“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more
time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death son, and die like a hero going home. “
We are all going to die. It’s inevitable for those of us lucky enough to be born. But perspectives of death differ according to beliefs, geography, cultural and social traditions and personal experiences. To some, death is a terrifying finality, a ceasing of awareness and the “Fade to Black” of the story of a life. To others, it’s just another pit stop on the much longer, grander journey of the soul. But all cultures, all religious traditions and all belief systems understand that the death of the body does happen.
It’s what happens to the rest of “us” that gives rise to wonder, theory, fear, speculation and awe.
Across geographical boundaries, things are different when it comes to how we handle our dead and what it means symbolically. In fact, they may be so different, we here in the West with our traditional burials and funerals might think them utterly…bizarre.
Here is a virtual tour around the world of some of the stranger death rituals and traditions.
In Denmark and Scandinavian countries, when a person is on their deathbed, a window must be opened to allow for the soul to pass through. This symbolizes letting go of life. The sea-faring Vikings of old held their burials aboard a burning ship, a practice that has actually become popular again today, probably due to a few very popular television series!
In the Solomon Islands, a state of Oceania, east of Papua New Guinea, the dead are laid out on a reef and left as food for the sharks. A similar tradition occurs in Australia, where the Aborigines would leave dead bodies in trees, much like the Parsees of Bombay of India, who left their dead on the tops of towers to be eaten by vultures! The Aboriginal people would then take a souvenir of bones of the deceased and paint them with red ochre, then place the bones in a cave or inside a log. Sometimes relatives wore the painted bones as adornments.
If you think about it, this is not much different than today’s practice of wearing a dead loved one’s ashes in a small vial on a chain, or having a pet cremated and put in a small decorative box on your shelf.
The Dani of West Papua, New Guinea, once took the death of a loved one to an extreme, by cutting off their own fingers. This disgusting ritual included children! Fingers were tied with string and then cut off with an axe, with the chopped off digits dried and burned to be stored in a special place. This ritual is now banned, thankfully. I’ll give that two thumbs up!
In Bali, the dead are buried in a huge pit with other bodies, which are later unearthed and cleaned, to be stacked up on a large float that is decorated with flowers. The whole village takes part in the ritual decoration of the float, which is then paraded to a central square. Here, the bodies are burned in a mass cremation.
The Maasai tribe of East Africa bury their warrior chiefs, but the regular folk are simply disposed of outdoors for predators, symbolizing the tribal belief that bodies not be left to “poison” the earth and that death itself is final. Done. Over. Meanwhile, in Teshi, in Ghana the dead are often buried in specially designed coffins that represent something fantastical and larger than life, such as a giant piece of fruit, a car, a plane or something related to the job the decease held in life! Can you imagine the possibilities today? As a writer, I could be buried inside a giant book-shaped coffin.
The Maoris of New Zealand dress their dead in nice clothing and then place the bodies in a hut in a sitting position, to be viewed first by mourners wearing green wreathes who cry out and cut themselves with knives. Then they hold a feast and burn the hut. Speaking of huts, the Pygmies of the Congo literally abandon their dead by first destroying the hut they lived in, done by pulling it down on top of the body itself, then literally moving their entire camp somewhere else and never speaking of the dead person again.
The Malagasy people of Madagascar like to dance with the dead…literally. Imagine digging up the remains of your dead loved one, wrapping them up with a fresh cloth, then dancing with the corpse to the tunes of live tribal music. It’s a ritual called the “Famadihana,” which stands for the “Turning of the Bones” and can be thought of as the turning of the stomach for those of us not used to cha-cha’ing with dead Uncle Fred.
Alaskan Eskimos often make small igloos over the dead, leaving them forever frozen in time. The Haida of the Pacific Northwest cast the bodies of their dead into open pits behind the village, leaving them to be consumed by animals. However, if the dead were an authority figure, like a shaman or warrior, they got special treatment. The body was then crushed by clubbing and put into a small wooden box, then put atop a totem pole in front of the home of the dead to guard the spirit’s journey into the next world.
Other native traditions hold feasts with the dead present, which we today might consider a health issue, if not just downright gross, then burn or bury the body in a secluded area. The Navajo destroy the hut of the dead person and then allow relatives to burn the body, being careful to not take a direct route home should the spirit of the dead follow them. The Iroquois bury their dead in shallow graves that are later exhumed so that the bones, along with gifts for the spirits, can be brought to a central burial site after a mourning feast.
Jamaicans choose to party instead, celebrating the dead for nine nights to support the relatives and give the body of the dead a safe passage to the other side. There is dancing, singing, and eating…even some good rum, signifying a less fear-based belief in the finality of death. 40 nights later, the relatives return to sing again, symbolizing the completion of the passage of the departed’s soul, or maybe just another excuse for imbibing good rum.
The Muslim tradition requires that the body of the deceased be placed on its sides and washed with soap and scented water. Like the Hindus, the Muslims must wash the body an odd number of times, and the teeth and nose must be cleaned out in a spiritual cleansing rite called ablution. The body is perfumed and wrapped in white cloth. Prayers are said facing Mecca and a silent procession delivers the body to the burial grounds. Muslims bury their dead with their faces facing Mecca and all signs of grief by the families are discouraged as they are insulting to the acceptance of God’s will.
Buddhists call in the services of a priest on the first day of a family member’s death to come and recite a sutra, a literary narrative based upon Buddhist scripture or teachings. Incense is burned on the second day in front of a butsudan, or family altar. On the third day the body is burned at a funeral hall and the ashes are returned to the family home. The actual funeral is presided over by the priest as the family burns incense, and then the ashes are laid to rest at a graveyard. The family of the dead will visit the gravesite once a week for seven weeks and on the 49th day, hold a customary feast called the “Shiju-ku-Nichi” for friends and neighbors.
Hindus cremate their dead, first bathing the body and adorning it with garlands, then wrapping it in a pure white cloth. The body is burned upon a pyre and in the days to follow, mourners often remain inside and away from festivals, marriage ceremonies and other public events. In the 1800s, grieving widows in India practiced self-immolation (Suttee), burning themselves alive alongside their husband’s funeral pyre. Suttee was banned in 1829 by the British, then again in 1956 and 1981, proving that some traditions, like bad habits, are hard to “die.”
Tibetans once practiced something called Tibetan Sky Burial, where a corpse was dismembered atop a mountain and left for the birds. Called “jhator,” this giving of alms to the winged creatures involved monks with axes chopping up bodies into bird-worthy parts, laughing and joking all the while. But at its heart was the belief that the dead would be consumed by nature, as it should be, sort of like “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Some Chinese death rituals involve dusting the body with talcum powder before dressing the dead in their finest clothing. All other clothing owned by the deceased is burned. The body is then draped with a yellow cloth on the face, and a blue cloth on the body. The home of the deceased will no doubt include statues of deities that must be covered with red paper. All mirrors in the home are removed, due to the belief that if you see a coffin reflected in a mirror, someone in your family will be next to die.
This is just an example of some of the more unusual ways the world acknowledges the dead. No matter where in the world death occurs, there is some unique way to usher the dead to the other side, even if it involves strange oddities such as sharks, giant fruit-shaped caskets or disembodiment.
Even our own modern traditions have undergone some tweaking to include more “personalized” forms of remembrance, such as the popular “paddling out” funerals of surfers where ashes are disposed of in the ocean the dead person loved so much. Or hiking funerals where ashes are spread over a trail that was well loved by the deceased.
We now have “jazz funerals” where bands play boisterous music and the atmosphere is party-like. These are popular in places like New Orleans, rich in traditions of African origins and spiritual beliefs. Maybe you’d prefer a “green funeral,” using coffins made of environmentally friendly materials, and how about a “home funeral,” where families construct the casket themselves and everything is done in the family’s home (except, hopefully, burial!).
With cremation, funerals have gotten a lot more flexible and creative, as it’s a lot easier to spread ashes anywhere than it is to bury a body. The ashes can be thrown off a favorite bridge, spread across a racetrack or even tossed into a favorite fishing lake, as long as local laws allow it…or it’s done in the deep of night with no witnesses! Some might be offended at the thought of the ashes of the dead everywhere, but to the families, it’s a way of sending their loved ones off in a symbolic and meaningful manner.
I’m Italian. Italian families make MASSIVE amounts of food for the family of the dead, which to another culture might seem obscene or offensive. But to Italians, food is love symbolized and the offering of food is a way of sharing in the mourning and grief, which is why you will find enough food at any Italian after-funeral gathering to feed an army, and often go home with left-overs. Italians wear black and other cultures might wear only white. Customs dictate everything from what is worn, eaten, said, and done, including the burial and disposal of the body itself.
Death touches us all, and some old customs and traditions die as hard as a bad habit, but at their source are universal themes and symbols that stand the test of time…that death is a time to be sad and grieve the passing of a person once loved into another realm, another world, yet also to celebrate their life. That we the living can help usher the dead into that other world through various rituals and use of symbols. That we do fear death, only because of what we believe is lost. That we understand death, because of its transitory part of the cycle of nature. That we respect death and have a reverence for it.
It’s the way we do “all of the above” that differs.
Marie D. Jones is the author of several books about the paranormal, metaphysics, and cutting-edge science (many coauthored with Larry Flaxman), including PSIence, The Déjà vu Enigma, Destiny vs. Choice: The Scientific and Spiritual Evidence Behind Fate and Free Will,11:11 The Time Prompt Phenomenon and Mind Wars. She has appeared on more than 1,000 radio shows worldwide, and on television, most recently on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. Her website is mariedjones.com.