For most of us, death is a solemn experience, a time of quiet reflection, sorrow and loss. This is not the case in some cultures where death is celebrated greatly. The way we grieve, commemorate and dispose of the dead varies greatly from culture to culture, with some cultures taking funeral traditions to the next level of strange (and fascinating).
Here are seven strange and fascinating funeral traditions from around the globe:
A funeral in Ghana is a time of celebration as well as a time of sadness, with the deceased person’s family expected to organise an extravagant funeral and send off. To ensure their loved one enters the afterlife in style, the family will hire photographers, DJs and professional mourners to weep – costing a family up to one year’s salary.
But the most fascinating aspect of a Ghana funeral is the fantasy coffins, known as abebuu adekai. While the vast majority of funerals use traditional coffins, abebuu adekai have become a fashionable way to celebrate a death. These coffins tend to be a visual representation of the deceased’s life and can often be outrageous; from a coffin shaped like a Mercedes-Benz for a businessman to a big Bible for someone who loved going to church.
The people of Madagascar believe that the spirit world exerts as much influence on the living as the physical universe does. In fact, many Malagasy people are afraid of the dark, choosing not to go outside after sunset, as they believe that’s when ghosts and goblins come out to wreck havoc.
Famadihana, also known as “the turning of the bones”, is a funerary tradition of the Malagasy. Once every seven years, a family will have the celebration at their ancestral crypt, rewrapping the bones of their loved ones while giving thanks for the blessings they have bestowed from the spirit world. The family will dance to accordion music, drink rum and tell stories of the dead.
When a loved one dies in Aboriginal society in Australia’s Northern Territory, extensive rituals are followed. Kick starting the celebrations is a smoking ceremony held in the loved one’s living area in an attempt to drive away their spirit. This is followed by a feast where mourners who’re painted in ochre partake in food and dance.
The body is then covered with leaves and branches where it is left to decompose – a process that takes months. In some cases, the liquid from the decaying corpse is collected and rubbed over the bodies of young men to pass on the good qualities of the deceased. Perhaps the weirdest part of the ceremony is when the bones are collected and given to relatives to keep as a souvenir.
Many Vajrayana Buddhists in Mongolia and Tibet believe in the transmigration of spirit after death. This means they do not feel the need to preserve the body as it is now an empty vessel, so they dispose of through a sky burial as an extreme type of Buddhist’s ‘self-sacrifice’ gift. This funeral tradition has been followed for thousands of years.
To return the soul to earth, the body is chopped into pieces and placed on a mountaintop, exposing the body to vultures. The people of Mongolia and Tibet believe vultures are angel-like and will take the souls into the heavens. They are encouraged to witness the ritual to confront death and feel the ‘impermanence’ of life.
Many ethnic groups in the Philippines follow peculiar funeral practices. The Benguet of Northwestern Philippines blindfold the dead and place them next to the main entrance of their house. Their Tinguian neighbours dress the deceased in their best clothes, sit them on a chair and place a lit cigarette in their lips. The Caviteño, who live near Manila, bury their dead in a hollowed-out tree trunk. When someone becomes ill, they select the tree where they will eventually be entombed. The Apayao, who live in the north, bury their dead under the kitchen.
Funerals in New Orleans are a mixture of joy and grief as mourners are lead by a marching band. Sorrowful dirges are played at first, but once the body is buried, the songs shift to a more upbeat note. Dancing tends to play a huge part of the event, to commemorate the life of the deceased. Historically, a funeral could last up to a week.
Music and dancing are intended to help the deceased find their way to heaven and to celebrate the bounds of life, which had in the past, included the release from slavery. The music and chant, coupled with tambourines and drums were elements of African funeral ceremonies which crossed the seas with captive slaves.
In South Korea, a law passed in 2000 which requires anyone burying a loved one to remove the grave after 50 years. As an alternative to traditional burial methods, South Koreans are taking their relatives’ ashes and transforming them into shiny blue-green, pink or black ‘death beads’.
South Koreans typically keep the beads on dishes or inside glass containers, as a decorative way to keep their loved ones nearby.
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