Sisterhood of the Good Death

The Irmandade de Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte (Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death) was born around 150 years ago in the quarters that housed the slaves of the sugarcane mills. It was formed exclusively by black women with the
intention of freeing slaves or helping them to flee, sending them to the Quilombo do Malaquias (Malaquias Village) in Terra Vermelha (Red Earth), in the rural zone of the city. After the abolition of slavery, the sisters approached the Catholic
Church and founded the entity that functions today in a set of four eighteenth-century townhouses. The strength of women is honored every year in August, during the Festa da Boa Morte (Festival of the Good Death) celebration.

The Good Death Festival

One of the most import liturgical celebrations of Brazilian faith takes place in the month of August in the City of Cachoeira, located near all Saint’s Bay. During the Boa Morte or Good Death Festival, women of African descent of at least 50 years of age participate in a procession through city streets dressed as true queens, in devotion to the Good Death, or Dormitio Virginis, as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to heaven is known. Most of these women are Candomble high priestesses whose ancestors adopted Catholicism as a means to continue worshiping their African deities or orixas, without fear of persecution. Thus, centuries-old African traditions found sanctuary in religious syncretism as a means of preservation.

The Sorority of the “Boa Morte”

Central to a program composed of all night vigils, masses, processions and Samba de Roda, is the sisterhood of Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte in Cachoeira. The commemoration is held annually and the festival was founded in 1821, is one of
the most important religious traditions in Brazil, which represents today a living document of the African experience in the New World.

The commemoration was begun at the beginning of Abolition and preserves those ties to the motherland which are characteristic of freedom-seeking African-descendant people. The ceremonies are rare and very rich, from the clothing and jewelry the woman use in each ceremony, to the food offered at the house of the sisterhood, and the Samba de Road which personalizes the non-religious part of the festival.

This devotion of the sisterhood of Boa Morte was begun in the senzalas where the slaves came together at the end of the day and seized the opportunity to discuss abolition, and to pray for the slaves who died during the struggles for freedom. They asked Nossa Senhora to end slavery in Brazil.

During these sessions the sisterhood promised that annually they would commemorate the death and ascension of Nossa Senhora. This tradition has been preserved faithfully by the sisterhood of Boa Morte, in gratitude and reverence to the original ancestors of the sisterhood.

The sisterhood is made up exclusively of women who are descendants of enslaved Africans, with the majority being related to the Orixas and terreiros of Candomble. The leadership is always made up of sisters who are responsible for organizing the festival.

Today the sisterhood has only 22 members. In the past they numbered about 200. The criteria for acceptance into the sisterhood are very stringent. The candidates must pass through a preparation phase, learning the ceremonies and rituals during a period of three years.

On August members of the sisterhood go out in the streets dressed in the traditional Bahia wardrobe asking for donations for the festival.

On Monday the members of the sisterhood, dressed in white, embark upon the first phase of the festival which represents the death of Nossa Senhora and symbolizes the death of their ancestors during the period of slavery.

After the watch the sisterhood offers a meal characterized as “white meal” made up of whole bread, wine, fish and seafood. On Tuesday, night there is a mass with the symbolic body present in a procession representing the burial of Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte. This also symbolizes for the sisterhood the genocide of women who were victims of slavery implanted in Brazil in the middle of the 16th century.

On this day the members of the sisterhood do not use jewelry of adornments as a sign of respect but they do dress in their elegant best which includes a wide skirt, a white blouse embroidered with lace, a velvet black shawl lined in red satin and a white sash.

The principle day is Wednesday. In the morning a mass is celebrated. Immediately
afterwards there is a procession to commemorate the ascension of Nossa Senhora, which represents for the sisterhood the end of slavery in Brazil and freedom for Brazilians of African descent. Brazil was the last country on the continent to abolish slavery on May 13, 1888.

On this day the festivities are in contrast to those of Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday’s activities are happy, the dress for this day is once again elegant, and today the red part of the shawl is allowed to show. The symbolic meaning of the red shown on this day is life and happiness.

After the procession a large lunch is offered at the house of the sisterhood, and the
popular and public part of the festival activities are initiated with the Samba de Roda. The Samba de Roda continues until Friday.

The sisterhood continues to preserve its living patrimony today.

Source: Secretariat of Tourism Bahiatursa

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Theresa Noni Charles, Cultural Travel Planner. Educator. Explorer.

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2 thoughts on “Sisterhood of the Good Death

  1. As an American anthropologist who lived in Salvador for more than 10 years, this is a celebration that needs much more attention. In my latest documentary, “Bahia Salvador Brazil,” (YouTube) there is a section dedicated to this festival. The documentary has received over 10,000 views in just 7 months.


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