Cultures and countries around the world have different methods of mourning the passing of a loved one. Death is universal to people of every culture; however, their death rituals can vary greatly depending on their religious or cultural traditions and beliefs. Learning about these customs is fascinating, and if you're honoring someone who has passed away, you can also get inspiration and comfort from death rituals in different cultures.
Common Death Rituals Still Practiced
Modern day death rituals are things people still do today to help process their grief and comfort loved ones after a death. The following are a few death rituals that occur in cultures around the world.
Throwing a Handful of Dirt on the Casket
If you've been to a funeral in the United States, Europe, Canada, and many other places, you may have seen loved ones reach down and throw a handful of dirt onto a casket. It is actually common in many cultures for mourners to toss a handful of dirt on the casket before leaving the cemetery. This symbolizes that a person was born of this earth and has returned to this earth, and it's also a way for loved ones to directly participate in the burial. A spouse or close family member is often be the first to toss a handful of dirt on the casket; then other family and friends usually proceed to do the same.
Mourning is a common ritual when someone dies. The actual mourning process may vary among the cultures; however, to mourn is a normal and natural process when you lose a loved one. Mourning is the expression of grief that can be demonstrated by crying or by the actual time spent grieving after the loss of a loved one. Mourning can also be done by dressing in black, wearing black armbands, or flying a flag half-mast.
Holding a Wake
The wake is a death ritual commonly practiced in many cultures. Traditionally, the wake is a time for family and friends to keep vigil or watch over the body of a loved one prior to the funeral. Loved ones do this as a sign of care and devotion. Typically, people say prayers and scriptures during a wake, and often, they share special memories, read poetry, sing songs, or play music. Wakes are often celebrations of a person's life.
Dressing In Black or Other Mourning Colors
Wearing black during mourning actually dates back as far as Roman times. It is a common and acceptable practice to wear black or darker colors to a funeral. Dressing in black symbolizes grief and sends a message that the person wearing black is in a period of mourning. Some countries use other colors for mourning, including red, white, and purple.
Having a Funeral Procession
In times past, the mourners would walk behind the pallbearers carrying the casket. Today, cars are usually the mode of transportation for a funeral procession. The funeral procession allows family and friends to pay their final tribute to their loved one by accompanying them from the funeral to their final resting place.
Bagpipes are commonly played during Irish and Scottish funerals. However, they are also an integral part of death rituals to honor firefighters, police officers, military, and other people who have served others. They have become a distinctive feature of a fallen hero's funeral.
Tearing a Piece of Clothing
At some Jewish funerals, members of the deceased's immediate family will tear a piece of their clothing, or in some cases, the Rabbi will pin a torn black ribbon to the family member's clothing to symbolize the grief and loss they are feeling. The act of tearing the clothing can be a physical way to symbolize a torn heart, and it's also an outward reminder for other people that this family is enduring a loss.
Tolling of the Bell
Tolling of the bell is the ringing of a bell at a burial service or funeral that marks the death of a person. People often do it at firefighters' and police officers' funerals. Today, customs vary regarding when and for how long the bell should toll at a funeral.
Less Common Death Rituals
There are a number of less common death rituals, past and present, that you might never have heard of. Even if they seem unusual to many people, these rituals are or were socially and spiritually significant to those who practice them:
Practicing Sky Burials
Sky burials have been practiced for thousands of years, and up to 80 percent of Tibetans choose this method today over other types of burial. In Tibetan culture, many people believe the soul leaves the body immediately upon death, and this type of burial is sometimes considered a way to ease the transition. In a sky burial, the dead body is prepared with incredible care, brought to the sky burial site (typically hilltops or mountains), and broken down and chopped into pieces. It is then left for the Dakini (angels) to consume. The Dakini are typically vultures who then transport the soul to heaven, where it awaits reincarnation.
In addition to the spiritual importance of this type of burial, many Tibetans also see it as a way to return the body to the earth with minimal disruption. The body feeds nature and rejoins the cycle of life.
Holding Drive-Thru Funerals
There are funeral homes in the U.S. and Japan that offer drive-thru visitations. This is an unusual yet convenient way to pay your last respects for those who have an exceptionally hard time with funerals or have limited mobility. In the era of pandemics like Covid, this type of funeral became one of the options for staying socially distant while still paying your respects.
Sati - Burning the Widow
Sati was a death ritual practiced in by some people in India. A widowed Hindu woman would lie on the funeral pyre with her deceased husband and was burned alive. At times, the women would not do this voluntarily and would be forced to the funeral pyre. There are other forms of sati also, which include being buried alive or drowned with her deceased husband. This was regarded as the ultimate sacrifice and devotion of a woman for her husband. The practice is illegal in India today, but similar practices may still exist among various cultures.
Amputating a Finger
The culture of the Dani people of West Papua, New Guinea believe there is a strong correlation between physical and emotional pain. When a loved one died, family members would sometimes have a finger amputated. Women in the tribe sometimes performed ritual to protect against evil spirits, demonstrate the emotional pain they were enduring, and honor a loved one. This practice has since been outlawed.
Sokushinbutsu, or self-mummification, was practiced between the 11th and 19th centuries by Japanese Buddhist monks. The preparation for the self-mummification process would begin over 3000 days prior to their death. The monk was required to remove all fat from the body by consuming a strict diet of pine needles, resins, and seeds. When the monk was ready, he would enter a stone room and meditate. All fluid intake was slowly reduced, which would shrink organs and dehydrate the body. The monk would die in a meditative state, and in some cases, the body would be naturally preserved as a mummy.
Ancient Death Rituals
A few ancient death rituals also offer a fascinating glimpse at the history and culture surrounding death. Although these rituals are no longer practiced, they're still interesting.
Mayan Death Rituals
The ancient Mayans would bury the dead in their graves positioned in the direction of the Mayan paradise. This would allow the soul easier passage through the afterlife into paradise. The dead were sometimes buried with maize in their mouths as a symbol of the rebirth of their souls and for nourishment for the soul's journey. In some cases, other people may have been sacrificed and buried with the person.
Greek Death Rituals
Remembrance of the dead is very important for the Greeks. In ancient Greece, people believed that it was essential to mark the passage from life to death with rituals. They laid out the body and held a visitation, and they held burial ceremonies. While it was uncommon for objects to be placed in the grave, they marked the grave with elaborate tombs, marble stelai (tombstones), and statues. It was essential that the deceased would not be forgotten; the Greeks believed that the dead must continuously be remembered and honored in order for their souls to live on in the afterlife.
Egyptian Death Rituals
The ancient Egyptians were typically buried in the ground or in elaborate tombs. In many cases, the deceased were buried with their personal belongs so they would have all they need in the afterlife. The deceased Egyptians would also sometimes be buried with shabti dolls, which are small human figures that represent a person who would carry out tasks or chores for the deceased in the afterlife.
Death Rituals Around the World
Learning a little more about death rituals worldwide can help you better understand other cultures or even find a new way to honor someone special you've lost. These are just a few of the worldwide customs.
Chinese Death Rituals
Chinese death rituals date back to the early dynasties, and many of those cultural traditions and ritual ceremonies are still practiced today. Customs include burying the person in a casket, holding a gathering, preparing the body for burial, and giving money to the family of the deceased.
Native American Death Rituals
There are some common beliefs about death rituals among the Native American tribes; however, each tribe conceptualizes death and handles death rituals in its own unique way. For example, Ojibwe traditions when someone dies center around the idea that a person must travel from the land of the living to the land of the dead. This journey could be confusing, so loved ones did all they could to help the deceased with this task.
Death Rituals in Africa
Just as there are many different Native American beliefs about death, the people of Africa belong to different countries and groups that can't be summed up in a single statement of belief. Their death rituals are deeply rooted in their cultural beliefs, traditions, and indigenous religions. Some believe that our existence after death is influenced by the power and role of their deceased ancestors.
Buddhist Death Rituals
Some Buddhists believe that when a person dies, they are reborn and go through a reincarnation process. The person's actions in life will determine how that person comes back. For example, they could be reborn into a god, demigod, human, animal, hungry ghost, or hell creature. Many Buddhist death rituals focus on helping that person achieve a better station in the next life.
The Importance of Remembering
Death rituals around the world have a similar universal purpose, which is to honor and remember your loved one. It is also important that they are remembered in the ways that are customary to your culture or religious affiliation. There's no right or wrong way to honor someone and no right or wrong way to grieve. The key is to come together with other people and perform the ceremonies and customs that will bring you comfort during this time.