6 Death Rituals From Around the World

Losing a loved one is without a doubt one of the most heart-rending events any of us can go through. Sadly, death is an inescapable reality that everyone is confronted with at some point in life. Although, we inevitably will experience the death of loved ones at some point in our lives, whether we choose to focus on mourning their passing, or celebrating the beauty of the life they led is up to us. 

Typically funerals are somber affairs as loved ones and guests of the deceased honor them through a mournful ceremony and sets of customs. However, some cultures take a different approach, focusing on paying tribute to the deceased in a more celebratory fashion.

In this post, we will take a closer look at the funerary customs of 6 different cultures. We will explore the way in which these cultures remember and respect the dead, including the various prayers and rituals performed in the deceased’s honor. 

Australia

Although many of Australia’s funeral traditions are westernized, such as its typically dark and modest dress code for funeral guests, indigenous Aboriginal cultures approach death in a different way. Mortuary rituals hold a big place in their culture, and are seen as a send-off of the spirit to its next life. Aboriginal mourners engage in a smoking ceremony to begin driving away the spirit of the dead, leaving the body in the deceased’s home, and then wrapping it up and placing it on a platform to decompose. Feasting and dancing is part of the ritual of happily honoring the souls moving forward to its next destination. 

They believe in the rebirth of the soul, with this world being a temporary stop along the way. To this end, it is sacrilegious to speak the deceased’s name aloud after their death so as to not disturb the spirit or bring it down. Driving the spirit away is a happy event, which is incredibly important and is the essential purpose of their mortuary rituals. 

Ireland

According to Ireland’s traditions for wakes, women begin by washing the deceased’s body, dressing it in fine clothing, wrapping it in a shroud, decorating it with flowers and placing it on a large table with candles around it. The wake lasts a few days during which the body would never be left alone. During this time, funeral guests and loved ones of the decedent eat and drink, tell stories, and smoke tobacco together to socialize and keep evil spirits away from the body. Mourners also keep the windows of the house open for two hours to let the soul leave to prevent bad omens.  

China

Generally, death rituals in China are influenced by Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism in China. These rituals also reflect a culture that puts an emphasis on respect of the elderly. The Qingming is the biggest Commemoration Day for the deceased. This day has been termed the “Tomb Sweeping” day in which the Chinese pay tribute to those who passed by tending to their graves, clean their tomb surroundings, cutting weeds, and add fresh soil to the graves.

 Muslim Cultures

According to the teachings of the Quran, the holy scripture in of the Muslim religion, the burial of the deceased is to be arranged as soon as possible. The body of the deceased is washed and the head is faced toward Mecca. While Muslim cultures do not view the death of loved ones as a joyous occasion, or a time to celebrate, a Muslim’s passing is seen as a meaningful rite of passage All muslim cultures have strict rituals for the rites of passage of a deceased sol including the recital of certain Prayers, a mourning period, and a simple burial in the ground. 

Although it is acceptable for Muslims to be engulfed in grief and pain, crying loudly and excessively, yelling or tearing your clothes, are seen as a lack of faith, of not accepting God’s (Allah’s) will, and are looked down upon. In Islamic belief, as the deceased’s soul leaves this world, ritual prayers are performed to enable the soul on its journey into the afterlife. The general ambiance of a Muslim funeral is simple, respectful, and straightforward. Family, friends and the community at large are encouraged to attend to show support. After the dead body is buried, mourning rituals span a period of a few days.

  •     The first mourning period ends on the third day of the death.
  •     People get together on the seventh day to pray and pay visits to the grave. They also distribute food to the poor.
  •     On the 40th day, family and friends again arrange a ceremony to honor the final day of mourning, where they recite prayers for the soul of the deceased. It is called “arba’een” which means literally “40th”. This day marks the end of the mourning period, the souls’ final departure, and the bereaved family’s return to regular life. 

African Cultures

In some African cultures, funerals are major events that involve arranging of feasts for guests, the use of custom-made coffins, and even dancing pallbearers who dance as they hold up the coffin on the procession towards the burial. Sometimes, singers are also hired for the occasions. These rituals are considered a significant socio-cultural gathering in contrast to most other cultures.

Latin America

In Latin American countries, Catholicism has a significant role in funerals as the majority population is Catholic. Death is seen as an extension of life, and the deceased are given a proper and respectful ceremony. However, immediate burial is not practiced, as the body is kept out for up to 48 hours, for the purpose of the wake. The wake is a social event reserved only for the family in mourning. This time can include grieving as well as more upbeat moments while the family sits with the body and recalls stories of the deceased.  The funeral, however, is open to the community and there are no specific restrictions on style or format. Mourners are allowed to wail loudly, play music, etc. 

The specific ritual surrounding a person’s passing in the Latin communities is normally a Wake, Mass, Burial procedure as described below:

  • Wake: People gather at the place of a direct relative and mourn along with the family members of the deceased.
  • Mass: People gather at a Catholic church or another chosen place of their choice.
  • Burial: A priest blesses the grave, and family and friends pay their tributes to the deceased, and then the burial takes place.

Moreover, in Brazil, a national celebration holiday known as “Dia de Finados” is held on the 2nd of November each year. Throughout the country, people travel to gather with their families and remember their loved ones who have passed away. Similarly, in Columbia, the Day of the Dead is also celebrated on 2nd November just as in most Latin American countries.  

Final thoughts

Different cultures’ rituals and traditions serve to honor the deceased in meaningful ways, while instilling the bereaved and loved ones of the deceased with a new perspective and appreciation for life. For many around the world, it can serve as an opportunity to commemorate the life of the deceased and honor the legacy they have left behind, all while bringing the family together to share memories they’ll cherish forever. 

And ultimately, all of this is usually done with the hope that they shall reunite again one day. Or for some, simply the reassurance that their legacy will remain forever alive through the memories made and the time shared together. Learn more about different funeral customs and traditions around the globe and how each of these cultures takes a very unique and personalized approach when it comes to saying goodbye to those they loved. 

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