Death Rituals

Julie Kirk
Hands holding a candle

Cultures and countries around the world have different methods of mourning the passing of a loved one. Death is universal to people of every culture, however, their death rituals can vary greatly depending on their religious or cultural traditions and beliefs.

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 which include:

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. This symbolizes that man was born of this earth and has returned to this earth. A spouse or close family member will be the first to toss a handful of dirt on the casket, then other family and friends will proceed to do the same.

Mourning

Mourning is a common ritual when someone dies. The actual mourning process may vary among the cultures, however, to mourn is a normal and natural process when you lose a loved one. Mourning is the expression of grief that can be demonstrated by crying, wailing, etc., or by the actual time spent grieving after the loss of a loved one. Mourning can also be exhibited and can be done by dressing in black, wearing black armbands or flying a flag half-mast.

The Wake

The wake is a death ritual commonly practiced in many cultures. Traditionally, the wake is a time for family and friends to keep vigil or watch over the body of a loved one prior to the funeral. This is done as a sign of love and devotion. Typically, prayers and scriptures are said during a wake as well.

Dressing In Black

Wearing black during mourning actually dates back as far as Roman times. It is a common and acceptable practice to wear black or darker colors to a funeral. Dressing in black symbolizes and sends a message that the person wearing black is in a period of mourning.

Funeral Procession

There was a time that during a funeral procession the mourners would walk behind the pallbearers carrying the casket. Today, cars are the mode of transportation for a funeral procession. The funeral procession allows family and friends to pay their final tribute to their loved one by accompanying them from the funeral to their final resting place.

Bagpipes Playing

man playing bagpipes

Bagpipes are commonly played during Irish and Scottish funerals. However, they are also an integral part of death rituals to honor firefighters, police officers, military, etc. and have become a distinctive feature of a fallen hero's funeral.

Tearing a Piece of Clothing

At Jewish funerals, members of the deceased's immediate family will tear a piece of their clothing, or in some cases, the Rabbi will pin a torn black ribbon to the family member's clothing to symbolize the grief and loss they are feeling.

Tolling of the Bell

Tolling of the bell is the ringing of a bell at a burial service or funeral that marks the death of a person. It is often done at firefighters and police officers funerals. Today, customs vary regarding when and for how long the bell should toll at a funeral.

Unusual Death Rituals

There are a number of unusual death rituals, past and present which include:

Sky Burials

Sky burials have been practiced for thousands of years and about 80% of Tibetan Buddhists choose this method today over burial. The living take priority over the dead in Buddhist culture, therefore they choose to have their bodies eaten by wildlife in order to feed and nourish another living being. The dead body is prepared with incredible precision, brought to the sky burial site (typically hilltops) and the body is then broken down and chopped into pieces. It is then left for the Dakini (angels) to consume. The Dakini are typically vultures who then transport the soul to heaven where it awaits reincarnation.

Drive-Thru Funerals

There are funeral homes in the U.S. and Japan that offer drive-thru visitations. This is an unusual yet convenient way to pay your last respects for those who have an exceptionally hard time with funerals or have limited mobility.

Sati - Burning the Widow

Sati was a death ritual practiced in India. A widowed Hindu woman would lie on the funeral pyre with her deceased husband and was burned alive. At times, the women would not do this voluntarily and would be forced to the funeral pyre. There are other forms of sati also which include being buried alive with her deceased husband and drowning. This was regarded as the ultimate sacrifice and devotion of a woman for her husband. The practice is illegal in India today but similar practices have been found to still exist among various cultures.

Finger Amputation

The culture of the Dani people of West Papua, New Guinea believe there is a strong correlation between physical and emotional pain. So when a loved one died, family members would have a finger amputated. This ritual was performed to protect against evil spirits and to demonstrate the connection between physical and emotional pain. This practice has since been outlawed, however, older tribe members show evidence of this barbaric ritual.

Self-Mummification

Sokushinbutsu or self-mummification was practiced between the 11th and 19th centuries by Japanese Buddhists. The preparation for the self-mummification process would begin over 3000 days prior to their death. The monk was required to remove all fat from the body by consuming a strict diet of pine needles, resins, and seeds. When the monk was ready, he would enter a stone room and meditate. All fluid intake was slowly reduced which would shrink organs and dehydrate the body. The monk would die in a meditative state and the body would be naturally preserved as a mummy.

Ancient Death Rituals

A few ancient death rituals include:

Mayan Death Rituals

The ancient Mayans would bury the dead in their graves positioned in the direction of the Mayan paradise. This would allow the soul easier passage through the afterlife into paradise. The dead were buried with maize in their mouths as a symbol of the rebirth of their souls and for nourishment for the soul's journey.

Greek Death Rituals

Remembrance of the dead is very important for the Greeks. In ancient Greece, the dead were given meticulously carved stones so that the living would remember and honor them. While very few objects were placed in the grave, there were elaborate tombs, marble stelai, and statues that were used to mark the graves so the deceased would not be forgotten. The Greeks believed that the dead must continuously be remembered and honored in order for their souls to live on in the afterlife.

Egyptian Death Rituals

Egyptian tomb - Temple of Luxor

The ancient Egyptians were typically buried in the ground or in elaborate tombs. Regardless of where they were, the deceased were buried with their personal belongs so they would have all they need in the afterlife. The deceased Egyptians would also be buried with shabti dolls which is a small human figure that represents a person who would carry out tasks or chores for the deceased in the afterlife.

Death Rituals Around the World

The following are a few facts about death rituals worldwide and include:

Chinese Death Rituals

Chinese death rituals date back to the early dynasties and many of those cultural traditions and ritual ceremonies are still followed today. This includes burying their belongings in the grave or tomb of the deceased.

Native American Death Rituals

There are some common beliefs about death rituals among the Native American tribes, however, each tribe handles their death rituals in their own unique way. For example, Navajo burial customs believe that death itself is not something to be feared, but they did fear the deceased would return to visit the living.

Death Rituals in Africa

Africans' believe that the existence after death is influenced by the power and role of their deceased ancestors. Their death rituals are deeply rooted in their cultural beliefs, traditions, and indigenous religions.

Buddhist Death Rituals

Buddhists believe that when a person dies, they are reborn and go through a reincarnation process. The person's actions in life will determine how that person comes back. For example, they could be reborn into a god, demigod, human, animal, hungry ghost or hell creature. The Buddhist death ritual focuses on helping that person achieve a better station in the next life.

The Importance of Remembering

Death rituals around the world have a similar universal purpose which is to honor and remember your loved one. It is also important that they are remembered in the ways that are customary to your culture or religious affiliation.

Death Rituals