Traditions + beliefs

victorian xmas treeTraditions and beliefs around death change with the fashion.

The Victorians photographed the dead, then that practice went out of fashion. Victorians demonstrated outside the first crematorium when it opened in Woking in the 1870s – now 3 out of 4 of us opt for that. Christians used to think suicide was honourable then changed their mind.

So, how we die depends very much on our culture and society.

Dying over the ages

Things are pretty radically different these days compared to how they were in different eras throughout history. A century ago, there was no contraception, poor health care and the average woman had between 5 and 12 babies – many  dying in infancy. Death was part of everyday life for families and communities. Over the last 50 years, medicine and life expectancy have improved. Funeral directors have taken over the care of the dead. Death is more hidden, cleaned up, tucked out of sight. In the Victorian era most major cities had devastating outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis. Women might have had between 5 and 12 children. Many women died in childbirth and through infection. Infant mortality was high and most people, regardless of rank, would have lost a child or sibling. Ironically, infection claimed more lives among the wealthy who could afford doctors. Back then medics didn’t understand the importance of hand-washing and transmitted germs among their patients.

Across the world

In the West today, it’s common for dying people to be looked after in institutions and for strangers to look after the body – hospital staff, funeral director, crematorium. In Islamic cultures, it’s the duty and privilege of the family to take care of the body. Western culture increasingly supports the view that it’s good to talk about death. Chinese culture would see this as looking for trouble. The Christian faith has it that we each have a soul and the death of the body does not mean the end of the person. For Hindus, the person will continue on their journey to be reincarnated as a higher being.

  • See our guide to rituals and traditions across the world.
  • See more info on this TED feature on world traditions.

Death in developing countries

It isn’t hard to see we have it relatively easy in the western world compared to other places. In developing countries, millions of people don’t have access to the affordable, accessible pain relief and medical care we have. This is a political issue-and one we can all play an active role in.

See what’s going on in South Africa at the moment.

See Channel 4‘s exploration of attitudes to death rituals, asking the question, ‘have we lost sight of the sanctity of death?’ There are more thought-provoking reflections on belief, faith and spirituality in its series of 2 minute films with individuals called 4thought.

Here we explore the myriad ways individuals, peoples, tribes, cultures and societies deal with death, acknowledge pain, sorrow and loss, make sense of it, mourn, seek resolve around it, mark it, process it and move on. Ceremony, ritual and memorial are central to all.

Recommended reading

Making An Exit From the Magnificent to the Macabre: How We Dignify the Dead, by Sarah Murray

Long live the dead! changing funeral celebrations in Asante, Ghanay Marleen de Witte: tells how Ghanaians – famed for their novelty coffins – are embracing technology and innovation in funeral practices.

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