Death Rituals, Ceremonies & Traditions Around the World (And How the West Lost Loss)

28 Oct 2019 - Tracey Wallace

Welcome

Death rituals are well documented throughout history –– and around the world.

From the New Orleans jazz funeral and South Korean burial beads to sky burial in Mongolia and Tibet and Balinese cremation ceremonies, these rituals and ceremonies are often associated with religion as communities follow the traditionally prescribed movements in the wake of a loss of life.

Death ceremonies and traditions around the world often have a similar central purpose, though –– no matter the religion, sect, or geography of the people. That central purpose is community.

These mourning rituals and ceremonies are meant to bring people together, to take the hands of those mourning the loss and lead them astray from isolation.

Whether the grief ritual was a public mourning event, in which friends, family and strangers alike attended the event to wail and mourn as one, or if the ritual were a dress code and a family-imposed curfew followed by regular visits from clergy and community to chant the passed soul to the next realm, one thing is abundantly clear about grief rituals and death ceremonies: grievers are rarely alone.

In the Western world, however, this is so often no longer the case.

Death rituals are nearly non-existent in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and death ceremonies often consist only of a wake or a funeral, and then –– well –– nothing. This wasn’t always the case.

In the United States, there is a long history of what is often called the privatization of grief.

“Many mourners experience grief as a kind of isolation—one that is exacerbated by the fact that one’s peers, neighbors, and co-workers may not really want to know how you are. We’ve adopted a sort of ‘ask, don’t tell’ policy,” writes Meghan O’Rourke in a 2010 New Yorker article. “The question ‘How are you?’ is an expression of concern, but mourners quickly figure out that it shouldn’t be mistaken for an actual inquiry.”

More recently, grief has even moved to the realm of self-help, where the loss of a loved one can be used, experts say, as a forward-propelling event in your own life.

Again, from Meghan O’Rourke:

“‘On Grief and Grieving’ was a personal triumph of sorts for the ailing Kübler-Ross. Yet her crusade to open up a conversation about death and grief was ultimately distorted by her own evasions: the woman who wanted us to confront death unflinchingly came to insist that it was really an opportunity for personal growth among the survivors, as if it were a Learning Annex class.

As she put it in an essay for an anthology, ‘Death: The Final Stage of Growth’ (1997), ‘Confrontation with death and dying can enrich one’s life and help one to become a more human and humane person.’

“This approach—suffused with an American ‘we can do it better’ spirit—made grief the province of self-help rather than of the community.”

How The West Lost Its Death Rituals

It wasn’t always this way in the West (i.e. in Europe and later what would be known as the United States).

The Plague is where some researchers point as a starting point for a decline in grief rituals in the West. So many died that it was impossible for grief rituals and last rites to be given to all who needed them. In addition, it wasn’t understood exactly what caused the Plague, and people were wary to help or tend to the fallen bodies out of fear of getting the Plague themself.

This was counter to the traditions at the time, in which families bathed the bodies at home after they passed, laid them out on the bed, invited folks over, held religious ceremonies, and planned the burial of their loved one with the local priest in the church’s cemetery.

But there was no room at church graveyards for all the death during the Plague –– and many bodies were discarded in ditches or mass graves.

“As our city sunk into this affliction and misery, the reverend authority of the law, both divine and human, sunk with it,” Boccaccio wrote, of Florence, in 1348.

In the next decades, the Reformation and the Enlightenment took hold, which saw the decline of much of the authority of the Church. Then, the Victorians came along –– and death and grief because poignant parts of public culture and discourse.

The Victorian Era Made Grief & Death Fashionable

According to Chris Woodyard’s research, published in a 2014 book titled “The Victorian Book of the Dead (The Ghosts of the Past 4),” death was a frequent visitor during the Victorian era and people began planning for it while they were young.

As a result, dying was an open and ongoing conversation.

As death approached, there was no ambiguity as to what the person wanted or what was expected of the family.

The family knew in advance what type of coffin the dying wanted, where they wanted to be buried and what they wanted to wear. Women frequently made their own shrouds and would even include them in their wedding dowry.

The biggest fear at the time was being buried alive –– but there was no stigma around talking about or planning for death, that of those you love or your own.

According to Marilyn Mendoza, Ph.D., in an article she wrote for Psychology Today:

“It was during this time that there was a flourishing of funeral-related businesses including coffin makers, embalmers, and gravediggers. It was also during this time that burials were moved to large parks in the country as the cities no longer had room to continue burying the dead near their homes.”

The mourning rituals for the Victorian era people were many –– often requiring dress codes and etiquette. However, there were two distinct periods of mourning known to the Victorian era:

The extent of each of these periods was based on the mourner’s relationship with the decreased. Wives, for instance, whose husbands had passed were often expected to be in full mourning for at least two years.

Then, there were no such commentary around “grieving for too long.” Etiquette would have prevented that, and grief was expected at the time to take quite a while.

In the second mourning, or half mourning, women were allowed to wear jewelry again. At this time, it was popular for women to wear jewelry made from or including the hair of the deceased. This is a trend thought to have started when Queen Victoria wore a locket of Prince Albert’s hair.

The Rise of Science: Families Exchange Priests for Doctors

Despite a heavy focus on dress and customs for those going through the grieving process, the Victorian era also saw lives saved. For the first time in history, many ailments that would have otherwise killed someone were cured –– by doctors.

Over the decade, more and more families called in doctors and science in place of priests and religion in search of a fix.

And with this shift came a focus on combating death, and even beating it.

Brandy Schillace writes in her 2015 book ‘Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living,’ that Westerners are “bent on living forever, but committed to the disposable nature of absolutely everything else.”

What happened to the West, how we lost loss, was we began to believe, to fight for, to think we could accomplish the impossible: the cure death.

A Western Obsession with Everlasting Life –– And What Happens to Us When Our Loved Ones Don’t Achieve It

You see it everywhere now.

We are a culture obsessed with not dying, and we’ve then turned grief) the experience of someone we love dying) into a self-help experience, even mitigating it to the mental illness realm with terms like ‘complicated grief.’

Certainly, some grief falls into a mental health crisis, but our lack of grief rituals and preparation for death is likely more to blame for our inability to mentally handle it.

Many non-Western cultures have maintained their grief rituals and death ceremonies –– allowing for long-term grief, making death a part of life, and so much more.

In these cultures, those who are grieving are not stigmatized.

The Most Fascinating Grief Rituals Around the World

Many cultures have special mourning clothes:

Here are some of the more fascinating grief rituals around the world, how their community members view them, what these rituals and death ceremonies teach the subconscious about life and death, and maybe even what those in the West (myself included) can learn about something we cannot change: everyone we love will die, including ourselves.

The Native American Lakota Grief Ritual & Rites Ceremony

In many Native American tribes and cultures, the dead are not considered to have “passed away.” They instead “walk on,” implying the continuation of a journey rather than an end point. During the time of mourning grief is expressed through crying, singing, wailing, cutting of hair and cutting one’s body –– as well as Seven Sacred Ceremonies of the Pipe.

According to the Akta Lakota Museum Cultural Center

“A lock of hair from a departed person was taken and held over a piece of burning sweetgrass to purify it … Then it was wrapped in a piece of sacred buckskin and the Sacred Pipe was smoked. … The buckskin bundle, called the soul bundle, was kept in a special place in the tipi of the soul’s keeper, usually a relative.”

“The Keeper of the Soul vowed to live a harmonious life until the soul could be released, usually about one year.”

“The bundle containing the soul was carried outside and as soon as it reached the air, the soul was released. … If she judged it worthy, she sent the soul to the right … to Wakan Tanka. Unworthy souls were sent to the left where they remained until they finally could become purified and join Wakan Tanka.”

Funeral ceremonies for the Lakota people are generally two days long and quite intense. It begins the community gathering in a space, these days an auditorium at a local high school. The deceased’s family then feed everyone. Children sleep in sleeping bags, while adults stay up all night exchanging stories.

From one attendee at a 2012 ceremony:

“There was a ‘giveaway’ in which people were encouraged to take one of the deceased possessions because among traditional Lakota, generosity is more important than possession.””

“At sunrise the next morning, everyone travelled up to Eagle Nest Butte to scatter his remains. High places are considered sacred sites because they are closer to the spirits. Those who have walked on often have their bodies or ashes buried in high places.”

Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist practitioner, has stated that:

“Lakota grief was something to be valued. It brought a person closer to God. For when a person has suffered great loss and was grieving, they were considered ‘the most holy.’ Their prayers were believed to be especially powerful and others would ask the grievers to pray on their behalf.”

El Dia de los Muertos as a Grief Ritual

If you’ve watched the Pixar film Coco, then you are likely just as enamored by the Day of the Dead tradition as anyone else.

It is a beautiful, annual grief ritual in which family members and friends who have passed are honored, stories are swapped about them, and the families do everything they can to prevent the second death: that is, when you are forgotten by the living.

Dios de los Muertos begins with families making colorful altars in their homes in honor of their deceased loved ones. The altars are decorated with flowers, candles, their loved one’s favorite food and pan de muerto (a slightly sweet bread specifically made for this time). The festivities continue in the cemetery, where families bring picnics, play music and sometimes even spend the night as a way to celebrate the lives of those who are no longer on this earth.

The tradition dates back 3,000 years, during the time of the Aztecs. It survived through the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived to central Mexico and thought the tradition to be sacrilegious.

Instead of it being abolished, however, the celebration evolved to incorporate elements of Christianity, such as celebrating it on November 1 and 2 instead of on its original summer observance to coincide with All Saints’ or All Souls’ Day, a time to pray for departed souls.

“It was really a beautiful experience…It’s a very personal thing,” he said. “I remember looking at the altar and putting coffee there, because my dad loved coffee. My mom said, ‘No, he would never like it like that — and she took it away and made it piping hot with a little sugar, and the experience created a conversation between us,” said Juan Castaño, co-founder of Calpulli Mexican Dance Company. “Dia de Muertos is very powerful, because you feel peace and a beautiful experience remembering someone and celebrating what they did and who they were.”

Japanese Shinto Periods of Mourning

Japanese death ceremonies and grief rituals follow the traditions and mentalities of two religions: Buddhism and Shinto, respectively. Nine out of ten Japanese funerals are conducted as a blend of Buddhist and Shinto traditions, a practice that both religions would see as complementary. Most homes maintain a Buddhist altar and a Shinto shrine.

When death occurs, the altar and shrine are closed and covered to keep the spirits of the dead out. A small table, decorated with simple flowers, incense and a candle is placed next to the bed of the deceased.

And then, there are 20 steps the Japanese follow:

  1. “matsugo no mizu,” the washing of the lips. A close relative wets the lips of the deceased, giving the body its last taste of water. This is to be performed as close to the time of death as is possible.
  2. The “yukan,” the washing of the corpse. Several family members may be involved in this practical and ceremonial washing.
  3. “kiyu hokoku,” the announcement of the death. The family announces the death to the spirit world through prayer and memorialization at the family shrine.
  4. “Makura naoshi no gi.” The phrase means “pillow decorations” and the ritual involves placing the deceased in such a way that the head is propped up on a pillow, facing north. Offerings of food are to be made to the gods at this time. A sword or knife is placed by the side of the deceased.
  5. “nokan no gi,” the placement of the dead body of the deceased in a coffin.
  6. “kyuzen nikku,” or daily food offerings to the deceased. These food offerings are to be made twice a day until the body is given its final resting place. Traditionally the favorite meals of the deceased are prepared.
  7. “ubusuna jinja ni kiyu hokokuh,” the announcement of the return of the spirit to the local shrine.
  8. “bosho batsujo no gi,” the earth purification ceremony. The priests from the local shrine will purify the ground to be used for the grave site with water and prayer.
  9. “kessai,” when the priest purifies himself in preparation for the funeral. This normally occurs through ceremonial washings and prayer.
  10. “Tsuya sai,” this is considered the wake. Mourners gather to express condolences to the family and present their offerings to the gods, the shrine and sometimes, the family.
  11. “senrei sai,” which means the transfer of the spirit. The priest transfers the deceased’s spirit from the body into a wooden tablet. The tablet is held over the body of the deceased while the priest offers ceremonial prayers.
  12. “settai”, which is a word for refreshments. Food that has been prepared at a different location to prevent the contamination of death is served to the mourners. This food may be anything from a light snack to a substantial meal.
  13. “shinsosai,” the funeral service. The room where the funeral will be held is purified, prayers and offerings are made to the gods, and eulogies honoring the deceased are given by the priests.
  14. “kokobetsu shiki,” the farewell ceremony. Mourners leave the funeral by walking, single file, past the deceased. The mourner is to say final goodbyes to the deceased, and offer prayers and word condolences to the family.
  15. “Hakkyu sai no gi” is the departure of the coffin. The coffin is prepared for travel to the grave site. A sword is placed on the coffin and banners are placed around it so that the deceased becomes aware that it is time to move on.
  16. “soretsu,” is the funeral procession that transports the coffin to the cemetery or crematorium.
  17. “hakkyu-go batsujo nogi,” the home where the funeral ceremony has taken place is purified. In addition, the funeral altar is removed and a new altar is set up inside the house.
  18. “Maisosai,” is the offering of burial rites. Family and close friends will gather at either the grave site or crematorium with the body. Offerings are made on behalf of the deceased and are placed with the coffin. Prayers are led by the priests.
  19. “kotsuage,” means the picking up of the bones. Bones are removed from the crematorium ash and are placed in a vase.
  20. “kika sai” and means coming home. Ashes that are not buried are brought to the home and placed in the family shrine. The bereaved offers thanks to the people who have participated in the funeral. Prayers and offerings are given on behalf of the deceased.

The family of the deceased will then be in a period of mourning for 49 days. Once a week they will visit the grave to place fresh flowers and to burn incense.

On the 3rd, 7th and 49th days, they will have a short memorial service at the site, led by the Shinto priest. During these 49 days, the family cannot participate in any form of celebration or entertainment.

Tibetan Death Ceremonies & Sky Burial

Many Vajrayana Buddhists in Mongolia and Tibet believe in the transmigration of spirits after death — that the soul moves on, while the body becomes an empty vessel.

To return it to the earth, the body is chopped into pieces and placed on a mountaintop, which exposes it to the elements — including vultures.

It’s a practice that’s been done for thousands of years and, according to a recent report, about 80% of Tibetans still choose it.

“In fact, burials are not that important after human beings’ death, and we Tibetans prefer sky burial because it contains Tibetans’ compassion and belief. I would certainly choose sky burial after my death, though I am not a Buddhist believer,” said Zhaxi Toinzhub, a young Tibetan in his 20s.

Balinese Cremation & Life Celebration

“Strange as it seems, it is in their cremation ceremonies that the Balinese have their greatest fun,” Miguel Covarrubias wrote in the 1937 book, Island of Bali. “A cremation is an occasion for gaiety and not for mourning, since it represents the accomplishment of their most sacred duty” to liberate the souls of the dead, he wrote.

In 2008, the island saw one of its most lavish cremations ever as Agung Suyasa, head of the royal family, was burned along with 68 commoners.

Thousands of volunteers gathered to carry a giant bamboo platform (similar to a funeral pyre), an enormous wooden bull and wooden dragon.

After a long procession, Suyasa’s body was eventually placed inside the bull and burned as the dragon stood witness. In the Balinese tradition, cremation releases the soul so it is free to inhabit a new body — and doing this is considered a sacred duty.

Filipino Death Traditions & Grief Rituals

Many ethnic groups in the Philippines have unique funeral practices.

In general, when someone passes, there is a 3 to 9 day wake at their home. During that time, they are placed in a casket and the room is decorated to how you might expect to see it at a North American funeral. The casket remains closed, though, and there is a picture of person placed on top.

Candles are then lit, which must stay lit for 40 days. This comes from Roman Catholic religious beliefs, and corresponds to the in the ascension and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The 40th day is said to be the last day the spirit of the deceased wanders on earth.

During the wake, the deceased must never be left alone. Someone must sleep in the room with them at night and someone must be in the room at all times.

There is a nightly prayer said around 7:30 p.m. to help ward off evil, which is said to come for the deceased at around 8 p.m. The prayer ends after this time.

All the while this is happening inside, there are chairs set up outside the home for friends and family together and mourn and share stories at any time of the day or night.

Conclusion

While our death ceremonies and grief rituals have changed –– our grief itself has not. Humans have always looked for ways to keep those they love close to them and honor their lives. Through memento moris and hair as jewelry, to memorial diamonds and memorial beads (as popular in South Korea), we all must face the reality of the death of those we love and ourselves.

How we decide to do that is up to us –– though research is showing that the sooner you prepare, the better it is for you and everyone you love.

Death rituals are incredibly helpful for giving us a feeling of increased sense of control over a situation in which we have none at all. And for many, that feeling helps us give meaning to some of the most difficult, but most natural, events in our lives.

Whether you follow any traditional death ritual, or a personal ritual, is up to you. In the U.S., for instance, there is a rise in green burial –– which is a newer and often loved death tradition.

Both the traditional and the personal rituals can be incredibly cathartic, and helpful.

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