Death rituals

Around the world, there’s a rich tapestry of death rituals, traditions and practices.

Flowers have been part of our death rituals for at least 13,000 years. The remains of fragrant blooms were found in Stone Age Natufian graves in the eastern Mediterranean. The Natufians led the agricultural revolution inventing technologies to process grain and gave the world cemeteries; some of their burial grounds had 100 skeletons in one confirned area. Graves dates between 13,700 and 11,700 years old were lined with flowers… sages, figworts. In 2010 archaelogists found evidence that this culture was the first to make feasting part of funerals too.

Find out how other cultures deal with death. See our A-Z below. This fascinating film about Zulu traditions leaps to the end of the alphabet:

Death rituals variously involve symbols and cymbals, lighted candles, open coffins, pyres, wakes, lilies, garlands, incense, fragrance, chanting, dancing, weeping and wailing, singing, praying, mantras, gods and goddesses.

Here are some random bits of colour (with a hefty dose of simplistic black and white and some slapdash summarising) offering nuggets of info on how different countries, faiths and belief systems approach death and dying.

Contact us if you come across anything interesting we can add.

See this short film from the BBC on the ‘dining with death’ ritual in Georgia in the Soviet Union:

Thanks Becky for this Listverse top 10 traditions.

Death rituals around the world

Africa: certain tribes would grind the bones of their loved ones and mix them with food. Other tribes would fire spears and arrows into the air, to ward off evil spirits that may be hovering over their dead. Today, Afro-Caribbeans funerals tend to be community affairs in traditional black communities; there can be thousands of mourners, burial is more popular than cremation, novelty coffins are big and celebration of life is the vibe.

Austria: the village of Hallstatt is between a mountain and lake, with little space for burials. They’ve come up with a problem-solving solution. After 12 years, bodies are removed from the cemetery and moved to a vault. They keep the skulls and decorate them with the name of the dead person, a cross and some plants, and put them on display in a chapel. And although cremations are now allowed in the village, some still opt for the skull decorating option.

China: in the past, warriors were buried in a vertical position, ready for battle. In 1974 the amazing Xi’an Warriors were happened upon and dug up. Today, as a general rule, the more people at your funeral, the more luck will be showered on your nearest and dearest is the message there. Mourners wear white and sackcloth rather than black. It’s not unknown for processions to feature a pick-up truck with dancers akin to a stripper or pole-dancer. Funny old world.

Christians: Christian rituals for birth, marriage, death and all other life stages are captured in the Book of Common Order. Christian monks in medieval times, especially Franciscans and Jesuits, would keep a skull on their desks as a constant reminder of their mortality, and the folly of earthly things. The scholarly St. Jerome and the penitent Mary Magdalene are often shown with skulls. The place name of Christ’s crucifixion, Golgotha, translates as ‘place of the Skulls’, believed to be due to its use as a crucifixion site where bodies would be picked over by birds, leaving the bare bones. There was also a belief that Jesus was crucified where Adam, the first man was buried. Depictions of the Crucifixion sometimes show an exposed skull, Adam’s, at the base of the Cross, signifying Man’s redemption through the sacrifice of Christ.

Deathbed confessions: Some people live a lie for a good part of their lives, maybe to protect themselves or someone else. Just before death seems to be the time for many to come clean. There are lighthearted and ghoulish Top 10s out there but there’s deeper issue here about living with secrets and how harmful that can be for the spirit. Even serious misdemeanours are better out that in.

Druids: taught that Death (Donn, in Ireland) was the source of all life, and death was depicted as a drummer or dancer.

Ethiopia: everyone chips in to an Edir: a community group whose members support each other during the mourning process. Family members receive money the fund, depending on how close they were to the dead person. The money helps pay for the funeral and other death expenses. Female members of the Edir help out with housework and make food for the mourning family. The men help arrange the funeral, build tents to shelter guests who visit the family. Edir members stay with the family and comfort them for three days.

Fiji: friends, wives and slaves of the deceased would be strangled in his honour.

Georgia: dining with the dead is a happy event that marks Easter in particular but anniversaries throughout the year. Just need better weather than we get in the UK.

Ghana: fantasy coffins are hugely popular. Caskets are designed to reflect the lifestyle of the dearly departed. Pretty much anything goes with designs including airplanes, cars, cigarettes and a giant cola bottle. Cremation is a definite no-no: akin to burning in hell. Technological innovations in mortuaries, mass media and electronic apparatus have given the funeral new dimensions. The amount of time, effort and money that people spend on funerals not only reflect transformations in society, they also offer the Asante people opportunities to work out changing social patterns, differences between cities and villages, lifestyles and cultural preferences.

Ghosts: in traditional belief and fiction, a ghost is the soul or spirit of a dead person that appears in visible form to the living – or some of us. Movies, ghost walks, folklore and storytelling all love ghosts … The Sixth Sense and Ghost (funnily enough) are classic spook films.

Greece: according to Herodotus, a Greek historian, the
Calatians ate their dead. This was believed to be the family’s sacred duty. Rumour has it that Queen Artemisia mixed the ashes of her lover with wine and drank it.

Hanoi: villagers care for a sick and dying whale – an important part of the community – and collect for a coffin, planning the funeral.

Hindus: funerals are a big event in the community and the average attendance at a funeral is 150-200. Hindus believe it takes 13 days for the soul to leave the body and takes 8,400,000 lives before you are reincarnated as a human if you sin: it’s all down to karma. Hindus from all over the world make their final pilgrimage to the city of Banaras, on the Ganges river in India. They believe that dying here helps break the cycle of death and re-birth and allows the soul to ascend to the world of the ancestors – Pitriloka. Over 80 funeral pyres lie along the Ganges, so that the dead can be cremated. If people can’t cremate their dead, they float the dead body down the river. Hindus don’t see death as the ‘end’ but more of a turning-point in an endless journey of the soul, which is indestructible and passes through bodies of both animals and people. This is why they don’t go in for lots of mourning or sadness if someone dies, as they believe this can hold up the continuing journey of the dead person. In the bad old days, Hindu widows were thought of as vulgar and useless without their husbands and were expected to lie by his side and be cremated alive. This ritual, Sati, was believed to purify the widow and give her free passage to Heaven. Although Sati was abolished in 1829 there have been numerous cases since. Even as recently as 1981 an 18 year old widow was a victim of the custom.

Humanists: believe in the power of the individual and our collective good, rather than a god. Some Humanist celebrants won’t allow hymns or prayers as part of funeral services because they are keen to protect this secular space.

Ireland: ‘keening’ is a death wail – the sound of mourning. This is different from a song or lament sung at a wake. Keening is performed soon after death as an expression of grief and a physical way of doing something with all that emotion. Keening has been found in various cultures – other Celts, in Asia, Africa, aboriginal tribes in Australia. Our Irish cousins traditionally have 3 day funerals… from the time of death to burial, keeping the body at home in between. There’s an open invitation vibe for local people to drop in and pay their respects (and be fed and watered).

Islamists: the Qur’an promotes weeping for the dead but has limits around wailing. Decorative clothing and jewellery is a no-no during mourning. Islamists organ transplants as a way of easing pain or saving life.

Italy: in ancient Rome when someone was on their death bed, the eldest male relative would lean in close and inhale to catch the last breath of the dying person. The rites lasted days and often featured hired mourners and professional dancers. And while most people know that the Romans liked a party, not many are aware of how much they liked fire. Almost all Romans were cremated, and their ashes placed in a columbarium.

Japan: years ago, if a nobleman died, 20 to 30 slaves were made to commit Hari-Kiri (belly cutting) in respect for him.

Jews: believe the soul suffers the longer it is outside the grave so like the body to be watched until burial and prefer burial to happen as quickly as possible after death – literally within hours and within a day. They observe Shiva (Seven) – traditionally 7 days of mourning for the 7 closest family: mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, partner, who ‘sit’ together at home to mourn. They sit as low to the floor as possible as a sign of their grief, light a candle that burns for the 7 days and represents the soul of the deceased, cover mirrors to keep the focus is on the dead person and wear a torn ribbon to show they are in a state of mourning.

Korea: Funerals in North Korea are not like they are in South Korea. In South Korea, most of the bigger hospitals and chapels provide venues for funerals, but in North Korea, there are no funeral homes or any places set up specifically for funerals. Most are held at home, though there are a couple of exceptions. In North Korea, there’s an old custom that the body of a person who died in a foreign land cannot enter the house. So, if someone dies while they’re out of the country, the funeral would be held in that person’s workplace, either in a hallway or an office.

Madagascar: people dig up their dead relatives for a ceremony called famadihana. The bones are paraded around the village and buried all over again in a new shroud. The old shroud is given to couples who are recently married who put it on their bed to enhance fertility.

Death Ritual 1

Mexico: The Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos – takes place on All Soul’s Day, 2 November each year. It’s one of the most stunning festivals in the world, marked by flamboyant colour and a cheerful honouring of those gone before. It is celebrated in several Latin American countries and is a national holiday in Mexico. People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed. Graves are cleaned and freshly decorated with ‘ofrendas’ (offerings) and Mexican marigolds – thought to attract souls. Toys and candies are left for dead children, and food and drink are left for adult dead. ‘Cavaleras de azucar’, (sugar skulls) are one of the main treats. Offerings, pillows and blankets are left at home as a welcome for spirits so that they can rest after their journey. ‘Cavaleras’ also refer to poetry – epitaphs for the dead that often mock the living – and to art featuring skeletons and skulls. The work of artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) is a major influence on the Day of the Dead. One of the most popular figures in in the Day of the Dead celebrations is Posada’s female skeleton ‘La Cavalera Catrina’, (The Elegant Skull). A cartoonist and satirist, he made fun of the ruling classes and showed death as a leveller.

Muslims: believe in God, Mohammed, heaven and hell and the afterlife – which they think goes on forever. Muslims tend to plan for death; maybe because the afterlife promise makes it less fearful. Unlike Sikhs, they do not go for cremation. Many think non-Muslims go to hell. Community or religious leaders, Imams, will support families at a time of death.

Northern Vietnam: the dead are buried where they lived, which usual means in the middle of a rice paddy. Two years later, the dead person’s family dig up the body, clean all the bones then re-bury it in the family garden.

Norway: Norwegians for some reason have a reputation for being world leading thanatologists: experts on death. This doesn’t mean they care about the meaning of life, rather that they study medical and scientific aspects of death.

Polynesia: it is said that human beings have been unable to achieve immortality since the hero Maui was killed as he tried to rape the goddess of death.

Pyres: open fire cremation very much part of life for Romans, Vikings, Hindus, Sikhs. In 2010, a court of appeal in the UK ruled that a cremation on an open pyre is legal inside a building with an open roof, well away from roads and homes.

Quakers: everyone sits in a circle at a funeral – lovely. Everyone’s invited to speak if they feel moved to. It’s all very organic.

Scotland: land of inventors and innovators, resomation is the next big thing in death and has been designed by clever Scot, Alexander Sullivan. A process that liquifies remains, it is now licensed and being practised as an option to burial and cremation in the States. As yet it’s not legal in the UK. Only a matter of time surely.

Death Ritual 2

Arthur’s Seat coffins

Sikhs: death is seen as an act of the Almighty so emotions don’t run high during the 2-5 week mourning period. Cremation is preferred – an open-air funeral pyre is traditional and legal in the UK. The next of kin usually presses the button to begin cremation. Ashes are scattered in water – traditionally the Ganges in India. Sikhs believe that life after death is a continuous cycle and that the soul travels on.

South Africa: our Twitter friend has shared this film about what’s going on in SA and the changes afoot. Interestingly, in our first year, we licensed Final Fling to Trudon SA though they didn’t really make much use of the licence and it lapsed.

Southern Papua: the Daribi people believed that when hero Souw attempted to rape a young woman and she cried out, the humiliated Souw then visited death upon humanity.

Spiritualism: spiritualists believe that spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, usually channelled through a medium. Spiritualism was at its height from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, with some 8 million followers in the States by the end of the 19th century. There are spiritualist churches all over the UK.

Sweden: marine biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak patented the “ecological funeral” in the late 90s. It is a cryotechnological process that aids decomposition by reducing the corpse to a fine powder. Healthier for the environment, leftover metals are extracted for recycling and what’s left is returned to Mother Earth in a biodegradable casket.

Taiwan: recently reported in the news, the practice in Taiwan of dancing girls accompanying the cortege is not new. It’s not unusual to order strippers to dance for the deceased and mourners at funerals. For a modest fee the scantily-clad women dance on the back of a neon-lit diesel truck, called an Electric Flower Car. That bit might be new.

Tibet: Tibetan Buddhists believe that after death, the soul leaves the body so the cadaver left behind is really surplus to requirements. They carry out a Tibetan sky ritual, or Excarnation. Using a large flat rock in a specific location, monks and body-breakers (or rogyapas) dismember the body and grind down the flesh and bones to feed to vultures. Vultures are sacred animals in Buddhism because they don’t kill, just eat anything dead that comes their way so, in this respect, they are sustainers of life. Also, the geology of Tibet with its rugged terrain makes burials quite tricky.

UK: one of the biggest annual focuses on death is Remembrance Sunday to commemorate all our war dead. This is marked in the UK, US, Europe and the Commonwealth with a two minute silence at 11am on the nearest Sunday to the 11th day of the 11th month – Armistice Day. Poppies are laid at the Cenotaph in London and at memorials all over the UK. People wear poppies for Remembrance Day, inspired by the Canadian war poet John McCrae, who wrote ‘In Flanders field the poppies blow / between the crosses, row on row.’ Staffordshire is home to the National Memorial Arboretum, honouring all our war dead.

US: The American Way of Death is a classic exposé of the funeral industry in the States, written by Jessica Mitford in 1963. She felt death had become too sentimental, commercial and expensive, with funeral directors taking advantage of distress purchase syndrome. In keeping with her wishes, Mitford herself had an inexpensive funeral, was cremated without a ceremony and the ashes scattered at sea.

Victorians: The dark and sometimes Gothic style we associate with death is thanks to the Victorians and to Queen Victoria, who mourned Prince Albert for a full 10 years and remained dressed in black for the 40 years she survived him. Purple and black were mourning dress colours. Black mourning jewellery made from jet, and mourning rings and lockets incorporating plaited hair from the deceased were in vogue. Status was reflected in elaborate memorials and mausoleums. Soaring population and public health considerations called for graveyards that were larger, better designed and more sanitary. Many women died young, in childbirth and infant mortality was high: women might have between 5 and 12 children- which sheds some light on the Victorian’s sentimental depictions of heaven. It was common then to take photographs of the dead – particularly children: in repose, with a favourite toy, even with a (live) sibling.

Zulu death rituals. Completing our A-Z, see this fascinating film about traditional death rituals in Africa at the top of the page.

If you know what sort of ritual you want – whether traditional or new, capture thoughts and ideas in your Funeral Wishes on Final Fling.

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