Death is one of life’s inevitabilities, but the traditions around it are not, thanks to the influence of culture and religion on the rituals we call on when a person dies. The differences in funerary customs around the world are fascinating, but even more interesting are the surprising similarities that unite us at the end of life.
Funeral customs around the world
In Tana Toraja in Indonesia, the dead remain among the living. The recently departed, referred to as sick (to makala), are housed in special buildings called tongkonan where they are dressed and served meals. Torajans express their enduring relationship with the dead “by lavishing love and attention on the most visible symbol of that relationship, the human body,” says anthropologist Kelli Swazey, who documented the culture’s mortuary rituals in a popular TED talk.
To a Torajan, physical cessation of life does not necessarily equate to death. “A member of society is only truly dead when the extended family can agree upon and marshal the resources necessary to hold a funeral ceremony that is considered appropriate in terms of resources for the status of the deceased,” explains Swazey, whose Torajan husband has childhood memories of playing with the body of his deceased grandfather. Funerals, grandiose affairs that are the most important social events of the Torajan calendar, may occur years after a person ceased living. The dead are finally interred in caves, watched over by their effigies or tao tao.
The Bahá'í Faith, a monotheistic religion founded by the Tehran-born Bahá'u'lláh in the 19th century, is practised by an estimated 7 million people in over 200 countries around the world.
“A Baha’is funeral is usually quite simple and will have readings of Baha’i prayers and other passages from the Baha’i sacred scriptures,” says Michael Day, National Media Officer at the Australian Baha’i Community. “There is no clergy in the Baha’i Faith, so individual Baha’is or a group of Baha’is may conduct the service, and a specific prayer for the dead is recited before burial by one person as all present stand.”
According to Bahá'í faith, the body must be buried, not cremated, and should be interred within an hour’s travel time from the city of town where death occurs. “Baha’is from the Middle East are required to observe certain procedures for the preparation of the body,” says Day. These include the ritual washing and shrouding of a body, placing a Baha’i burial ring on the finger, and the burial of the body in a coffin of stone or a fine hard wood.
Image courtesy of Flickr/Asif Syed.
One of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions is Zoroastrianism, a faith that has used ritual exposure to dispose of the dead since the 5th century BCE.
To avoid contact with the sacred elements of earth, fire and water, the body of a Zoroastrian is placed in a dokhma, or a ‘tower of silence’. Carrion birds and sunlight quickly reduce it to bones which are then moved to an ossuary pit in the tower’s centre and covered with lime.
In Iran, the home of Zoroastrianism, ritual exposure has been replaced by cremation. It is still practised among the Parsis in India where many Zoroastrians migrated following the rise of Islam in Iran in the 10th century. The custom’s survival is threatened there too by urban sprawl and more significantly a collapse in vulture numbers due to the inadvertent widespread poisoning of the birds by diclofenac, a drug commonly used in agriculture until it was banned in 2006. Without vultures speeding up the process, the slow decomposition of bodies poses a health risk to the surrounding community.
From the time of death until burial a Jewish body is never left unattended. Its preparation for burial (cremation is forbidden) is governed by a set of customs known as tahara. First the body is washed, symbolically purified by water, and finally dressed in a plain white shroud called a tachrichim. The body is buried in a simple casket, in keeping with the Genesis verse which states “Unto dust shall you return”.
Another custom requires mourners to wear a torn piece of clothing or a torn black ribbon during the week-long period of mourning observed by close relatives known as shiva. Family members ‘sitting shiva’ do not leave the home during this period, instead gathering to pray each day. A longer period of mourning is shloshim, which lasts 30 days after death. The loss of a parent requires a year of formal mourning.
On their deathbed, a Muslim is encouraged to say the Shahaadah, a declaration of faith. Once dead, funeral rites and the burial must take place as soon as possible. Cremation is forbidden due to the Islamic belief in physical resurrection following the final judgement.
To prepare a body for burial, it must be washed three times, covered with a white sheet, and then shrouded in three layers of white cloth. The body is then taken to the mosque for funeral prayers, or Salat al-Janazah.
The body is traditionally buried without a casket in a grave which runs perpendicular to Qibla, or Mecca. It is laid on its right side to face Qibla, and a layer of stones or wood covers the body to prevent contact between it and the soil above it. Each mourner present at the funeral throws in three handfuls of soil, and once the grave is filled, a small marker of stones is placed on it. Lavish monuments are not encouraged.
A mourning period, known as hidaad, lasts three days. Traditionally widows observe a longer period of mourning lasting four months and 10 days known as iddah, during which time they are not permitted to interact with na-mahram, or men they might marry.
In traditional Chinese culture, funeral rites are governed by a complex system of status which decrees that an older person must not show respect to a younger counterpart. This means elders typically do not take part in a young person’s funeral.
Once an auspicious day is chosen for the funeral, the body is carefully washed and then dressed, but never in red in the fear their spirit will become a ghost. The body is displayed at a wake where mourners bring flowers and white envelopes full of money to help cover costs. Joss paper, or prayer money, is burned throughout the service for the deceased person to use in the afterlife. Monks may chant Buddhist or Taoist scriptures over the casket, which is taken to the graveside in a funeral procession led by musicians whose music scares away bad spirits.
Historically, ancestor worship is important in Chinese culture. Family members burn joss sticks and offer prayers for the dead at an altar in the home. At least once a year they visit the gravesite for the Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Festival.
A priest should deliver the last rites, a final prayer to a dying Catholic, to prepare the soul for death. A prayer service known as a Vigil is held the night before a funeral, the traditional time to give eulogies remembering the deceased. The funeral liturgy usually takes place at a Catholic church or chapel, but not on holy days like the Sundays of Advent, Lent and Easter. Because Catholics believe in a final judgement and resurrection of the body, burial is preferred, however cremation is now accepted. The final resting place of the deceased person’s body or ashes is blessed by a priest, who then conducts the Rite of Internment, the final prayers before a body is interred.
Hindu funeral rites are known as antyesti. The body undergoes ritual washing before it is wrapped in a white shroud, or red if it is a wife who has predeceased her husband. The two big toes are tied together and the hands are placed in a prayer position, palm to palm. Ash or sandalwood is applied to the forehead of a man, turmeric to a woman. The body is viewed by mourners before cremation at a funeral service, where offerings of rice balls are often placed by the coffin.
Traditionally the body of a Hindu is placed on a pyre on the banks of the holy river, the Ganges. The cremation is usually led by the eldest son of the deceased, who first submerges himself in the water of the river, then circles the pyre three times before setting it alight. Finally, the ashes are consecrated in water.
Hindus observe a mourning period of 13 days following a death, which is broken by a ceremony known as sraddha, a ritual paying homage to one’s ancestors that is also performed on the anniversary of a person’s death.