The ways in which we mourn the loss of a life and celebrate death is changing constantly. In the West however, funerals and memorials are often organized as formal and composed events. In many cases, the focus seems to be on the death, rather than the life of the individual, while still distancing us from the dead itself. But there are many cultures that celebrate death around the world, and that should make us rethink our distanced relationship to the dead.
We like to promote something called death positivity: the idea that speaking about our own death, and experiences related to the deaths of others, is actually very important and positive for us as individuals and a society. We need to rethink the conversations, and taboos that surround death in the West. This would allow us to more fully live our own lives, and approach the death of our loved ones differently. If you need a little inspiration, and want to learn how other people celebrate life, and death, read on.
Cultures That Celebrate Death
1. New Orleans – Jazz Funeral
In New Orleans, Louisiana, one of the most famous traditions is the jazz funeral procession. Combining West African, French, and African-American traditions, these funerals merge the experiences and sentiments of grieving and celebration, as the funeral mourners are lead by an elaborate marching band. Typically, a jazz funeral is lead by the family and friends of the deceased, and a brass band. The procession will move from the home, funeral home or church, to the cemetery.
The march usually begins with the band playing more somber music, such as hymns for mourning. The tone of the procession slowly builds to one of joy, after either the deceased is buried, or the hearse leaves the procession and members of the procession say their final goodbye (or “cut the body loose,” as it is called). Once the body is cut loose, those participating in the procession will usually begin to dance. Onlookers may join in as well, celebrating the life of the deceased together. Some choose to follow the band, simply enjoying the music – these are called the “second line.” Their style of “dancing” – which usually involves twirling a parasol or handkerchief in the air – is called second lining.
2. Bali – Cremation
Ngaben is a funeral ritual performed in Bali to send the deceased to the next life. During this Buddhist ceremony, the body of the deceased will be displayed as if they are sleeping, and the family will continue to treat the deceased as if they were alive. No tears are shed, because the deceased is only temporarily absent and will reincarnate or find enlightenment.
The climax of a Ngaben is the burning of the coffin. The fire is seen as freeing the spirit from the body, and enabling them to reincarnate. For members of the elite classes, it is normal to perform the ritual individually for the deceased within days of their death. However, for the less privileged, the deceased is often buried first, then later cremated with the village’s other dead in a mass ceremony. Because of the religious significance of this ceremony, those who help are honoured to do so, and see it as a sacred duty.
3. Madagascar – Turning of the Bones
Famadihana is an important funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. Also called “the turning of the bones,” every five to seven years, people remove the bodies of their ancestors from their family crypts and re-wrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music. The basis of this tradition is that the spirits of the dead only move on to the afterlife once their body is completely decomposed, and once appropriate ceremonies are conducted.
The custom brings together extended families as a way of cementing, and celebrating close family ties. The bodies, wrapped in cloth, are exhumed and sprayed with wine or perfume. As a band plays, family members dance with the bodies. This ceremony lets people tell important family news to the deceased and ask for their blessings, but it is also a time to remember and tell stories of the dead.
4. Ghana – Fantasy Coffins
In Ghana, people are often buried in highly decorative coffins that celebrate their passions in life. These “fantasy coffins” are made into all different types of shapes, such as animals, luxury cars, and other symbols – usually representing the deceased’s profession or favourite hobby. The reasons behind these coffins is also related to the religious beliefs of those who use them: they believe that death is not the end, and that the afterlife is similar to our lives on Earth.
These coffins serve as important vessels, allowing the deceased to continue their passions in the next life. The deceased are also believed to be very powerful, and to have the ability to influence the lives of the living. Because of this, the families of the deceased go to great lengths to show respect to the dead. Building these coffins serves as a way to please the deceased, by celebrating the skills and interests they had in life.
5. Mexico – Dia de Muertos
Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Day, is a holiday that dates back to the Aztec Empire. Over time, it has blended with the Catholic holiday, All Souls’ Day, to become a vibrant celebration of the dead. On this holiday, family and friends gather to pray for and remember those who have died, and to help support their spiritual journey in the afterlife. People will go to cemeteries, and build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages of the deceased, as well as photos and personal items that belonged to them.
The reason these traditions exist is to encourage the souls of the dead to be present, so they might hear the prayers and stories the living are saying. The day also has a celebratory and light-hearted atmosphere, as the living recall entertaining stories about the deceased. Because of this, the seriousness of the holiday depends on the people observing it. For some, it is a day of fun and happiness, and for others it is a day of solemn remembrance.
Cover image via www.therealdealtours.com
Do you know of any other interesting funerary traditions? Share your story in the comments section!