Funeral Traditions from Around the World

As diverse as humanity is, one of the things every culture has in common are traditions and rituals around death. It is a human instinct to honor and memorialize the dead, and all of humanity is united in this instinct to create rituals around death. However, death customs around the globe are as unique and varied as the cultures they represent. In this article, we’ll look at 8 different cultures and how they remember and honor their dead.

Balinese Burial

1. New Orleans Jazz Funerals

While it originated in New Orleans, the tradition of Jazz Funerals has spread across America. These highly ritualized and spirited funerals involve marching through the streets with a full brass band. Marchers often carry signs with pictures of the deceased as they follow the band through the streets. A Jazz Funeral begins with a wake for friends and family. They then march the casket to the church that will host the funeral, with the band playing somber, funeral dirges. The group of people following the brass band are called “The Second Line” and they often dance and sing with the band. For Christian funerals, there are ritualized moments of rejoicing for the deceased who is now in heaven. Once the procession reaches the church, they have a traditional, somber Western-style funeral. The Jazz Funeral is rooted in both European and African cultural traditions.

2. Indonesian Funerals

The Eastern Indonesian funeral rites are worlds apart from Western funeral traditions. in Tana Toraja, funerals are “raucous affairs involving the whole village.”. Instead of a single day, these funerals go on for days to weeks. Another aspect that is wildly different from western funerals is that the funeral might take place years after the person has physically passed. The family saves up a lot of money for an opulent funeral, sometimes for years. Until the funeral, the deceased is laid out in a specific room in the home, and there they are ritually cared for, including being fed, bathed, and taken out on family outings. Eastern Indonesian homes are called tongkonan’s, and they represent the life cycle. Where a person was born is also where they die, or at least placed in after physically passing, and is where they pass on to their ancestral resting place.

3. Mongolian Sky Burials

A sky burial is a common practice in Tibet and has been for thousands of years. Instead of burial or cremation, after a person dies, their body is taken to a special monastery. There a sky burial operator will dismember, or chop into pieces, the corpse. They will then lay out the remains at a special sky burial site to feed vultures. Vultures are considered sacred by the Tibetan people. Every night the lamas, or spiritual masters, at the monastery read sutras, or scriptures, for the dead. These recitations can go on all night. By exposing the body to the elements and animal scavengers, the body is returned to the earth as generously as possible. The choice to have a sky burial is called Jhator, an act of generosity. Buddhism teaches compassion for all beings and leaving your body as food for the earth and its creatures is considered to be a final act of compassion.

4. Filipino Death Traditions

There is a multitude of cultures in the Philippines, and each has its specific ways to honor its dead. The Tagalog tribe in Philippines are primarily Catholic, and while they use many of the Western components of a traditional funeral, they have adapted them to reflect their cultural origins. In addition to a 7-day wake called a “lamay”, one unique thing about the Catholic Tagalog funeral is that guests to the funeral, in addition to their condolences, give the bereaved family money to help with the costs of the funeral and burial. There is also a night vigil, during which the grieving family will serve drinks and food to their guests. These are not silent vigils, there is often group singing, lots of conversation, and music. Gambling in the form of card games is common practice to keep the mourners awake through the whole nighttime vigil.

5. Green Funerals

Many people these days are considering the environmental impact of their death. One of the ways that people are choosing to protect the environment is by eschewing the traditional embalming practices, where the body is preserved with chemicals. Then they choose a biodegradable casket, like one woven from wood, so that their body, and the casket itself, can organically decompose right into the earth. This requires the use of a natural burial ground. In 2006 there was only one natural burial ground. Four years later there were 22 cemeteries with natural burial grounds certified by the Green Burial Council. Cemetery owners anticipate a rise in interest in environmentally friendly funerals as more and more baby boomers start to plan for their death. The baby boomer generation is one of the first generations to care about the environment and its impact on it.

6. Balinese Funerals 

Ngaben is the Hindu funeral ritual of Bali, Indonesia. The Hindu people of Bali believe that the soul of a person is trapped in its body until the body can be appropriately cremated. The soul of the dead person is released through ritual cremation, allowing it to escape into the heavenly realms. According to Hindu theology, there is competition between the hellish, lower realms and the upper, heavenly realms to capture the soul. A proper cremation increases the soul’s chances of making it into heaven. A quick Ngaben is considered ideal, but the full ceremony is quite expensive, so there is often an in-between time between death and the ceremony. In the interim time, the body is buried while waiting for its Ngaben. This allows families to pool resources and cremate many of their dead at the same time. Once the funds are secured, families will choose a spiritually auspicious day, and make the coffins, or bade, to carry the dead bodies. Only then is the Ngaben announced.

7. South Korean Death Beads

In South Korea, there is a shortage of space in graveyards, leading to a law that passed in 2000 requiring families to remove the bodies of their dead from their graves after 60 years. This is because South Korea is a small country, and land, especially for graveyards, is at a premium. South Korea also has a large population. In 2018, an average of 582 people died per 10,000 people. In Seoul, a city that has a population of over fifty-one million, that is almost nine million deaths per year. So, it is clear why cemeteries in South Korea have had a hard time keeping up with the demand. Since the law was passed so recently, the people of South Korea have adapted quickly, with only 3 out of 10 deceased being buried traditionally in 2011, compared to 6 out of 10 being buried traditionally in 2000. 

More Filipino Death Traditions

This article discusses 7 different death traditions practiced by indigenous Filipino tribes. One of these tribes, the Ilocano, calls their funeral and burial traditions pompon, which means burial rites. When a man dies, his wife prepares the body with a special outfit by herself. She does this because they believe the spirit of the dead can give her messages from the afterlife. Then the body is placed in a coffin laid out in the center of the house. She then lights a wood log, called an atong, in front of the house which burns throughout the entire wake. There is also chanting while crying, which shows respect for the deceased and ensures their safe travel to heaven. The immediate family members of the deceased are not allowed to work. This means they can’t cook or carry any heavy objects. The mourners dress in black for the vigil, and the close family members wear a black veil called a manto, to show that they are in deep mourning. To complete the ceremony, all members of the family wash their hair with a ritual shampoo.

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