Death rituals around the world mourn the departed‘s end of life and manage the body in a variety of ways befitting their customs and attitude toward death. When planning a funeral, incorporating the religious beliefs and customs of the culture is important to making the funeral services and burial rites meaningful.
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What Is A Death Ritual?
When a person passes away, everything from the funeral procession, to what mourners wear, to how the dead body is tended is subject to a death ritual – funeral practices often dictated by religion, culture, or the area of the world one resides in.
How Customs Around Death Vary
Customs around death are as varied as the number of people around the world. Different cultures see death through various lenses, resulting in some unique death rituals. Things that often come into play regarding death rituals include:
- Geography: The region of the world you reside in can dictate what will occur at the funeral.
- Religion: While we often think of religion merely as a means of helping the mourners to cope with a loss, it also mandates many traditions and unique rituals. Funerals and memorial services may look different from one religion to the next.
- Ethnicity: This is another important factor. Since ethnicity includes many factors, such as religion, culture, background experiences, etc., two families may see death very differently even if they share some commonalities.
Understanding Death Rituals In Different Cultures
Death rituals developed from the beliefs that different cultures have about death and burial.
For example, some groups of people would never consider cremation because it goes against their beliefs. For example, Judaism has long had the stance that cremation was not acceptable because they equated it to destroying property as the soul belongs to God. However, there are some sects within this religion that have begun to feel it is an okay practice, and cremation rates among Jews are rising.
Resistance to cremation is the complete opposite position of religions that frequently cremate a body using a funeral pyre. Religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism believe a body should be cremated to free the soul. So if you attend a death ceremony of a practicing Hindu, it is likely the body will be cremated.
Another thing that can vary across cultures is the beliefs about embalming. While most people want the body to be embalmed in the US and Canada if there will be a viewing, Muslim, Bahá’í, and orthodox Jewish faiths forbid it as it as destruction of the body. Hindus and Buddhists have no need for the process.
A ritual wash is performed by some religions, such as the Jewish and Muslim faiths. There is often a very precise timeline for completing this task.
It is often surprising to people that within some cultures, funerals are only open to the immediate family. You can typically glean this information from an obituary as it will say right within it if any portion of the service is only open to certain people.
The Importance Of Acknowledging Death Rituals
If you are attending a funeral of someone from a different culture than your own, you may want to do a bit of research, so you know what to expect. Funeral traditions and funeral rituals can differ widely, and you don’t want to be caught off guard.
Even more importantly, you don’t want to inadvertently do anything that might offend the loved ones of the deceased.
In the United States, it is common for a funeral home to take care of everything from preparing the body to helping to plan the funeral service. However, the same is not true everywhere.
Mourning Rituals Throughout The World
Mourning rituals around the world are not just fascinating but important to know if you lose a friend or coworker outside of your cultural group.
- New Orleans Jazz Funeral: What could be a better celebration of life than to have a jazz marching band leading a funeral procession of mourners?
- Filipino people are laid to rest on one island in the Philippines in hanging coffins. The deceased are hoisted up onto the side of a cliff and the coffin is left there.
- Countries like South Korea with limited space to bury the dead have come up with a creative and lovely custom. The deceased is cremated and the remains are pressed into burial beads. The beads are displayed in a bottle, urn, or other containers.
- Sky burials are used by 80% of people in Tibet. The body is left at the top of a mountain for birds of prey like vultures to consume. The vultures are believed to fly high into the sky, delivering the person’s soul up where it will remain until it is next reincarnated.
- Madagascar is famous for a ritual called the turning of the bones. Once every 5-7 years, families remove their loved ones from the crypts where they have been laid to rest. They have a ceremonial redressing of the corpse, where it is wrapped in fresh, silk shrouds, prior to returning the body to the crypt. The body is turned over when returned.
- If you are from Ghana you might choose a fantasy coffin. The fantasy coffin is painted as an animal or object, often to depict something characteristic of the deceased. Although these started out as burial vessels, they have actually become an interesting art form.
Modern Death Rituals
Just as people in society put their stamp on everything else, there are many more modern death rituals.
According to AARP, there are some new funeral trends that are quickly becoming more prevalent. First, it bears mention that cremation is quickly becoming the most popular choice for many people. Reasons given for choosing cremation are cost and that it is better for the environment.
Another popular trend that leaves less of a footprint upon the earth is having a green funeral. This is where the body I put into a casket made of simple wood or cardboard prior to being buried. In a green burial the person is not embalmed at all, so no toxic chemicals are leached into the ground.
There is a new kind of cremation called a water cremation. The body is liquified down to the bones which are crushed. This process is said to have a much smaller environmental impact than traditional cremation.
If you have heard of a home having a parlor, you may know that they were often used for formal entertaining. They were also a place for weddings and funerals to take place. There is also a recent trend in the United States for people to have their funeral at home. Although there is no law that says you have to use a funeral home service to help prepare your deceased loved one, most people do pay for that service even if their funeral visitation is being held at home.
Personalizing Your Service
If you are thinking ahead to your own funeral service, you should put your wishes into writing so your family has no doubt as to what you want. Most funeral homes will assist you in preplanning your own service if you desire to do that.
Preplanning certain aspects is often done by people who know that they are facing certain death in the near future, and can give the person a sense of control. For people hoping more for a celebration of life, sometimes they choose to forgo the public funeral and plan their own party.
I had the unique opportunity to attend a themed celebration of life a few years ago. The man wanted his friends and family to gather and celebrate all of his favorite things. Guests were encouraged to dress in red, white, and black, sporting the apparel from his beloved alma mater, the University of Wisconsin Madison.
An accomplished triathlete and Ironman, this person asked his widow to display all of his medals and trophies. When you entered the hall you were greeted with an entire wall filled with his racing accomplishments. In the room where people sat to eat, the ceiling was filled with helium balloons that had ribbons holding photographs hanging from them.
His only request to visitors? ”Have a drink and celebrate my life. Try not to cry.”
Some might see this as a non-traditional death ritual and that may be so, but in the end, the celebration after we are gone can (and should) be one the deceased would like. Whether that is the unicorn rainbow-themed funeral created to celebrate the life of a second grader killed in a car accident, or the family who encouraged friends to wear camouflage to celebrate the 35-year-old man who died unexpectedly of a heart attack but really loved to hunt, your funeral really can be individual.