All over the world and all throughout time, different cultures have approached beliefs surrounding death in a range of matters. Some cultures stick to subdued ceremonies reserved for families and friends while others invite entire villages to honor the deceased. In this installment from Top10Archive, we are going to travel across the globe and through time for some of the more intriguing funeral rituals and customs revolving around death.
While some cultures honor their deceased and spend more time around it than seems necessary, the Zoroastrian couldn’t be any further away on the spectrum. Regardless of who the deceased individual was, the Zoroastrian believe dead bodies to be something that defiles everything they touch. No individual, besides specially trained people, will touch the body. First, it is cleaned in unconsecrated bull’s urine by a trained member of the community and laid in linen so that it may be visited by the Sagdid, a dog said to cast away evil spirits. The corpse will be visited by mourners, though nobody is allowed to touch it. The body is then placed on top of the Dhakma, or the “Tower of Silence,” where the clothing is removed through the use of disposable tools. The body is left to be devoured by vultures until there is nothing left that could harm the community. Though most customs are meant to preserve the sanctity of the deceased, the Zoroastrian go through great lengths to ensure that the living are not harmed by the corpse.
Dani Finger Amputation
The Dani tribe of Papua, Indonesia weren’t big on flashy rituals or day-long ceremonies. Instead, they turned to self-mutilation to mourn their dead. It is believed that the pain and suffering caused by severing a finger was meant to symbolize what they felt due to the loss of a loved one. Other accounts state that the ritual was to ward off the spirits when the deceased was considered a powerful person. The finger would be cut off at the first knuckle and the tip would be left to dry out. Once dry, they were burned down to ashes and the remains were spread across special areas to drive away the spirits.
Mortuary Totem Poles
Totem poles are used to tell the stories of important aspects of native culture, but there’s one totem that goes beyond even that. The Mortuary Totem Pole is a special type of totem that, though decorated in beautiful carvings that tell a story, has a little something extra added to it. In a little groove carved at the top of the pole would sit the remains of a chief, shaman, or notable warrior. To get the body to fit into the small boxes placed in the groove, it would be crushed to a pulp with clubs. The icons in these poles were meant to act as guardians to guide the spirit to the afterlife. Those that did not receive this treatment were simply thrown into a mass pit where animals would scavenge their bodies.
The Balinese Dragon and Bull
For the bulk of Balinese, funerals consist of simply burying their dead, but it’s only meant as a temporary solution until the family can afford a real Balinese funeral, which can run upwards of 45 million rupiah or roughly $3,500. For those that can afford the funeral, it is quite an elaborate ceremony that includes a wooden dragon statue and hollowed bull statue. While the dragon statue and onlookers pay their respects, the corpse is placed inside the bull and moved into a ritualistic cremation site. During the transportation of the bull, the caravan is brought down uneven roads to shake off any evil spirits. Even though it is a pricey affair, everyone in this culture will do what they must to raise the money as it is believed that cremation releases the soul so it may inhabit a new body.
This Hindu ritual, practiced mostly by Brahman, is somewhat similar to the burial of a Viking nobleman, though it is known that the woman performs the ritual willingly. Rather than being a slave-girl that may or may not have honored the nobleman, women that partake in Sati are more-than willing to sacrifice themselves with their loved one. The widow would typically immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. It is believed the ritual stems from the story of the Hindu goddess, Sati, who burned to death in a fire she created in response to her father insulting her husband, Shiva.
Viking Burial Ritual
In old Viking tradition, if you were a slave girl to a nobleman on his deathbed, the best thing you can do is run away. Far, far away. The deceased is first buried for ten days, the possessions divided amongst the daughters and wives. Whatever is not given to them is used to purchase cloth to cover the corpse and to cover the cost of the ten day binge-drinking that occurs after the death. Amongst those indulging in pleasure over the ten days is a slave-girl who volunteers to be burned with the deceased nobleman. Decked form head to toe in a variety of ornaments, she offers herself up to the viking men. In a somewhat inhumane ritual, on the tenth day, the slave-girl is placed in a wooden dome built upon a ship which also houses the corpse. Before the ship is lit on fire, the slave-girl decapitates a hen and throws it into the ship and then is strangled to death so that her soul may leave her body. Whether or not the slave-girl does this willingly or is forced into it has been a topic of question over the years.
Mongolian Air Sacrifice
Leading the Mongolian Air Sacrifice is a lama, as they direct, from beginning to end, the entire ritual. If the deceased held a high rank in society, the number of lamas involved will increase. Post-mortem, the lama will determine where the ceremony will take place, in the interim offering food and prayer to keep evil spirits away. Blue stones are used around the body to ward off evil spirits while incense is burned to attract the good. During the process, nobody but the lama is allowed to touch the body and when the body is moved, it is done so through windows or holes in the wall to avoid evil spirits following. The final step is to offer the body to nature, allowing predators to pick at the corpse until nothing but a bone outline is left. The Mongolians believe if even one step of this process is missed, bad karma will plague the family of the deceased.
There are no accounts of endoconnibalism in more modernized cultures, but it has been reported in tribes across the globe. Aboriginal Australians are said to have partaken in this act of eating the flesh of the deceased, but it has also been recorded in tribes in Papua New Guinea. The family or fellow tribesmen of the deceased individual are said to feast upon the flesh of their fallen kin as it is believed to be a sign of post-mortem respect. Other tribes are said to consume the flesh in hopes of absorbing some of the individual’s wisdom or traits. Chiefs of the West African Junkun tribe are said to eat pieces of their predecessor’s hearts in hopes of maintaining his place above the society in which he rules.
Benguet and Tinguian Traditions
Tribes in the Philippines have their own, interesting ways of dealing with death. Two Filipino groups, the Tinguian and Benguet, handle their rituals in similar matters. The Tinguian take the body of the deceased and cloth it in what would have been the person’s best outfit. They will then pose the body in a chair and place a cigarette between their lips. To top it all off, they will light the cigarette. Just as intriguing are the Benguet people, who blindfold the recently deceased and posed them near the main entrances of their homes. Surely there is a “Weekend at Bernie’s” reference to be said right about now.
Australian Aboriginal Rituals
Australian aboriginal death rituals are a lot about passing down something from the departed. When a person passes, their body is placed upon a raised platform and layered with leaves and branches. Under this natural blanket, the body was left for months to decompose entirely until only bone was left. In some of these rituals, the liquid that spurred from the decaying body was used to rub on the bodies of young men. It was believed that this would pass on the good qualities of the deceased. Some tribes are a little less comfortable with the deceased and go so far as never uttering their name again and leaving alone any property they’ve left behind. Though it sounds mean, this was done so that the spirit didn’t continue to stay around with the living.