Death in other cultures
By taking a look at the funeral practices of different cultures, it soon becomes clear that there’s no definitive way to commemorate a death. Our own fixed funeral traditions, religious or not, are only as significant as those popular in other countries or even the next county.
It was with the Victorians that there came a surge in ceremonial funerals, elaborate displays of mourning and local cemeteries in the UK. If customs can become so ingrained through a shift in fashion, the question is raised whether they should be held on to so forcefully. Here’s a look at the differences, similarities and quirks of humans’ approaches to death around the world to remind ourselves that the meaning assigned to death rituals varies considerably.
The significance of how quickly a funeral takes place after death differs between cultures, as well as the importance placed on periods of mourning. A funeral for someone from a Muslim background is often arranged swiftly, yet the dedicated mourning period after the funeral should last 40 days. A funeral should be held immediately in Sikh faith, too. Yet, for Sikhs, a mourning period isn’t necessary. A death, rather than a disaster, is an opportunity to be reunited with God.
In Sweden, there’s no hurry to bury the dead. In one of the world’s most secular countries, the average time left between a death and the funeral is 20 days. A law has needed to be put in place to make sure funerals are carried out within a month after death. In a national display of pragmatism, it appears that in Sweden a funeral isn’t generally thought of as something to get in the way of important deadlines or fixed appointments. It would seem grieving can take place even if there’s no set period of mourning, in between life’s other commitments.
By looking at the disparity between the amount of time allotted to the mourning period and that of thinking about the funeral itself, it seems there’s no immediately clear suggestion that the time dedicated to a person’s death can be a measurement of our value and respect for that person.
At a Buddhist funeral ceremony in Southeast Asia you’ll not see outward and overt displays of grieving, either. The dead body, in Buddhism, is thought of as being only temporarily absent. Death, and the fire used in the cremation itself, is seen as freeing the body. Here, the nature of the funeral is analogous with an outlook or worldview: within the grand scheme of rebirth, questions of respect and reverence aren’t muddied by the means of disposal, which is often a mass pyre. While Buddhism is a diverse religion, there’s usually an emphasis placed on the calm dignity with which the cycle of reincarnation takes place by tempering any grief with a sense of inevitability.
In China, composure and dignity aren’t always positive attributes for a funeral. Instead, there’s a new job opportunity on the rise within the funeral industry – that of professional mourner. These are individuals hired to attend a funeral in order to loudly and heartily grieve. It’s better to pay someone to mourn someone they didn’t know rather than have the funeral of a loved one look a little sparse, for its misery to be too quiet. Prices for sobs are by the hour.
Yet, making noise is a fundamental part of funerals in the Middle East, too, and the role of the lead mourner remains unchanged for centuries. Appearing in the Bible and Arabic texts, it was custom that someone with the loudest voice would lead mourning prayers. It may be, after all, that comparing the quiet dignity of the Buddhist service and the brashness of hired wailers isn’t so simple a contrast: loudness, like time dedicated, is just one expression of, or helpmate to, the grief fundamental in the death process.
The dead body
Within Jewish tradition, it’s emphasised that a funeral should be simple. A ritual washing commences immediately, where the body is cleaned, dried and wrapped in a shroud. While in the UK we revel in the embalming process, pumping chemicals into a cadaver in order for it to look better than it ever did when it were a live person, many cultures keep the cleaning job in the family.
In Muslim, Hindu and Sikh religions, the cleaning itself becomes a kind of mourning ritual which is tactile and purificatory. It’s a demonstration of grief as well as a practical necessity.
In Madagascar, in a ceremony known as ‘turning the bones’, or famadihana, people remove dead relatives’ bodies from their burial place and wrap them again in fresh cloth. Maintenance of a dead body isn’t over and done with before a funeral but becomes a ritual that takes place over a number of years. The emphasis on cleanliness isn’t a matter of respect, but an ongoing process in the relationship people have with the dead.
Respect and veneration or unnecessary addition?
For those who are Hindu, there is a sense of addition and appendage included in the death proceedings. When placed in a coffin, usually, flowers are set near the feet of the person. Holy basil is then sprinkled round them and a garland or a wooden beaded necklace is worn. Ash is then applied to the forehead if the person is male, or turmeric for women. This is contrasted with traditions within the Sikh faith where, if any articles were worn by the person when they were alive – such as the kesh, kachera or karha – these are simply left on the body. The person should remain as they were in life, rather than adorned especially for death.
Veneration of a dead body varies even within the sacral, religious context. At a Tibetan sky burial you can expect see the dead being cut open and their internal organs removed in order for the remaining flesh to be eaten by oncoming vultures. Bones are then retrieved, ground down and fed to crows and hawks. This isn’t a sign of disrespect, but a continuation of the ecology of the place and an offering to nature. Disgust isn’t present, neither is adornment of the dead body, and the horrifying realities of the life cycle are themselves ceremonial.
For some cultures, familial ties aren’t broken when someone dies, and, even if you’d prefer it, some people never leave. In South Korea, a type of thanksgiving called Chuesok is celebrated where makeshift altars and offerings are given up for those who’ve died. Offerings include food and drink, dancing and games, and the dead are invited to take part in their own remembrance feast.
The celebratory vibrancy of the Mexican tradition of Dia de los muertos, evidenced in prayers, an abundance of food, drink and festivity, is meant to coax the souls of the dead to become present to the living. While it’s grown into a Catholic celebration, it’s an event that contradicts much of the sobriety peddled by the dark suits and quiet voices of local churches in the UK. This is more like throwing a party for the dead and asking them to RSVP, rather than an occasion that happens in their absence.