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  • Sue Phillips

Death Rituals & Ceremonies

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

I’ve long been fascinated with the death rituals of various cultures, just as I have always

been about cemeteries.

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 has been exhibited by dressing in black, wearing black armbands or flying a flag half-mast. Wearing black during mourning actually dates back as far as Roman times. It is a common and acceptable practice to wear black or darker colours to a funeral. Dressing in black symbolizes and sends a message that the person wearing black is in a period of mourning

It is also common in many cultures for mourners to toss a handful of dirt on the casket before leaving the cemetery. This symbolizes that humans were born of this earth and have 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.

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. Many people don’t realize that we can still hold wakes in our homes with the body of a loved one present.

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. Do you pull your car over to make room for a funeral procession as they are about to pass your car? It was definitely something everyone did when I was a youth and I still do it now.

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

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 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.

These are all rituals I am familiar with either through my own background or through friends who practice them.

There are other rituals, however, that may seem extreme to some and at the very least will be thought provoking. It is true - the way humans respond to death are vastly different. Some examples of the diversity of death rituals and ceremonies are included here.

Have you experienced or witnessed any of these practices?

Tibetan Sky Burials - the ancient practice of Tibetan sky burials sees the corpse of a deceased placed atop a high peak, to be eaten by vultures and other birds of prey. It is both sustainable and serves a symbolic purpose, representing the impermanence of life for followers of the Buddhist faith. The corpse is no more than a discarded shell; the soul has already moved on toward reincarnation. It’s considered a good sign if the entire body is consumed, as Tibetan custom holds that even vultures – unfussy as they are – wouldn’t eat the body of a person who committed evil deeds.

Dancing with the Dead in Madagascar - on Madagascar, the world’s second-largest island country, the dead continue to play an important part in family life even after they have been buried, thanks to a ceremony called famadihana, or “the turning of the bones.” Every five to seven years, bodies are exhumed from ancestral crypts. Family members carefully strip them of their burial garments and wrap them in fresh shrouds, after which the guests drink, talk, and dance with the departed. Just before the sun sets, the bodies are reinterred, turned upside down, and the crypt sealed for another five to seven years. The ceremony — seen as a joyous occasion — stems from the belief that the dead only move on to the next life after their bones have completely decomposed. Bodies that have never been exhumed exist in a kind of limbo; not part of the living world or that of the ancestors.

Ghana’s Fantasy Coffins

In Ga culture, the dead are believed to be much more powerful than the living, with the ability to influence their relatives, so families do all that they can to ensure the deceased will be sympathetic toward them rather than vengeful. Additionally, the dead are said to continue their living profession in the afterlife and must be buried in something that represents their job. Families commission dedicated manufacturers to create elaborate coffins (known as “fantasy coffins”) in any number of shapes and sizes, from sneakers to boats to Coca-Cola bottles. The tradition has garnered international attention, with the likes of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and former US president Bill Clinton both reportedly visiting the workshop of internationally renowned fantasy coffin maker Paa Joe. One of Clinton’s predecessors, Jimmy Carter, is even believed to have purchased two fantasy coffins.

The Filipino Igorot Tribe’s Hanging Coffins

Originating from the northern provinces of the island of Luzon in the Philippines, the Igorot people practice an ancient funerary custom in which the elderly carve their own coffins, which are then tied or nailed to the side of a cliff when they die. The tradition, believed to date back 2,000 years, is said to lessen the distance between the deceased and their ancestral spirits. Before being placed in the coffin, the corpse is seated on a “death chair,” bound with leaves and vines, then covered with a blanket. The body is smoked to prevent decomposition, allowing relatives to pay their respects over several days. Before the casket is hoisted up the cliff-face to its final resting place, mourners allow fluids from the rotting body to drip over them in the belief that it will bring good luck.

Death is one of the common denominators of the human race, and the ways that we respond to it are vastly different. What death ritual or ceremony is important to you?

In “For Whom the Bell Tolls” John Donne is meditating on the value of each individual. He asks not to wonder whose funeral bell is tolling, it might just as well be yours. He is inviting us to regard each life as being as precious as our own. (I have changed the wording of man to human)

For Whom the Bell Tolls by John Donne No human is an island,

Entire of itself

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend's were.

Each human’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in humankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.



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