North American burial practices and death rituals are second nature to most of us. We have all been to a religious service to memorialize a loved one or visited a cemetery at least once in our lives. However we often don’t realize how varied death rituals are around the world. Were you aware of the various death rituals and burial practices within different religions and cultures on earth? Even those in our own backyard? Death may be universal but mourning is far from it.
Death rituals around the world
Buddhists believe that death is a cycle they call Samsara. When we die we are reincarnated and we prepare for our re-birth. This cycle is only broken once we reach a point of enlightenment called Nirvana. For Buddhists of all cultures, the transition period between this life and the next for the deceased is the most important part of death. In China they aid in this transition by holding religious ceremonies for 49 days. In Tibet, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is read to the deceased to help them on their journey.
Early Buddhist communities would burn the bodies of the deceased, following traditions found in India. Monks would pray over the body which would be brought to a pyre and set ablaze. A notorious practice within Tibetan Buddhism is the sky burial. This is where the deceased is left on the top of a mountain to be eaten by birds of prey. This is both a pragmatic act, as firewood is scarce, but it is also an act of generosity and a way for mourners to let go.
Like many faiths, Christianity has very nuanced views about death that tend to differ slightly between denominations. At its core lies the belief that when we die, our spirits return to God in the heavenly realm. Christians believe that death is a final act on earth and that life then continues spiritually. Many denominations believe that those of us who have sinned are fated for an eternity of suffering in Hell. The origins of Christian burial likely date back to the Jewish belief in resurrection; thus the need to have a body remain intact and accessible for the day of Jesus’ return.
Generally Christian burials take place a week after death and occur at either a church or crematorium. Cremation was once banned by both Protestants and Catholics however people from both denominations may now choose that option. Church service is ritualized with reading from scripture, speeches and Eulogies given. The exception to this is during Catholic mass where no eulogies can be given from the pulpit.
Interesting fact: In the Middle Ages, if a soldier was killed away from home his body would be boiled in a pot and his bones brought back to his homeland for burial. This was eventually outlawed as a practice by the Pope.
Hindus believe that death is part of the cycle of life and that the dead are re-born into new earthly bodies. Death applies only to the physical body and the soul lives on infinitely. The goal is to end the cycle of rebirth and liberate one's soul, allowing it to merge with a greater cosmos(the Supreme Soul).
The common practice among Hindus is cremation, although burial is also allowed. In many cases the body will be cremated and the ashes spread across a holy body of water. There are four stages to the death rituals in Hinduism: preparations when a person is close to death, rituals for the dead bodies, rituals which aid the soul during its journey and rituals to honour dead ancestors(the Pitrs). There are proscribed days of mourning and mourning can take up to an entire year. Many of these days of mourning will include ritual dress(white linen) and feasts.
Muslims believe in the concept of heaven and hell, referred to as Jannah and Jahannam respectively. When a person dies they are transported to another realm where they await the day when the messiah will return and they dead will rise. Death and dying in Islam is a very ritualized affair.
Rituals begin almost immediately after the person has passed. These rituals include the washing of the body, enshrouding the body in white linen, funeral prayers and then burial. The period of mourning generally lasts 3 days while widows will mourn for just over 4 months. During this time widows are not allowed to wear jewellery and are not allowed to work. Family and non-family members will pray over the body and wish the deceased well. Women and Children are not allowed at the cemetery during burial and bodies are only allowed to be buried in a Muslim cemetery.
Interesting fact: If a Muslim individual dies outside of their home country, they will most likely be buried where they died as it is imperative to bury the dead within 24 hours. Likewise, if a person dies at sea, a sea burial is customary.
The burial practices of Jews before the common era were likely influences on the burial practices of Christians and Muslims. It may come as a surprise but Jewish holy books have little to say about what happens after death. What is written has never reached uniform consensus within the community and different books have varying answers. The Mishnah(a 2nd century book of laws), speaks about preparing for the world to come but emphasizes the importance of good deeds on earth over any notion of the afterlife. Likewise, the idea of heaven and hell were never fully developed in Jewish holy books, although writings and concepts do exist.
Upon death the body is not allowed to be left alone and the family may either accompany it or a special Rabbi will. The body will be ritually washed and buried within 24 hours. Viewing the deceased is not allowed at traditional Jewish burials. For the first 7 days after death, the family of the deceased will sit in mourning(Shiva). No one can work during this period and meals are often prepared for the family by outsiders. This is followed by a 30 day mourning period named Shloshim, of which Shiva makes up the first 7 days. During Shloshim an individual will slowly transition back to normal life.These periods are broken up by prayers in the Temple and rituals performed by the grave.
The Haida culture of British Columbia believed in reincarnation, and sometimes before death an individual might choose the parents to whom he or she was to be reborn to. Upon death, the deceased is transported to the land of souls where they will await reincarnation. Death rituals included offerings to the Gods, feasts, potlatches and dance performances.
Art played a central role in Haida culture and to this day the Haida are known for their elaborate Totem Poles. Some Totems were built as memorials and mortuary poles. The deceased were sometimes tattooed and painted. The deceased were buried differently based on social rank. Figures of high ranking would lie in state for a few days before being buried or placed in a mortuary pole. Those of lower ranking were buried away from noble families and would never have had poles erected in their honor. The Haida people often held slaves and upon death, the slaves would simply be tossed in the ocean.