some family members resist the gift of this inheritance, because they perceive it as too great a responsibility or a burden.)
The itutu brings closure. The elders teach that the stones that become the core of oricha altars must come from a river, from the flowing waters of life. Similarly the new initiate visits the river and makes an offering to mark the beginning of her priesthood. In itutu, the gourd from the egun altar and the orichas who want to depart return to the river. The cool water refreshes them, as they leave this world, but there is a deeper lesson here: We are born from the river of life, and the river of life carries us away in the end.
Maferefún Egun. Maferefún Ará Onú. Maferefún Oyá-Yansá.