Fascinating Funeral Customs from Around the WorldDecember 31, 2015
Every society has created and practiced their own form of remembrance and care of the dead. Different cultures around the world commemorate death with their own distinctive traditions, whether marked by elaborate celebrations, simple rituals or funeral rites lasting many days or even years. While practices vary from culture to culture, there are commonalities across traditions to memorializing the dead, marking their journey on this Earth, and laying them to rest.
Ceremonies following death allow us to mark the passing of a loved one with support and structure from community at a time of personal pain and mourning. According to the website for Selected Independent Funeral Homes, ceremonies provide stability and order in the chaos of early grief; help confirm the reality of the death; and help validate the legacy of loved ones.
- Bathing ceremonies: In Thailand, the Bathing Rite takes place on the evening of the first day following death. The body is laid out on a table and covered with a cloth with only the head and right hand showing. A sacred white string, called sai sin, is tied around the ankles and wrists and the hands are held together in a prayer-like gesture holding a lotus flower and incense sticks. A coin is also put in the mouth. People who knew the deceased take turns pouring scented water over the exposed hand. It is also an opportunity to make a blessing over the deceased or to ask for forgiveness for past misdeeds. After death in Japan, the deceased’s lips are moistened with water, in a ceremony called “Water of the last moment.” A knife may be put on the chest of the deceased to drive away evil spirits. The body is washed and the orifices are blocked with cotton or gauze.
- Wakes and Visitation: A wake is the custom of keeping a vigil or watch over a body from death until burial. This is a common practice among Roman Catholics in English speaking countries, but appears in other cultures as well. In Australia and New Zealand, the wake commonly occurs after the funeral service in the absence of the body and alcohol is often served. As a result, the wake can resemble a party for the deceased as well as providing comfort for loved ones. In Buddhist funeral rites, monks come to the home of the deceased one or more times each day to chant over the body, sometimes holding a broad ribbon attached to the coffin called the bhusa yong. This usually takes place over seven days. However, this period can last over a year for the wealthy members of society in which the bodies of prominent people are kept in a special building at a temple. In such cases, a series of memorial services are held on the seventh, fiftieth, and hundredth days after the death.
- Funerals: The funeral services observed when a loved one dies may vary across cultures, but accomplish the same purposes of comforting the mourners, celebrating the life of the deceased and memorializing the dead. In Tana Toraja of eastern Indonesia, the bodies of dead relatives are cared for even years after they have passed while families save up for an extravagant funeral in which sacrificial water buffalo will carry the deceased’s soul to the afterlife. In Ghana, funerals are social affairs attended by a large number of mourners, which could reach hundreds. Most funerals are held on Saturdays during which the bereaved families provide food, drinks, music and dance for the many mourners who come from near and far. In some funerals the deceased are put in elaborate fantasy coffins painted and shaped after a certain object such as a fish, crab, boat, or airplane.
Every culture deals with final dispostion of the dead in a variety of ways. A popular choice is interment or burial, whether in the ground, in a tomb or in a mausoleum. Several world cultures, including many Buddhist and Hindu societies, prefer cremation. Each culture has its own traditions surrounding these various methods.
- Interment: Every five to seven years the Malagasy people of Madagascar exhume the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts, rewrap them in fresh cloth and spray them with wine or perfume in a ritual called famadihana. It is a celebratory event in which a band plays live music and family members dance with the bodies of their relatives. The dead are buried once again after being carried around the village. It’s a way to remember their loved ones and help in the ongoing process of transitioning the spirits of the deceased into the afterlife.
- No burial: In Mongolian and Tibetan Sky Burials, an ancient ritual that has been practiced for thousands of years, the body of the deceased is dissected and left on a mountaintop to be exposed to the elements and consumed by wildlife, including vultures. The Vajrayana Buddhist tradition practiced in Mongolia and Tibet believes in transmigration of spirits after death, in other words, the the soul moves on and the body becomes an empty vessel, and therefore there is no need to preserve the body.
- Burial at sea: In Thailand, most bodies are cremated with ashes either kept at the temple for 100 days or put into urns to be taken home. A third option, burial at sea or loi angkarn, has been adapted from the Hindu tradition of scattering ashes in the Ganges River. There are a number of rituals that attend the burial, including paying respect to the guardian spirit of the boat and then the god of the ocean and the goddess of water. Next, mourners pray to the spirits and gods to look after the deceased person. Rather than scatter the ashes, mourners watch as a white cloth containing the ashes is lowered over the side. The white cloth floats away and finally sinks into the sea. Loved ones say their final farewells and scatter flower petals on the water.
There are as many different ways of burying the deceased and memorializing the dead as there are cultures around the globe. Reverence for the dead and proper funeral rites have been part of human culture since Neanderthal times and have developed many fascinating variations through the ages.
For more information and additional funeral traditions from around the world, visit these knowledgeable websites:
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