Although we are culturally different, we all share the need to care for and lay our loved ones to rest at their time of death. Explore our differences in the way that death and funerals are undertaken around the world.
Death and funeral rituals across Africa are greatly diverse. Deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and traditions, and guided by the belief that life does not end with death.
The Merina and Betsileo people of the highlands of Madagascar believe that the ancestors do not leave the world of the living until their bodies are completely decomposed. And until then, the dead are to be treated with great love and respect through Famadihana. The Famadihana ritual occurs every seven years. Where the family graves are opened, and the dead are carried out to be honoured and re-wrapped in new silk. The families then dance with their ancestors around the grave before placing their bodies back for another seven years. Find out more about Famadihansa.
When most people picture Morocco, they think of bright cityscapes dripping in colour with a kaleidoscope of tiles. To contrast this, the colour of mourning in Morocco is white. A Moroccan widow will wear white for 40 days following the death of her husband. Following this, she will prepare a feast to mark the (theoretical) end of the mourning period. Read more about the Moroccan death tradition.
The night preceding a South African funeral, a vigil is held at the home of the deceased and will run through the night until the morning. All pictures, mirrors and reflective surfaces are covered. With windows also being covered in black ash. This is seen as a sign of respect to the deceased. Members of the community, friends and family all attend the vigil to pay their respects. A ritual killing of an animal for the ancestors is sometimes performed, this is believed to prevent any further misfortunes to the family. You can read more about South African traditions.
Despite western culture's apparent aversion to death and dying. Asia has formed a great and profound culture of death. Making up 60% of the world's population, counties in Asia have developed innovative ways of honouring the dead.
Hindus believe the banks of the Ganges next to the holy city of Varanasi is the most sacred place on earth to die. It is believed that anyone whose ashes are scattered in Varanasi will break the cycle of death and rebirth, allowing them to achieve nirvana (moksha). Up to 300 people are cremated every day in the Manikarnika Ghats, which lead down to the body of holy water. A very specific funeral process is vital in achieving nirvana, with the ritual’s many stages being performed perfectly for the soul to reach the afterlife. Read more about The Manikarnika Ghats.
Torajans are indigenous to the South Sulawesi region of Indonesia. For the Toraja people, funerals take precedence over nearly everything else, and when a family member dies, they are cared for until the funeral can be given. Often, weeks or years after death. During this time, the deceased is not considered dead, but is referred to as makula’ (a sick person). They are given food and water and are still considered part of the family’s daily life. Even after the funeral, the care for the family members is not finished. Every 1 to 3 years, the Toraja perform the ritual known as ma’nene. Where the families remove the mummified bodies from their tomb for cleaning. Read more about Torajan’s funeral rites.
Most Filipinos (81%) are Catholic, and therefore believe in the afterlife and follow Catholic funeral traditions. Specifically, in Filipino Catholicism, both the 9th and 40th days after the death of a loved one are significant. For the 9 days after the death, the family will perform pasiyam (recite prayers) and provide a celebratory meal. It is believed that the deceased's soul stays on earth for these 9 days. On the 40th day, a rosary is said to protect the soul of the deceased as they finalise their place in the afterlife. Read more about Filipino funeral traditions.
In Russia, after a death occurs, the family will cover their mirrors and stop all the clocks in the home. This stems back to Russian folklore which stipulates that mirrors are gateways to the land of the dead. According to superstition, the first person to see their reflection in a mirror after someone has died will be the next to die. It is also believed that stopping the clocks will allow the deceased's soul to move onto the afterlife quicker. Furthermore, in Jewish Russian culture the family will gather around the casket for a tradition know as 'keriah'. Keriah consists of family members tearing a piece of their clothing and wearing this item through their mourning period. You can read more about the Russian funeral traditions.
In South Korea, the lack of time and space has contributed to short funeral ceremonies. It is commonplace for funerals to be held in hospital. With families choosing their loved one's care provider based on the funeral services offered by each hospital. As South Korea is a small country with a high population, family members are turning to cremation rather than burials for their loved ones. According to Korean law, families that opt for natural burials will have to dig up the remains after 60 years to save space. Due to these laws, the popularity of cremation beads is increasing. After cremation, the ashes are formed into small beads. To be kept in special containers and displayed in the home of the family. Read more about South Korean funeral traditions.
After death the body is handed over to monks, who recite prayers from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This book outlines the three states that a person's consciousness passes through, before being reborn. Following this, Buddhists in Tibet believe that the body is simply an empty vessel. Due to little space for burial, other options are used. In the case of a Tibetan Sky Burial, the deceased's clothes are removed before the body is tied to a stake. The body is then carried to a high peak, where it provides food for animals and birds of prey. This practice is seen as a way to return to the earth and generously provide a meal for the vultures. Although, sky burials were banned by the Chinese in the 1960s, the practice is now only available to native Tibetans. Read more about the Tibetan Sky Burials.
With 44 nations and as the second smallest continent, it's no wonder Europe is a centre of religious and cultural diversity. When it comes to laying their loved ones to rest, the mix of folklore and religious traditions often occur.
In Ireland a wake is similar to a funeral, except the Irish believe that it is a cause for celebration. Today, the wake is a day to celebrate the life of the deceased person, giving the guests a day to cherish and remember their loved one. In ancient times, it was believed that a person's death was their third birthday. With the first birthday being when you are born, the second during baptising, and the third when you enter the afterlife. Read more at Connolly Cove.
Ukrainians put an emphasis on specific numbers when it comes to all occasions. For example, at Ukrainian funerals, mourners are expected to bring flowers in even numbers to place next to the coffin. At all other occasions or celebrations that require flowers, an odd number of flowers are expected. A feasting ritual for all community members occurs on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th day after a death. These rituals are also repeated on both the six month and one-year anniversaries. Read more about the funeral traditions in Ukraine.
In North America, conversations about death are uncommon. With many Americans viewing death as taboo or morbid. In comparison, the people of Mexico focus on death as a new beginning.
In Upernavik Greenland, stone and cement coffins are placed above ground as the glacial rock is too hard to bury into. Often, these coffins face the ocean so that the dead can view the sea for the rest of eternity. Find out more about the Greenland's burials.
In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a 2-day celebration where it is believed that the passageway between the living world and the spirit world is open. Allowing the deceased loved ones to return and visit their families. Each year the festival occurs on November 1st (Children return) and the 2nd (Adults return).
Families will prepare for several weeks in advance, creating alters, decorating burial sites, and preparing the favourite foods of the decreased. The most known image of the Day of the Dead is the sugar skulls, a sweet confection placed at the alters as part of an offering to the deceased. Read more about El Dia de Los Muertos.
The island nations of Oceania are rich in culture, and many island people honour their ancestors through rituals and art. As a melting pot of indigenous and traditional customs, death traditions are greatly diverse.
As the dead play an important role in Māori traditions, after a person dies, they are publicly displayed for a three-day tangihanga (tangi). The Māori believe the soul of a person remains until they are laid to rest. Which is why someone must be watching over the body throughout tangi. Traditionally, one year after the burial, the body was unearthed. Followed by the reburial of the bones. Although today this has been replaced by the hura kōhatu ceremony, in which a gravestone is unveiled. You can read more about this at Teara New Zealand.
In Tonga, when a family member dies, the family throws a large and expensive putu (funeral). The family is expected to throw a big feast and feed everyone from the community who shows up. It is also customary for the family to give gifts to everyone who arrives, showing their respect for anyone who has come to mourn with them. The putu can last for up to 24 hours and can typically cost more than most Tongans make in a year. As there are no funeral homes, many Tongans are buried at home. The lavish preparations are all done by the deceased's family and friends, with the grave decorated with quilts, flowers, and plants. Read more about Tongan funeral traditions.
40% of the World's Catholic population lives in South America. The mix of religion and old spiritual traditions results in a unique outlook on death.
In Chile, funeral rites take an entire year to complete and occur in four stages. First, in a ritual called cóflar, the family will sing and pray for a day and a night from the time of death. After this, the deceased is dressed, and the sash worn through their life is replaced with a funerary one. On the same day, all the deceased's clothes are washed and the yatiri (community healers) cleanse all living family members. Lastly, one year after the death, the yatiri presides over a final ceremony. Known as 'the end of the year', this ceremony bids farewell to the deceased. Read more about funeral beliefs in Chile.
Although this holiday has similar origins to the well know Mexican Day of the Dead, the traditions are very different. While the Indigenous people of Ecuador have been honouring their deceased since ancient times. Once the Spaniards arrived, they embraced the celebrations of All Saints Day, although making it their own.
On November 2nd every year, people in Ecuador dress in their finest clothes and bring food to picnic together in the cemetery of their loved ones. The two most important food items are colada morada (a purple drink made from tropical fruits and thickened with blue corn flour) and guaguas de pan (bread in the shape of babies or children riding horses, to be placed on the graves of loved ones). Read more about Día de los Difuntos traditions.
Last updated 02 August 2021