While views on the afterlife may change from religion to religion, one thing that remains constant across religions and cultures is the desire to celebrate a life well-lived and honor the passing of a loved one. There is no one path to see, as we can see from looking at the different death rituals practiced around the world.
Death rituals often bring comfort to friends and family members healing from the loss of an incredible loved one. They are performed to honor and respect loved ones that have passed, and some religions believe that death rituals help their loved ones pass into the afterlife.
Learning more about the death rituals worldwide can help us find unity in our shared experiences with grief and better understand religions different from our own.
What Is a Death Ritual?
A death ritual is a way of honoring life and laying the deceased to rest. Death rituals differ between cultures and religions and are generally created around a religion’s belief about the afterlife.
In the Western world, the most popular death rituals are burial or cremation, typically accompanied by a memorial service. However, different religions have unique beliefs about the afterlife that inform the ways they lay cherished loved ones to rest.
Death rituals are often comforting and can provide a sense of closure by celebrating the life of a loved one, sometimes looking towards the hope for a brighter future in the afterlife. Let’s explore some of the most common death rituals in religions across the globe.
Hindu Death Rituals
Hinduism originated in India but is now practiced worldwide by approximately 1.2 billion people. One of the pillars of Hinduism is the belief in samsara, the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation. The ultimate goal or purpose of the Hindu religion is reaching salvation or “moksha.” When the soul has attained salvation, their process of reincarnation ends.
Typically, Hindu death rituals occur in three parts. First, a funeral or viewing of the passed loved one occurs on the day of their death. The body remains in the home until cremation.
Cremation must happen quickly, typically between 24 to 48 hours after the passing of a loved one. This is because of the Hindu belief in reincarnation. The Hindu religion believes that after death, the body serves no purpose, for it is the soul that will experience reincarnation. Cremating the body soon after death is believed to release the soul quicker so it can pass into the next life.
Traditionally, Hindu cremations were performed on the banks of the Ganges because the waters of this river are said to help the soul leave the reincarnation cycle and attain salvation.
Hindu funerals are followed by a 10-day mourning period called a Shraddha ritual. This is where the males in a family pay homage to their loved one’s ancestors.
Varanasi Hindu Tradition
In Varanasi, India, bodies are paraded through the streets by a loved one’s friends and family members. The bodies are dressed in colors representing the deceased’s many virtues to honor their remarkable life. The parade ends by sprinkling our loved ones with water from the Ganges River before cremation. This is said to help the soul reach salvation and complete the cycle of reincarnation.
Buddhist Death Rituals
Buddhism is a religion practiced by approximately 506 million people across the world. Buddhists believe that life is a cycle of suffering and rebirth, with the ultimate goal being to reach nirvana or enlightenment.
Buddhist death rituals focus on passing the soul of a loved one on to the next life. This begins as the loved one is dying. Family members will create a peaceful and serene environment for their loved ones to pass.
After the body has entered death, it is customary not to touch or disturb the body for four hours because Buddhists believe that the soul does not leave the body immediately.
Once the loved one has passed, the Buddhist death ritual typically involves a memorial ceremony performed by a monk. The body is then cremated for similar reasons to Hindu tradition—the body is not believed to hold significance after death but rather a place for the soul to reside in life.
For Buddhists residing in Tibet, their death rituals may occur differently than Buddhists in other parts of the world. One death ritual common to Tibetan Buddhists is a sky burial.
First, the deceased loved one is wrapped in white Tibetan cloth and prepared for the sky burial. They are then placed in a corner of the home for three to five days, where scripture is read over them by monks to release the soul from purgatory.
On a date chosen by the family, the body is taken to a burial site in the mountains. Incense is then burned, creating smoke to attract vultures who consume the loved one’s remains.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that if vultures consume the body after death, it signifies that the individual has no sin and will enter heaven. Sky burials are performed to redeem the sins of the dead.
Islamic Death Rituals
Islam is the world’s second-largest religion, with over 1.9 billion followers. The Islamic faith believes in an afterlife or Paradise. Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, there is no cycle of life or reincarnation for Muslims. Whether they enter Paradise depends upon how they spent their life on Earth.
When a Muslim person dies, there are a few customary death rituals.
Typically, there is no viewing or funeral procession because it is customary to bury the body as quickly as possible without embalming. Before burial, the body is washed and covered with a sheet.
Because Muslims believe in Judgment Day — when Allah decides if the Muslim people will spend their afterlife in Paradise or separated from Paradise — cremation is forbidden. This belief is that bodies are not merely an empty vessel, and all bodies will be raised from the dead on Judgment Day.
Catholic Death Rituals
Catholicism is observed by approximately 1.2 billion people worldwide, from New York to New Orleans to Europe and everywhere in between. Like Protestant Christians, Catholicism is centered around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Catholics believe in an afterlife where a soul can go to heaven or purgatory. If a soul goes to purgatory, it can be purified to reach heaven. The Catholic death ritual consists of three main components: the wake, the funeral mass, and the committal.
A wake is a time for family and friends to gather for prayer and to recite the rosary prayer. Family and friends will also share memories of their loved ones to celebrate their remarkable life.
During the funeral mass, the soul is believed to return to God. This takes place within a Catholic church and is conducted by a priest. Holy water is sprinkled on the loved ones, and their casket is prepared for burial.
The committal is when the body is committed to a resting place. This may be the time when the casket is lowered into the ground or the body is cremated.
Jewish Death Rituals
Judaism is practiced by over 14 million people across the globe. A death ritual unique to Judaism is “Uriah,” the act of tearing one’s clothing as a sign of loss and grief at the passing of a loved one.
Once a loved one enters death, they are washed and clothed for burial. The washing is an act of purification called “Tahara.” Tahara is performed by a funeral director and their staff. Procedures such as reciting psalms and hymns are practiced during purification rituals. The body is then dressed in shrouds for burial.
In between purification and burial, the body is never left alone as an act of respect for the deceased. A watcher or guardian is hired to remain with your loved one until it is time for burial.
Burial ceremonies occur at the sight of burial instead of inside a synagogue.
Zoroastrian Death Rituals
The Zoroastrian religion is one of the world’s oldest religions, originating in Persia. Zoroastrian religion believes in heaven and hell, depending on their good deeds on earth.
In Zoroastrianism, death is believed to come from evil forces. This inspired the Tower of Silence, a death ritual of Zoroastrianism. The Tower of Silence is the same in practice as the Tibetan sky burial, but the motivations differ.
While Tibetan sky burial is meant to redeem sin and bring the body closer to heaven, the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence was created to keep evil away. When a person dies, it is believed that evil overtakes the body. Exposing the body to the elements and vultures eliminates that evil.
Death Rituals Across the Globe
While death rituals vary between religions, communities worldwide observe unique cultural traditions and traditional funeral ceremonies to celebrate the incredible relationships that helped shape their lives.
Whether their loved one’s final resting place is rooted in cremation services, burial, or another death ritual, each memorial has honored the impact and legacy of remarkable people for generations.
Burial beads are a common death ritual in South Korea. Much like Eterneva’s memorial diamonds, burial beads are beads created from cremated ashes of loved ones.
This tradition began because of a law passed in 2000 requiring families to remove their buried loved ones from their graves after 60 years due to limited space in graveyards around South Korea.
Burial beads became a beautiful and practical way to celebrate a remarkable life and keep deceased loved ones near. Unlike memorial diamonds, burial beads are generally not worn but kept in glass containers or dishes.
Many South Korean funeral services are rooted in Confucian beliefs—centered around honoring the dead so their spirits may pass to the afterlife—so burial beads became a thoughtful way to honor loved ones who have passed.
Famadihana is a popular death ritual known as Madagascar’s Day of the Dead. Famadihana means “the turning of the ancestor’s bodies” or “turning of the bones.” Famadihana is a funeral practice occurring every few years in which the deceased’s immediate family will unearth their ancestors from the grave and re-wrap them in new cloth.
This burial ritual is performed by the Malagasy people, who practice a combination of Christian and traditional beliefs. The Malagasy people do not believe in heaven or hell but that their ancestors are an intervening force between them and God.
This funeral tradition aims to introduce new family members to deceased ancestors and keep the memory of loved ones alive. Famadihana is also a time to strengthen familial ties.
Famadihana is a two-day funeral ritual characterized by celebration, not sorrow. The first day of Famadihana is known as “the entry day,” while the second day is “wrapping day.”
During Famadihana, the ancestors’ remains are laid out, cleaned, and wrapped in new burial clothing. It is believed that the spirit of the ancestors can protect and bless their families if their bodies receive proper care.
Catholics in the Philippines practice a 40-day death ritual to honor the life of loved ones who’ve passed. On the 9th day, Filipino traditions explain that the soul will pass from the body into the afterlife. For this reason, mourners will prepare food to celebrate the soul’s passing. On the 40th day, the family will recite the rosary.
Other Modern Rituals
While many people are familiar with death rituals such as burial and cremation, there are plenty of ways modern cultures celebrate the lives of those who have passed.
Today, many people choose to create a memorial diamond from the carbon in their loved one’s ashes if their loved ones were cremated. Scientists can grow an authentic diamond in a lab using our loved one’s carbon as a diamond seed by replicating the heat and pressure found in the Earth’s mantle.
Memorial diamonds are a thoughtful and enduring way to honor the impact and legacy of our deceased loved ones, and we can carry these portable memorials with us wherever our lives take us.
Death is universal across ethnic groups and continents despite cultural and religious differences. Each community has funeral rites and observances that celebrate the remarkable loved ones who have touched their lives, from the fantasy coffins of Ghana to the Famadihana traditions of Madagascar.
Many are acquainted with the loss and grief that comes with the passing of a loved one. While quenching the deep feelings of grief is no small feat, death rituals are one way many cultures and religions continue along their healing journey. They are a way to honor a life well-lived and provide comfort and closure to friends and family.