Death being the most certain occurrence of our life is often the least discussed and feared about a subject. Here are few accounts of death rituals practised amongst various communities of the world
In Mexico, death is marked by a riotous festival. In Tanzania by a mass orgy, while in Tibet cadavers are cut into pieces and fed to the vultures, know about bizzare and elaborate death rituals of various communities across the world.
The Day of the Dead,on November 1st,is Mexico’s most fabulous festival. with a riot of feasting and music,the dead are welcomed back to enjoy-for a few brief hours-the pleasure they knew in life. Shrines in the family home are decorated with candles, incense, photographs of dead loved ones,pictures of saints,and orange marigolds whose scent attracts the souls as it would bees.
While some Western societies hardly dare mention the word,Mexicans use Dia de Muertos(the Day of the Dead) to invite death to dinner. Dishes are specially prepared in their honour and after they have “absorbed” the essence of the food,the souls are guided back to their resting place by a path of marigold petals scattered between shrine and grave.
In Mexico city, markets overflow with sugar skulls,papier-ma`che` skeletons and pan de muerto-a round bread with stylised bones baked on top. The Mexican people face death with a combination of irony,humour and contempt: the often life-sized skeleton sculptures are depicted riding bicycles, going shopping, performing surgical operations and offering a wry commentary on the vanities of life.
The Day of the Dead is an observance of All Saint’s Day and All Souls’s day, but nowhere is the party more ebullient than in Mexico. Here,the folk-religious practices of early 16th-century Spain found fertile ground,since superficially similar ceremonies were already part of pre-christian ritual in Mexico. Even now,in remote areas,there is lingering fear of the consequences-sickness and death at the very least-of not making offerings to the departed.
How do other societies greet death?
The most extreme way is suttee / sati, in which an Indian widow flings herself onto the husbands funeral pyre,freeing her spirit to follow his into the next life. although officially banned in 1829,it is still considered the highest glory an Indian woman can achieve, and 38 cases were reported in Rajasthan, India between 1947 and 1987
This concept of self-mutilation is evidenced in the West when we speak of tearing one’s hair out in grief or knocking one’s head against the wall. And it is highly ritualised in the Jewish “rending” of garments,where a man who has lost a parent makes a slit as wide as a hand in the left side of his coat,shirt and vest. The slit can be stitched upto 30 days after the funeral, but a small opening is left as a reminder.
Public expressions of grief are common throughout the world, albeit with varying levels of restraint. As the Irish gather around a corpse for an all-night drunken wake, so the Surma people of Ethiopia come together from miles around,each bringing three decorated cattle, which they lead three times around the grave while dancing,singing and clapping alongside. Hindus, Muslims and rural greeks are also vocal in their distress,but employ others to voice it for them. Female specialists ( Rudali )are hired to sing heart-rending laments. The immediate family mourns while the rest perform,and in this way communities are bonded and the bereaved supported.
Many funerals have sexual references, since sex is an affirmation of life in the face of death,a gift of fertility from ancestors. The burial of a Nyakyusa man in Tanzania is an opportunity for dancing and flirting. To a rhythmic drumbeat, the men begin a war dance, which drives evil away and the women wander among the men, increasingly excited by their virility, before an orgy begins.
The Bara people of Madagascar also enjoy days of feasting and sex during a funeral. When the Merina, another Malagasy tribe, give their ancestors a party by exhuming them several years after death,the mat that wrapped the corpse is considered an object of fertility. To have sex on it is highly prized.
The bizarre death rituals of the Dowayo tribe in the Cameroon.
Perhaps the most bizarre rituals is that of the Dowayo people in the Cameroon. During the mourning, the widow is isolated and forbidden from having sex , but once the funerary rites are over she can re-emerge to have her vagina rubbed with a dried fish. Now she is free to choose a new partner.
A mass of traditions have evolved around the actual disposal of the Dowayo body. Recently-dead men are decapitated and their skulls are carried outside the village, where excrement is thrown at them. The skull is danced around in the head of a joking relative before it is buried in a skull-house or tomb made of rock.
Studies of mortuary archaeology tend to focus on difference―how the researcher can identify age, gender, status, and ethnicity from the contents of a burial. Jill L. Baker’s innovative approach begins from the opposite point: how can you recognize the commonalities of a culture from the “funeral kit” that occurs in all burials, irrespective of status differences?
And what do those commonalities have to say about the world view and religious beliefs of that culture? Baker begins with the Middle and Late Bronze Age tombs in the southern Levant, then expands her scope in ever widening circles to create a general model of the funeral kit of use to archaeologists in a wide variety of cultures and settings.
The chinese tend to be more squeamish about corpses,largely through fear of contamination ,and bury them as quickly as possible.
But in Borneo,Indonesia and Madagascar , death is less a termination than an elevation from on plane to another.
Malagasy dig up the remains of their relatives and rewrap them in fresh cloth. Afterward, the Malagasy then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music. Called Famadihana
Once the wet part (the flesh) have separated from from the dry (the bones), the deceased has progressed to the realm of the ancestors; so after atleast seven years,the Cantonese exhume the bones and rebury them in an urn in an elaborate horse-shoe shaped tomb. Here , in an extension of Confucian filial piety,they are revered and propitiated;in return,the dead endow the living good fortune.
For the Toraja people of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, this process of separating wet from dry- the transition from the land of the living to the land of the ancestors-might take a year. But instead of being hygienically buried in the meantime,the corpse is kept at home,wrapped in a quilt and laid in a dark room,with a bowl and a cup at one side as if the deceased were merely ill. here it stays for several months, drying out. On an auspicious day,guests arrive with gifts of chickens or pigs, and the streets run with their sacrificial blood. The body is brought out and tossed in the air with wild cries. It is then temporarily buried,and the feasting,singing and dancing continue for several days. But it may be a year before the body is carried to its final resting place in a tomb chiselled in the rock-face.
Tibetan Buddhists prefer to obliterate their dead altogether. At dawn , corpses are skinned and cut up, the bones pounded to dust-a laborious process- and the bits spread across a rock. Eventually, the butcher cries out a prayer , flings a piece of flesh into the sky, and down comes hundreds of vultures to feast on the remains. The bone dust is mixed with barley flour to make it more appetising to the birds,since if one morsel is left the deceased will not be reincarnated but will wander forever in Bardo, a lonely limbo. There are also practical reasons for this sky burial. a wood shortage in most of Tibet rules out cremation,and for much of the year the ground is too hard for burial.
Bombay’s Parsees also offer their dead to the vultures. the body is laid on a stone floor in a Tower Of Silence, a tall structure without roof or windows, where it awaits destruction by the vultures that wheel overhead.
The elements of fire, earth and water are considered too sacred tobe tainted by death. Hindus , on the other hand , do cremate their dead. The body is washed , shrouded,decked with flowers and burnt on the funeral pyre. Fire is not only a practical means of disposal , but it is also thought to purify and release the soul tobe reborn , like phoenix ,hopefully higher up in the caste system,social scale. Adding to the process of purification , the ashes are consigned to the water,if possible the sacred river Ganges.Those unable to afford the wood for the pyre are buried,while those who have died infectious dieseases are cast directlyinto the river: since their death is blamed to the evil spirits, their burial must be outside the norm . Pilgrims performing rituals in the Ganges seem unconcerned by the bloated corpses that bob past.
Though also Hindu, funerals in Bali are more lavish. Corpses are temporarily buried until the day considered auspicious by astrologers for the funeral. The bones are then exhumed and placed on a sarcophagus that has been elaborately carved into an animal that reflects the deceased’s caste. So a soldier or administrator is borne away on the back of a fantastic dragon, and a priest on a sacred cow. The animal is placed on a platform in a tower almost 20 metres high,topped by pagoda tiers of paper and silk decorated with tinsel,mirrors and masks. Accompanied by music and dancing, the tower is carried on a bamboo raft to be cremated . As in India,the ashes are cast into purifying water.
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Australia is one of the few countries where cremation is almost as common. North Americans prefer lingering farewells,and the mortician makes this possible. Embalming began in the 1880s when methods of arterial injection were developed,enabling morticians to cosmetically restore the Civil War dead who were being sent home, often over long distances. But what used to be a way of honouring the dead is now a way of shielding the living from an awful reality. Euphemisms abound: mourning is “grief therapy”, “mortician” sound like “beautician”, while “funeral director” reassuringly suggests the boardroom. However violent the death, the Loved One is always “at peace” before burial, resting on satin in a cosy “slumber room”. Sometimes the body is even presented in tableau, at a desk in an armchair, cigar in mouth , as if still alive.
Years before death,Americans often purchase their own burial plots (leaving funeral directrors with interest-free capital). Such extravagance is spreading to Europe. In France, the lavish Pompe Fune`bre shops,prominent in most towns,sell beaded wire wreaths and fresh flowers sealed in transparent plastic like salad in aspic. The whole range of funerary arts is displayed in Paris at Fune`raire,an international trade fair for undertakers. Highlights this year included a black marble suitcase inscribed with the single word “De`part”.
The Japanesein Osaka, not to be out-done when it comes to conspicuous consumption,dispose of their dead in a darkened,converted bowling alley. Coffins glide down a 40-metre track to synthesided music,a Buddhist monk riding pillion and chanting prayers before evaporating into a cloudof dry ice. Satellite funerals, also available, allow busy businessmen to “attend” without having to leave the office , a ship at $70,000 an hour.
Around the globe,memorials vary from an english inscription on a tablet in a cemetery plot just 60cm square , to the Toraja’s life-sized effigies of the dead who stand guard in front of the tomb,often dressed in the deceased’s clothes. The merriest cemetery must be Sapinta in north -west Romania. Here , brightly painted totem poles are carved with tragicomic illustrations of the cause of death,such as a woman and her children being blown up by their gas stove. Some are accompanied by verses like : “Griga may you pardoned be, Even though you did satb me.”
In Ibiza the deceased are housed in “cities of the dead” ,miniature apartment blocks in which each “residential unit” contains a coffin and a photograph of the dead in their youth. Guests visit on sundays. In Venice,an entire island, San Michele, is devoted to the dead,who are deposited in mausoleums of every conceivable design.
During winter, the only use for gondolas is often for waterborne funerals, ferrying coffins to the island.
Of England’s romantic victorian cemeteries, Brookwood near Woking is among the largest. it opened in 1852 with its own railway station (later bombed0 and its own monumental masonry. Its 170 hectares are home-to date- to 231,360 corpses.
Today , fewer people seem to visit their deceased . the property speculators who notoriously bought three of London’s cemeteries for 5p each claimed that the graves had virtually been abandoned (although there was an outcry from a number of people who do attend the graves of their departed). So what is the future for the dead? In Tokyo the problems are less lack of care than drastic land shortages.,which mean that a grave plot costs a minimum of $22000. The bereaved are forced to house their dead in multi-storey warehouses while waiting for their countryside plots to become available. But an enterprising undertaker has come up with a solution : by the year 2020, Shinya Ichijyo hopes to open the first lunar memorial park. It may be awkward for Mexicans ,though . Souls could lose their way home after the day of the Dead and linger for ever after among the living,wreaking havoc.
The world’s merriest cemetery must be in romania. Here,brightly painted totem poles are carved with tragicomic illustrations of the cause of the death. Such as the little girl above who died in car hit and run accident.