Death Rituals

Death ritual: roses placed at the graveside.

Cultures and countries around the world have different methods of mourning the passing of a loved one, which include a variety of death rituals based on religious or cultural traditions and beliefs.

Even though death is universal to all people in every culture, the responses to death and dying vary greatly. Death rituals are based on beliefs that come from religion, history, language, and art. The following is of ideas and beliefs that shape a cultures death ritual practices:

  • Beliefs toward the meaning of life.
  • Beliefs about whether or not there is life after death.
  • If you believe there is life after death, what happens to a person's soul and body?
  • Do dead people come back in spirit to intervene in or watch over the lives of the living?
  • What type of burial or disposal of the body is necessary for the climate, country, or people?
  • Is death accepted or feared?
  • How open is the culture in speaking about death?
  • How is death depicted in art, poetry, music, and theater?
  • Is there a connection between the living to the dead by prayer or visiting the grave?
  • Does the soul go directly to heaven?
  • Will the body be reunited with the soul at some point in the future?
  • Does a person need to be forgiven of his sins before his death?
  • What superstitions about death exist?

Common Death Rituals Still Practiced

Modern day death rituals continue today. The following are a few death rituals that occur in cultures around the world.

Throwing A Handful of Dirt on the Casket

It is common in many cultures for mourners to toss a handful of dirt on the casket before leaving the cemetery. Rarely do mourners stay to watch the entire casket being buried by the cemetery workers. Throwing the dirt on the grave may symbolize that mourners understand that our bodies return to the earth.


Mourning is a common ritual when someone dies. The process of mourning and even the amount of crying or wailing differs among cultures. Latin cultures for example, generally cry or wail more emphatically than others. Women cry more than men, possibly due to cultural views that crying might show weakness.

The Wake

The wake is a death ritual practiced in many cultures. During the wake, friends or family of the deceased sit with the corpse for several days and nights to watch and mourn. Part of the wake is usually conducted with prayer and scripture.

Dressing In Black

Dressing in black for an entire year after the death of a spouse or close family member was common practice for hundreds of years. It is still fairly common and acceptable to wear black or darker colors to the funeral.

Funeral Procession

Before the advent of vehicles, mourners walked by foot to follow the pallbearers who were carrying the casket. Today the funeral procession is done by vehicle. The hearse carrying the casket is in front, usually following a police escort.

Bagpipes Playing

Bagpipes are often played during Irish and Scottish funerals. They are also part of the death rituals at funerals of firefighters, police officers, military, or others to show honor and respect.

Tearing a Piece of Clothing

At Jewish funerals, the members of the deceased's immediate family tear a piece of their clothing to show the loss they are feeling. In some cases, the Rabbi will pin a piece of torn black ribbon to the families clothing. At the cemetery, there will be a walking procession following the pallbearers. The procession will be halted seven times and the Star of David will be etched in the headstone, although this may be placed later.

Tolling of The Bell

Tolling the bell is done at firefighters and police officers funerals to indicate the bell that signals them to go to an emergency.

Common Burial Practices

How individuals feel toward burial and death rituals is largely based on their cultural and religious upbringing.

There are several ways the remains of a deceased can be handled. The most common are:

  • Burial in the earth--the casket is lowered into the earth and buried.
  • Enclosed in a tomb or crypt of concrete or marble.
  • Cremation--remains are heated to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit and brought to ashes, which may or may not be scattered.
Death Rituals