Sky Burials, Sweet Treats and Dancers – Funeral Practices From Around the World
How much do you know about funeral practices around the world? As Mexico prepares to celebrate Day of the Dead, we take a look at some of the globe’s most interesting customs and traditions.
Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is perhaps Mexico’s most famous national holiday. Incorporating parades and street celebrations, brightly-coloured costumes and face paints, Day of the Dead is a time to remember one’s ancestors, whose spirits are believed to return to visit their families.
Treats like Bread of the Dead, candied pumpkin and tamales are offered on altars to make the souls of the dead feel welcome – sometimes they’re even provided with pillows and blankets to rest after their long journeys.
The festival has pre-Columbian origins, dating all the way back to when the indigenous Aztec culture would venerate Mictēcacihuātl, the goddess of death.
Traditional superstitions and fears about death led to very complex and ritualistic funeral practices in Korea. In the past, funerals could last as long as a month, with the body of a loved one being wrapped in a white hemp cloth so that friends and family could come by to pay their respects and leave gifts.
Modern funerals in Korea still retain some of these traditions, although they typically last only three days. It’s common for visitors to leave donations of 50,000 won (about £34) in envelopes to help the family with the costs of the funeral and of losing their loved one.
Mourning periods can be extensive in the Philippines. Women are expected to grieve much more openly than men, including public displays of sobbing, fainting and hugging the casket of the deceased. It’s common for men to wear a black ribbon for up to a year after a loved one dies, and a woman who loses a child may wear black for many years or even the rest of her life.
There are many different indigenous traditions throughout the Philippines, too – for instance, the Apayao people wrap the deceased in a mat and leave a spear and shield in the casket for protection in the afterlife.
Madagascans enjoy communal celebrations in which the deceased’s body is a guest of honour – it’s believed that they don’t fully pass over to the spirit world until they have completely decomposed.
They are entombed in ancestral crypts, and are periodically brought out for the ceremony of the “turning of the bones”, in which the remains are dressed in fine silks and sprayed with perfume or wine. The ritual is supposed to bring family members closer to the deceased and underline that they have not been forgotten.
Sky burials are common among Tibetan Buddhists. After ritual chants and the burning of incense, the body is wrapped in white cloth and taken to a hill or mountaintop to be eaten by vultures. Even the bones are ground up and made into flour for smaller birds to eat after the vultures have had their fill.
One element we might find gruesome is the disassembly of the body by monks or “rogyapas”, whose job it is to cut the remains into small enough pieces to be eaten. However, this process is supposed to make it easier for the soul of the departed to move peacefully on.
A popular trend in Taiwan is to hire exotic dancers for funerals. As well as helping to celebrate the life of the departed, the dancers help to attract more people to the event, ensuring the deceased is given a fitting send-off. While clearly a modern phenomenon, it’s not unusual for Taiwanese funerals to be joyful and colourful rather than sombre.
Although the practice is often associated with poor and working-class families, this isn’t always the rule – in early 2017, a well-loved Taiwanese politician had 50 pole dancers attend his funeral.
While traditions may vary from place to place, the one thing they all have in common is the desire to celebrate and pay respect to the deceased – with all their friends and family all around them.