After the death of a loved one, it can feel difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of our loss and sorrow. Since the dawn of humanity, funeral practices have been a tool to help human beings come to terms with death. They allow us the space to grieve and the opportunity to make peace with death.
Throughout history, civilizations have viewed death in many ways. For some, it is something to be feared. For others, it’s simply another step in a much longer journey. As we explore how cultures and religions around the world come to terms with loss, we also explore how our loss touches us as well.
Human beings have been engaging in death rituals for as long as there have been humans on the planet. It is part of being human, in many ways. In fact, every human culture has the same three threads in common:
These things are universal. How people practice funeral rituals, and how those practices have changed through time, are not. Archaeologists have been discovering evidence of ritualized burials for centuries. But how old are the remains? Well, that is a good question!
Neanderthals, historically thought to be lesser than early man (though this has been challenged in later years), were known to bury their dead in places such as caves in the Zagros Mountains, with sites dating back to 60,000 BC.
In 1823, William Buckley discovered the remains of the earliest known human burial in south Wales. Though called the “Red Lady of Paviland” at the time, the skeleton is male and dates to around 24,000 BC. The bones were purposefully dyed red with ochre before they were buried, which indicates they were part of ritual burial.
It’s hard to know much about the earliest people and what they thought about death, though we can assume they cared as much about their departed loved ones as well do, even if their burials look unlike our own.
The Egyptians originated the art of embalming sometime around 4,000 BC. By 3,400 BC, mummification using this form of embalming technique was widespread. These mummies were markedly different by rank and social status; those of higher status were buried with great signs of their wealth – as well as favored pets and servants to serve them in the afterlife.
Mummification was a complex, expensive process likely saved only for the elites of Egyptian society. It involved removing the internal organs, covering the body with salt for months at a time, then stuffing it with linen or sand before coming it in linen bandages.
In 1323 BC, the most famous Egyptian mummy - King Tutankhamen (King Tut) - was entombed in his extravagant sarcophagus after his death. He was 19 years old.
At the same time, cremation was being practiced in other areas of the world dating back at least 17,000 years ago in Australia with the partially cremated Mungo Lady. In China, archaeologists have discovered over 700 intricately designed burial urns found in the Yangshao period (5000-3000 BC). By 800 BC, the ancient Greeks and Romans used this method almost exclusively in their funeral practices.
By 800 BC, the ancient Greeks and Romans used this method almost exclusively in their funeral practices. Cremation became widespread among the Persians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians as well. In the first and second centuries, Romans built semi-underground buildings to hold multiple funeral urns as the final resting place for the deceased.
When most people think of early cremation practices, they probably think of the Vikings, a group of Norse explorers and settlers from the late 8th to late 11th centuries who colonized parts of Europe. They indeed practiced cremation for their warriors. They were not, however, set aflame on their ships. Instead, they were likely placed upon a funeral pyre for actual cremation.
In the Western world, Christianity gained more and more popularity and cremation faded away. Early Christians disapproved of the process. However, in many Asian countries, the use of cremation in religious funeral rites continued to flourish, especially in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Another common practice for early societies was the use of burial mounds. Also called tumuli, barrows, kurgans, or cairns, these burial mounds – purposefully shaped mounds of earth and stones raised over a grave and - are found throughout the world. They are generally associated with the specific culture’s burial rituals, which vary across continents while the basic practice remains.
In North America, mounds are as a central feature of architecture for many indigenous peoples from Chile to Minnesota. While many different Native American cultures engaged in mound-building, some of the earliest burial mounds were constructed around 250 BC and the practice continued throughout the southern United States until at least 1250 AD.
One of the most famous North American sites of this practice is the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site near Collinsville, Illinois.
In Japan, distinctive keyhole-shaped mounds, called Kofun, were constructed as early as 300 AD. They were most frequently used to bury important leaders.
Mounds, regionally referred to as barrows, are common across Europe, especially in prehistoric and early medieval eras. Ireland specifically has several famous barrows, including the 5,000 year old passage tomb Newgrange. They were an important part of pagan burial rituals.
Before Vikings embraced funeral pyres, they also constructed burial mounds for their chieftains and leaders in the 900’s. Their tumuli were often shaped like ships and generally involved the ritual sacrifice of peasants.
We all know what our own culture’s funerals look like. For many of us, those are the only ones we’ll experience in our lifetimes. However, we don’t always know how death – and the traditions for mourning and funerals – look to those outside our society and culture. Every culture has a unique way of preparing for death and burial. Sometimes, those traditions can tell you a lot about the culture and their greater beliefs.
Death is universal; mourning is not. We’re here to take a deeper look at funeral traditions around the globe.
While Christian funeral practices vary by denomination, all focus on the notion of eternal life granted by the acceptance of Jesus Christ. Most funeral services revolve around prayer for the deceased soul’s ascension into the afterlife (Heaven) and comfort of family and friends.
Christian funerals are typically held a few days up to a week after death. In North America, the body is professionally embalmed, make-up is applied, and then it is laid out for a traditional viewing.
At the funeral service, a member of the clergy gives a eulogy followed by singing hymns or other music. Dark colors like black or gray are most acceptable for attire. After the funeral, a procession of the hearse followed by vehicles leads to a graveside burial.
While it was once frowned upon, most Christian denominations have largely embraced cremation as an alternative to burial. Almost 50% of people choose cremation in the United States. Christian families often will select an urn that reflects their loved one and display it at home. Another option is choosing a smaller, less adorned urn to have buried on site.
Like Christianity, the Islamic faith also views death as a gateway to the afterlife. Thus, funeral practices focus on praising Allah and mourning with the family. As a Muslim is close to death, they are often surrounded by friends and family and never left unattended. Visitors may quietly chant the declaration of faith - “Shahada" – and gently encourage the dying person to do the same. It is thought to bring the person closer to salvation to proclaim the declaration at the exact moment of death.
Unless there are complications, the burial takes place very quickly after death. Typically, no embalming, cosmetology, or cremation is allowed. The body is bathed at least three times and wrapped in a white shroud. Then, the body must be turned towards Mecca, the holy center of Islam.
Muslim funerals are a community event and a very spiritual occasion. They are typically quite large but also quiet affairs. No music is played during the ceremony. Most prayer is done silently with only small portions spoke aloud. All readings are taken from the Islamic holy book, the Koran, and an Imam (Islamic priest) presides over the service.
Unlike in Christianity, white is an acceptable color to wear to a funeral. It is associated with humility and wholesomeness. However, somber colors like gray, black, or brown are also appropriate.
Because Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world, Hindu burial practices vary greatly between sects. It’s important to note that what may be the case for some sects presented here may not be true of all Hindu funerals. As believers of reincarnation, Hindus believe that only the body dies. The soul is reborn in a different form after death.
Hindus prefer to remain at home for their death, surrounded by family. They may focus on their mantra to bring their energy towards their head. After death, the Antyesti ceremony, or funeral rites, begin. Water is poured into the mouth of the deceased and the body is turned to face the south. The body remains in the home until cremation, which is usually within the first 24 hours after death at either dusk or dawn. The deceased's ashes are scattered over a place of importance to the person or a sacred body of water.
The funeral service is referred to as a wake. Attire is casual and many mourners wear white; black is considered inappropriate for the occasion. Hymns and mantras are recited, and some services include a fire sacrifice of food or drink. Offerings are made to ancestors and gods.
Unlike many western traditions like Christianity or Judaism, bringing food to the funeral is not customary. However, ten days later, another ceremony – the shraddha - is held at the home of the deceased to help liberate the soul for its ascent into heaven. At this time, visitors are expected to bring fruit as an offering.
Many aspects of traditional Chinese funeral practices depend heavily on the identity of the deceased. This includes factors like age, social status, and marital status. However, there are some shared basics. Chinese folk religions view death as the interruption of cosmological balance. Funeral rituals are seen as a way to stabilize and restore this balance.
It falls upon the family, specifically the children of the deceased, to plan and execute the funeral. They often consult the Chinese Almanac to determine the best date for the funeral.
Today, the body is cleansed and dressed by professionals at a funeral home or mortuary. Traditionally, this was done by the family. A coin or a grain of rice is often placed with the body. The coin is a bribe to the judges or officials in the afterlife while the grain ensures that the deceased has enough to eat.
A white banner is commonly placed over the mourning family’s doorway. Close family members also wear white while those with a more distant relation to the deceased will wear different shades of white, black, blue, and green.
A Chinese wake lasts anywhere from three to seven days, depending on the practice. Burial is favored but as the population expands, cremation is becoming more popular.
While there are several sects of Buddhism across the globe, Buddhists widely regard death as part of a continually repeating cycle of life, called saṃsāra, that incorporates reincarnation.
At a traditional Buddhist ceremony, the mourners wear white or cover their clothing with a traditional white cloth. Wakes are held, often under the guidance of a monk or several monks.
Traditionally, a photo of the deceased is placed as a centerpiece and then an altar is formed around it. This altar is adorned with candles in addition to offerings like candy and fruit. The image of Buddha should be placed near as well.
Upon arrival, it’s customary to proceed quietly to the altar first. When mourners arrive there, etiquette calls for paying respect with a slight bow, hands folded before them in a prayer position. White flowers or gifts can be sent to the family but anything in red is to be avoided at all costs.
As the Buddha himself was cremated, most Buddhists follow the same tradition, preferring that method over burial. After the service, the ashes are scattered appropriately or taken home and placed in an urn. For more information on how ashes are placed into urns, our guide on placing cremation remains can help.
Death and funeral rituals in Africa revolve around reverence of ancestors and honoring the lives of the dead. It is a rite of passage for the spirit, preparing it for the journey into the next realm. Modern funerals have evolved through the inclusion of Christianity, Islam, and the effects of colonialism. However, traditional themes continue to thrive in these practices.
Rituals are often seen as a celebration of life instead of mourning death. It’s important to note that Africa is a vast and sweeping continent. It is not a monolith.
As such, there is much variation in practices across the countries even as there are some similarities in themes due to the shared traditional beliefs about death and ancestor reverence.
For example, Nelson Mandela’s 2013 funeral highlights many customs of the Xhosa ethnic group in South Africa. In Zambia, funerals look (and sound) very different and often include a loud, ritualized crying that can be heard across long distances.
The most important aspect in traditional African funerals among some indigenous groups is holding the right burial that ensures the deceased will move from this realm to the next instead of remaining to haunt or exert power over the living. With the “right” funeral, the spirit will rest in peace and even protect their descendants.
For Sikhs, death is considered a natural process and part of God’s will. Within this Indian religion, death and birth are closely tied together on a journey that does not end. The Sikh funeral is known as Antam Sanskaar, meaning “the last rite of passage”. Instead of a time to mourn, it is seen as a celebration that the soul can unite with Waheguru, the Sikh name for god.
Before the funeral service, the body is bathed and cleansed according to very specific customs. The Kakaars – the articles of faith worn as being an initiated Sikh – should not be removed during this time. Nor should the deceased hair be cut or removed from any part of the body.
Most funerals include recitation of the Ardas, a set of prayers, before the cremation. Loud displays of mourning are not expected and generally considered inappropriate on these occasions. This is seen as a time to celebrate the person’s soul rising to join with Waheguru.
Cremation is preferred for most Sikhs, though ground burial or burial at sea is also appropriate. Ashes are collected and disposed of later, generally by immersing them in the nearest body of running water. The Sikh do not believe in keeping any monuments for the dead.
In traditional Jewish religious practice, the burial of a deceased takes place within 24 hours after the death. However, as many modern Jewish families are separated by distance or there may be other mitigating factors, this may cause a delay. Additionally, Jewish funerals are not held on Shabbat or during most Jewish holidays, contributing to a longer period before the burial.
In a process called taharah, the deceased body is washed, purified, and dressed. The body is not left unattended - even for a moment - until the burial. A kosher casket is made entirely of wood, forgoing even nails, to be biodegradable.
Cremation is uncommon, though occasionally practiced by some less traditional believers. For Orthodox Jews, cremation is entirely forbidden. Unless required by law, the practice of embalming is also forbidden.
There is no viewing of the body. Before the funeral services, the Keriah, or Tearing of the Ribbon, is performed. After a closed casket service by a rabbi, the body is then buried.
Mourners often participate in the burial, though this is a more symbolic gesture, like adding a shovel of dirt to the grave, now than it once was. For the next seven days, friends and family participate in Shiva, in which mourners gather in a family home each day.
After that, mourners enter the second period of mourning is called shloshim, meaning “thirty.” This lasts until the thirtieth day after the funeral.
For followers of Jainism, a South Asian religion, an important aspect of their teaching is not simply living well. It is also dying well. They practice a spiritual ritual of “dying well” called Sallekhana. Generally practiced by very old or terminally ill, this ritual begins with a gradual withdraw from earthly needs, including medicine, food, and water. The purpose is to detach carefully and in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their inner peace.
The distinction should be made between this practice and suicide, as the goal of Jainism is a dispassionate passing from life. As Jains believe that death is only the passage of their souls from their current body into their next; they have no fear of leaving this one behind, as they will be reincarnated into their next life.
Embracing death in this way is an important tenet of their religion.
Shinto is Japan’s oldest religion and, due to its nature, followers often follow a mixture of Buddhist and Shinto beliefs and rituals. Shinto focuses largely on nature and the cycle of life. Everything is seen to have spiritual energy, known as kami. Kami is in everything from people, animals, trees, and even mountains. Death is seen as a release of kami, as the body is just a shell that contains it.
Much like many other Eastern traditions, Shintoism sees the body of a deceased as being impure, conflicting with the essential purity of Shinto shrines. It's for that reason cemeteries are never found near Shinto shrines.
On the rare occasion they occur, Shinto funerals, - called Sosai – are largely developed from Buddhist funeral rites. They require a great deal of preparation. There are twenty ritual commands to follow and the ceremony must be carried out in a specific manner.
Most of the time, those practicing Shinto opt for Buddhist funerals or opt for simple cremation instead.
One of the oldest religions still practiced today, the Zoroastrian faith is centered on a monotheistic, dualistic cosmology of good and evil. As such, they believe that in the moments after death, the body becomes impure. Death is an agent of the embodiment of evil, polluting the earth.
It is sacrilege to contaminate the elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, and Air) with the corpse’s decaying matter. Because of this belief, Zoroastrians do not bury their dead. Instead, they traditionally lay the bodies out on top towers built specifically for this purpose (called dokhma or 'Tower of Silence') to be exposed to the sun and eaten by birds of prey such as vultures.
In Western countries where this practice is impractical or illegal, most Zoroastrians opt for cremation instead.
One of the more controversial modern religions, Scientologists believe that the body is only a vessel for the immortal “thetan,” an approximation of a human soul. Thetans are believed to be billions of years old and pass through multiple lives. After death, the thetan goes to a “landing station” on the planet Venus where it is tossed back to Earth and wanders until it finds another body to inhabit.
As such, Scientology funerals involve the living mourners encouraging the person by name and urge them to move forward into a better life. Services typically include readings from founder and science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
The body is viewed as unimportant in these matters as being separate from the thetan entirely. It can be either cremated or buried based on the wishes of the family.
While similar to Christian funeral practices, Jehovah's Witness funeral services are characterized by how short they are. Typically, they last about 15-30 minutes. They practice burial or cremation, depending on the wishes of the deceased and their family.
As the transfer of blood between people is strictly prohibited, there are no organ donations allowed. Jehovah’s Witnesses consider many modern western celebrations and holidays to be “unclean” rituals that stem from the “false religious practices” of pagan times.
Most funeral practices are considered as such as well. Due to that, the service is short, and the burial takes place almost immediately afterward.
In many places around the world, funeral rites are a deeply personal and often unique to a specific ethnic group and time period. They may be influenced by the religion of the region but for many mourners, the funeral rites are a culturally exclusive experience. It’s easy to look at history books or ancient texts to see funeral practices very unlike those we are familiar with but that doesn’t mean these practices are gone.
We’re going to explore many unusual – and fascinating – ways in which people around the world pay honor to their loved ones after death. While many of these are modern traditions still practiced among smaller ethnic groups or communities, we’ve made a note (denoted by *) of which are historic rituals.
New Orleans, Louisiana is a city with a rich history of music. It’s no surprise that such a city has an equally rich tradition of musical funerals as well. In the early 20th century, New Orleans funerals began to take on a distinctly unique flair for deceased members of the black community.
The funeral typically begins at a church or funeral home with the mourners and pall-bearers leading the way to the cemetery. They are quickly joined by a brass band; the music is slow and sad – but only at first.
As it gains speed, the tune changes to something bright and joyful and the mourners begin to dance. They dance, typically to ragtime music, along the streets, and to the cemetery, celebrating the life of the deceased and their love of music.
These funerals are most popular for local musicians, though anyone can request one. And, so long as they are respectful, passersby are encouraged to join in and help celebrate.
Practiced most frequently among Vajrayana Buddhists in Mongolia and Tibet, sky funerals are a ritual in which the bodies of the deceased are dissected and then placed outdoors (usually on mountaintops) where they are exposed to the elements including carrion birds like vultures that are prevalent in the areas.
As this sect of Buddhism believes that the soul leaves the body immediately at death, this practice is done as a way in which the deceased’s last act is giving back to the Earth.
Sky burials have been practiced for several thousand years in the region. As of 2005, around 80% of Tibetans choose this type of burial.
As the United States turns to increasingly more environmentally friendly measures, funerals and burials have also been seen a rise in the number of “green” options available. More and more Americans are skipping embalming, concrete vaults, and heavy wooden caskets.
Instead, they opt for bio-degradable materials that decompose quickly into the ground. These caskets are made from a woven-willow material, giving it an ecologically friendly approach to burial. Additionally, families are choosing biodegradable cremation urns that return the ashes to the earth in a way that is eco-friendly.
Another option for the ocean lover? Becoming part of a coral reef. Companies like Eternal Reefs are compressing human remains to create a sphere that is attached to a reef, providing a habitat for fish and other marine life.
In the United States, there is only one place that allows outdoor cremation. That is the small town of Creston, Colorado. Within the city limits, anyone – regardless of religion – can be cremated outdoors in a ceremony of their choosing. The body is typically wrapped in a shroud and surrounded by a large funeral pyre and branches of juniper. If they choose to, a family member can be the one to light the pyre with a traditional torch.
Once a longstanding practice among some ethnic groups in China, Indonesia, and The Philippines, the practice of suspending hand-carved coffins along a cliff dates back at least two thousand years.
They can still be found in many rural places in the countries, including In Gongxian in southern Sichuan, China, where they’ve been there for over four hundred years.
Today, the practice is only continued by a small ethnic group in the Philippines. The Igorot people keep the tradition of carving their own coffins before death which are then suspended on the side of a cliff. The ritual is done to protect the bodies from flooding and animal scavenging.
The Igorot people also believe that the elevation grants the dead an easier passage to the afterlife.
On the African island country of Madagascar, the Malagasy people practice a ritual called famadihana or “the turning of the bones.” It takes place every five or seven years when family members make a pilgrimage to the family crypt which may be long distances from their homes.
Bodies are exhumed and returned to villages or special places for the famadihana ceremony. There, the remains are cleaned, dressed, and wrapped in silk, then laid out reverently. Family members come together to share news, family stories and ask for a blessing.
Then, the ritual takes a celebratory turn with feasts and live music. Sometimes, family members will dance with the bodies of their ancestors in celebration of their lives and memories. The ritual is more like a family reunion in many ways, despite the seemingly odd practices.
Once the ceremony concludes, the remains are returned to the tombs, which are closed once again.
Across the earliest dynasties in ancient China, tombs – and funerary art - rivaled that of the early Egyptians, though it is much less recognized than the other. It was common for the earliest rulers to be entombed with massive displays of their wealth and power in life.
The largest of these was the Terracotta Army, discovered in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China (died 210 BCE). The collection of terracotta sculptures represents the Emperor’s military forces.
Estimates suggest these pits containing the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses. The majority remain buried in the pits near Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum.
In many European countries, burial plots aren’t purchased. Instead, they are rented. This is true in Germany, where Berlin graves are rented for around 20 years at a time where friends and family can visit the body and pay their respects. When that time is up, the deceased is then placed in a mass grave while the burial plot is re-purposed for another funeral. As the costs of burial plots rise and space is sparse, cremation is becoming a more popular option for many.
Interestingly enough, these burial places are being repurposed as parks, community gardens, and other public use places.
Guanajuato, Mexico is home to a famed mummy collection unlike any other. In 1833, a cholera outbreak in the region led to an unusually high number of deaths. Local cemeteries soon ran out of space for graves, leading to a number of the deceased to be interred in newly made above-ground crypts.
In 1865, the local government instituted a "burial tax” that forced families to pay money to keep their loved ones buried. When families were unable to pay the tax, the bodies were moved to a storage facility.
It was then that officials realized that the local climate led to an unusual – but natural – mummification process. Unlike purposeful mummification practices of other groups, the partially embalmed corpses had mummified with horrific, open-mouthed expressions as if they were screaming.
After they were exhumed, the mummies were moved and put on display in the town museum, El Museo de las Momias.
One of the most unique funeral practices of Barcelona involves the practice of staying with the deceased for an entire day. The catch? The bodies are behind glass. The Altima funeral home, which handles a quarter of Barcelona deaths (around an average of ten to twelve bodies a day), offers 20 “family rooms” where families can rent a space to spend a day with their deceased loved ones.
There are two styles of glass that families can choose: the Spanish-style viewing or the Catalan-style. For the Spanish-style, the deceased is placed behind a large pane of glass in a manner that resembles a department store mannequin display. For the Catalan-style viewing, the body is placed in a glass coffin structure in the center of the room.
Once this viewing is completed, the family moves on to more traditional burial options.
Within the Igbo People, an ethnic group in southern Nigeria, death does not represent an end to life’s journey but rather a transition into a new world. They believe that without a ceremony called ikwa ozu, or “celebrating the dead" the dead cannot cross over and take their place among the family ancestors.
While the practices differ among different Igbo communities, they take place long enough after the original burial that they’ve come to be called a “second burial.”
These lavish celebrations can last anywhere from a few days to a month. The family spends a small fortune on good, alcohol, and entertainment for the mourners. Ikwa ozu is so expensive that, in many cases, the family will save for months after the death to afford to do it properly.
Another Filipino tradition, tree burials are a common practice among the rural Caviteno, who are based near Manila. Within this ethnic group, deceased Cavites are buried within a hollowed-out tree trunk. When someone grows gravely ill, they select a tree for themselves where they will eventually be entombed.
Rural communities in The Philippines have a variety of interesting funeral practices. A nearby group, the Apayo, bury their dead beneath their kitchens.
In the early 2000s, a law was passed in South Korea that required any burial grave must be removed after 60 years, like many “rental burial plots” of European countries. As the population rose, so to did a shortage of burial plot space. With this change came an increasing trend of cremations as well.
However, instead of keeping the ashes of a loved one, many families opted instead for another method. They had the remains compressed into a gem-like bead that comes in many colors like turquoise, pink, or black. These “death beads” are then displayed at home. It’s certainly a unique trend in funerary art.
The Ga culture views the dead as a powerful force. Many believe the dead are more powerful than the living. Due to this, many funerals in Ghana are extravagant, competitive affairs.
As the deceased are thought to continue their profession in the afterlife, they have been traditionally buried with something representing their trade in life. Around 60 years ago, the “fantasy coffin” trend became prevalent in part due to the talented work of carpenters, including Ataa Oko and Kane Kwei.
These unique, one-of-a-kind coffins are crafted into elaborate designs that reflect a trade or hobby important to the person in life. Some of the best examples include cars, shoes, beer-bottles, or even fish-shaped coffins!
For most cultures, mummification died out centuries (if not millennia) ago. That’s not the case for the Anga people of Papua New Guinea.
While the practice has diminished since the arrival of Christian missionaries in the early 20th century, this region in the Morobe Province is still home to this ritual. They believe that the dead are better remembered above ground and that it allows their spirits to protect the living after death.
Unlike Egyptian mummification rituals, the Anga people placed their dead in a seated position before smoking them over open flames for several months to avoid decomposition. Once the deceased has been fully mummified, they are strapped to a chair and carried to the nearby cliff where they are secured to the top.
From there, they become one of the village elders, watching over their home alongside their ancestors.
Banned today in India, the practice of sati was once part of ancient Sikh funerals. Though it should be noted that it is not done today. The ancient tradition was once a voluntary act in which a widow would burn herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre. Later, it became a forced part of funeral practices in certain sects, as widowed women were seen as a burden on their communities.
There have been many studies about the history of the practice, including its cultural impact and eventual banning.
The Victorians of Great Britain were fascinated with death. Memento Mori, literally “remember to die,” became a motto of the age. Keepsake jewelry – generally lockets or pendants with a piece of a loved one’s hair tucked inside – became popular at the time. They were even given as gifts.
Death photography was one of the most common practices of the time. As paintings were often too expensive for many and photography, families would pay to have their recently deceased loved ones posed in lifelike positions, often with living members of the family, and photographed.
This was especially common for families who lost a child.
The island nation The Republic of Kiribati, located in the central Pacific Ocean, once practiced skull burial after the death of a loved one.
Several months after the initial burial, family members would exhume the body to remove the skull. It was cleaned, polished, oiled, and preserved carefully. Then, it was placed on display in the family’s household.
Family members frequently placed food or tobacco nearby in a symbolic offering. If the teeth fell out, they were made into necklace keepsakes as well. After several years of mourning, the skulls were reburied with the body or in a specific manner apart from it.
Today, most of the islanders follow Christian funeral traditions.
Another practice largely seen only in the United States, skeletal donation programs attached to universities and other academic institutions have become a new, but increasingly popular option for many who might want to forego a traditional funeral.
The Forensic Osteology Research Station at Western Carolina University, located within the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, is home to one of the few “body farms” of the United States, where donated corpses are used for forensic and law-enforcement training.
The Forensic Anthropology Facility in North Carolina specializes in outdoor decomposition study. In these places, donations offer a hands-on way for students to learn how to solve future crimes.
There are other options for donating one’s body to science, including medical schools and other medical institutes like the Mayo Clinic.
In Japan, family members separate the ashes from the bones using chopsticks. After cremation, they pick up each bone fragment of a loved one and place them within the urn. This is done in a specific order, starting with the foot bones and working up to the head. Ashes are typically kept in an urn but that isn’t always the case.
One growing trend in both Japan and North America is having a loved one ashes incorporated into a keepsake – like a piece of jewelry. This process combines a small amount of cremains into a colored resin mixture that, once sets, resembles stained glass. These highly unique pieces are one-of-a-kind items offer a highly personalized way to remember a loved one by integrating a small piece of their cremated remains into a keepsake that can be worn or displayed for many years to come.
For an ethnic group in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, death isn’t a sudden event but rather a gradual process. The Torajan people believe that death is simply a sickness. Even after death, the body remains with the family who continue to look after and care for their loved ones.
They are known for elaborate, expensive funerals that can take months to raise the appropriate funds and to gather the family together. It is only after the funeral that the person’s soul can pass on.
Once the celebration is over, the mummified bodies are placed in a cave or stone grave. Much like the famadihana in Madagascar, the Torajans hold a ritual called ma’nene every few years where bodies are exhumed, cleaned, and re-dressed.
It’s a tradition born from blending pagan ritual with Christianity and popularized in many forms of western culture. The Irish Wake is a peculiar funeral service that gives the living one last chance to remember the deceased as they were in life.
After death – but before the religious funeral – the Irish have a practice of sitting with the dead through the night (or nights) at the deceased home. In urban areas, it’s now often held in funeral homes.
In earlier traditions, a wake was a chance for the community to come together, drink, and tell stories about the loved one they’d lost. It was also a time for merriment as well as sadness. Lewd songs, pranks, and games with names like "Priest of the Parish" and "Hide the Gulley" were commonplace at wakes up until the mid-1900s. Even contests of strength, which included lifting the corpse, occurred regularly.
The wake exists today in a much more somber form than its earlier roots, reflecting the modern Catholic elements, but retains the same sense of togetherness as it’s earlier iterations.
Probably the most well-known festival for remembrance in the world, Día de Muertos – or “The Day of the Dead” – is a yearly festival held throughout Mexico yearly on the first two days of November. Despite how it may be portrayed, it is not the equivalent of Halloween.
Instead, it is a day that reunites the dead with the living; it’s often seen as a day of remembrance for those who have died. Families create offerings – ofrendas – to their deceased loved ones decorated with marigolds, personal photos, and often food and drink they enjoyed in life.
It is a celebration of both life and death together. Because it’s such a social holiday, people often celebrate in the streets for all hours of the day and night. Many dress in elaborate costumes and it’s common for people of all ages to have their faces painted to resemble skulls.
In the early Roman religion, Libitina was the goddess of funerals. Her sanctuary was in a sacred grove (likely part of Esquiline Hill in Rome) where undertakers had their offices and kept a registry of the dead. They may have also doubled as her priests.
One important ritual for Romans was to give an offering of a few coins to Libitina after the death of a loved one. Much later, she became more associated with death and more aspects of the Roman concept of the Underworld.
North and South Korea have their own festival to honor the dead, combining food and celebration over three days in September or early October. Chuseok, or “Autumn eve”, is much like the American tradition of Thanksgiving in many aspects.
One of the most important traditional foods of Chuseok is a half-moon shaped rice caked called songpyeon, which is given as an offering to the deceased for their role in bringing in a good harvest.
The rice cakes are offered during a charye memorial service for their ancestors, where families gather and then share a meal once the charye service is completed.
As part of the festivities, a traditional visit to ancestral graves, called seongmyo, is completed where the graves are cleaned, and any required maintenance is done.
In a tradition that predates Halloween (but shares many characteristics), Samhain is a Gaelic festival signaling the end of the harvest and beginning of winter.
It’s a time when the Celts believed the boundary between the living and dead was very thin and those who passed on returned to join in in feasts held by their families. For many cultures, festivals of the dead are often intertwined with harvest festivals as you’ll discover on this list.
There’s evidence that some form of this celebration dates to the Neolithic era, as many stone tombs bear markings suggesting the importance of the date.
For the Dayak Ngaji people of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, a person’s spirit remains on earth even after death. They believe that to ensure the person can ascend to the highest level of heaven, tiwah, an additional ceremony, must be performed.
This is an important aspect of the Kaharinton – a traditional religious still practiced by small groups of Daya Ngaju – and it’s considered more important than the primary funeral ceremony.
Tiwah is held somewhere between a few months up to a year after the death of a loved one. It involves exhuming the physical remains to purify them, often has the participation of multiple families, and generally ends with a large feast to celebrate the soul’s ascension.
This feast day is shared by both Christians and Muslims in the Levant. It occurs around the Easter season and brings together people of both faiths to honor the passing of the dead. In modern times, the day is observed by distributing stamped cakes of bread on the Thursday and Monday following the death of a family member and during the Easter season.
In the Pacific-Northwest, the Haida people historically buried most of their dead in large burial pits outside their villages. However, for higher status individuals like chiefs, warriors, and shamans, they had another type of burial – the mortuary totem pole.
After a high-status person’s passing, the body was crushed with clubs and then placed into a small burial box. This box was fitted in an opening at the top of the pole.
Carved from cedar trees, these totem poles depicted a mixture of clan crests, social status, humans, and animals. While their height varied, the tallest range around 50 feet tall!
They were painted in colors like black, red, yellow, blue, and white and then placed in a place of prominence at the dwelling of the deceased member’s tribe. You can find many examples found at archaeological sites in British Columbia.
This is one of the newer funeral traditions on our list, and one of the most unorthodox. What more unique way to say good-bye to a loved one than by literally sending them to the stars? In 1997, the American company Celestis began offering space burial for loved ones.
Their first flight included the cremains of 27 individuals – including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and 1960s counterculture icon Timothy Leary – and has since launched 12 other flights.
There’s no wrong way to honor a loved one that has passed, even when that way might seem strange to others. Funeral traditions around the world have changed throughout the ages but they’ve all had one thing in common – honoring the lives of the people they love. Even today, that’s the most important factor, choosing a service that keeps the life – and memories – of your loved one in your heart.
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Can You Bury Your Loved One At Home? Is It Legal?
How To Make A Memorial Service A Celebration Of Life
Updated April 20, 2020 by Frances Kay