with special guests, Life In Stories podcast.
When I die, we’re not having a funeral. That’s not to say my body won’t be properly disposed of. Obviously it will be, otherwise my cats will eat me. What I’m staunchly against are depressing affairs full of silent discomfort and the worst thing of all, the viewing. Thankfully, there is a literal world of funeral practice options to choose from, everything from an Irish wake to Tibetan sky burial.
Before you brace yourself for another serious episode, don’t worry. Talking about death doesn’t have to be depressing. Death is a part of life and I feel we should be able to talk about death as easily as we talk about birth. They’re fundamentally the same – a momentous life event that your family deals with more than you do and tends to be at least a little messy. There are as many ways to celebrate a person’s life as there are kinds of people in the world. So in the spirit of celebration, let’s begin with something close to home, the New Orleans jazz funeral.
Along with Mardi Gras beads and a bowl of gumbo, the boisterous, jazz-tinged funeral procession is one of the prototypical images of New Orleans, Louisiana. In New Orleans and elsewhere, European-Americans attended funerals with brass bands playing “solemn music on the way to the grave and happy music on the return.” With the end of slavery, black funerals with brass bands became commonplace, which incorporated the new music style of jazz as it developed. At the same time, brass bands for funerals fell out of favor with white New Orleanians. Fusing West African, French and African-American traditions, these funeral processions strike a unique balance between joy and grief as mourners are lead by a marching band. The band plays sorrowful dirges at first, but once the body is buried, they shift to an upbeat note.
Another boisterous funeral practice familiar to many Americans is the Irish week. This week, I’m joined by Ying and Sara from the the podcast, Life in Stories. They explore life, culture, storytelling, folklore, superstitions, and the paranormal. Take it away, Sarah.
In Hinduism, death is not mourned as much since it is not viewed as the end of life but as a change in the journey of your atman or soul. The traditional mourning period is limited to 13 days. It is thought that if someone laments too much, then it will be harmful to the soul of the deceased. Immediately after the person dies an oil lamp is placed near the body, which stays burning for three days, though the body should be cremated the day after death. From then until the 13th day, the decedent’s immediate family is considered to be ritually impure. They often bathe twice daily, wear white, eat only one vegetarian meal each day and refrain from religious rites and festivals. When they reach the 13th day, a shaddra is performed. This ceremony involves a fire sacrifice, and offerings are given to both the gods and the deceased’s ancestors, to ensure a peaceful afterlife. The family washes the family shrine, leaving more offerings for the gods, and the mourning period is complete.
Buddhists, like Hindus, believe in reincarnation. Buddhist traditions involve a funeral with three components: sharing, conducting yourself well, and meditating. Similar to Christian funerals, the ceremony takes place at a funeral home and includes a eulogy and prayers. Funerals differ slightly from country to county, but they usually include an open casket. This is because when someone looks at the body, it serves as a reminder of the impermanence of life, a sort of communal momento muri.
Islam also requires a specific period of mourning, though theirs is three days. During that time, the family should avoid wearing decorative jewelry or clothing. Widows should mourn for four lunar months plus 10 days, during which time they also shouldn’t remarry or move to a new home. It’s acceptable to show your grief by crying, but wailing or tearing at hair and clothes is not permitted. Islamic custom also calls for burial to be soon after death, in some places as fast as 24 hours. In Iran specifically, the body is prepared for burial by being washed nine times and wrapped in a white shroud. It’s considered quite a holy act to help carry the coffin, so funeral processions often involve huge crowds around the coffin itself. During the burial, the body is placed in a grave facing Mecca, the most holy location on Earth for Muslims, and is surrounded by weeping mourners reciting prayers from the Qu’ran. The mourning afterwards is split into significant days. On the third day, a memorial service is held with huge flower arrangements and rosewater sprinkled everywhere; on the seventh day, the grave is visited and food is given to the poor; and on the fortieth day, the mourners, who have been wearing black, may begin wearing their normal clothes again, and a gravestone is put on the grave.
Speaking of wearing black, while it is the color of mourning for many cultures and countries, it’s not universal. Catholics in Brazil also wear purple, as do people in Thailand. White is the favored color in much of east Asia and for Australian aborigines, as it symbolizes purity and rebirth. It was also favored for a time in Europe, though it was worn by children and unmarried women specifically. Red is the modern color for mourning in South Africa, symbolizing the bloodshed of apartheid.
Another one of the world’s oldest religions is Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith that’s been continuously practiced for 3500. Their funeral practices involved a place with the Games of Thrones-sounding building The Tower of Silence. The Tower of Silence is a large, round stone building with no roof. Upon death, a body could be contaminated by demons, but it can be protected and made pure by exposing it to the elements — the sun, the wind, and carrion birds. Bodies were arranged on the towers in concentric circles, with men were placed in the outer circle, women in the middle, and children in the inner ring. Bodies were then left until they are reduced to white bones, which are then placed in ossuaries near, or inside, of the towers. You wouldn’t think of our ailing environment having an impact on funerals, but for Zoroastrians, it really does. Habitat destruction was already doing enough damage to the vulture population, when a livestock drug was developed in the early 1990s that proved toxic to the vultures feeding on cow carcasses. The drug was banned in May 2006, but by then it had decimated 95% of the vulture population in the region.
Vultures also play a key role in the sky burial traditions of Tibet and Mongolia. In these cold, rocky mountains, burying bodies in the ground is difficult. When a person dies, their body is wrapped in white cloth and monks or lamas read scriptures aloud so that the soul can be released from purgatory. The home is kept peaceful to ease the soul’s ascension to the heavens. When the prayer period is over, the body is be taken to the Sky burial site high in the mountains to await bearded vultures. A special Burial Master sections the body and lays it out for the vultures, who they call dakinis or sky dancers. The vultures eat the body and take it into the heavens. If that’s a little hard for you to digest, no pun intended, remember that a body buried in the ground gets eaten, too, just by things that are much, much smaller.
In Tana Toraja in eastern Indonesia, funerals are raucous affairs involving the whole village that can last from days to weeks. Families actually save up far in advance to pay for a lavish funeral, where sacrificial water buffalo will carry the deceased’s soul to the afterlife. They have time to save the money because the funeral won’t take place until years after death. In the meantime, the dead relative is referred to simply as a “person who is sick,” or even one “who is asleep.” They are laid down special rooms in the family home, where they are symbolically fed, cared for and remain very much a part of their relatives’ lives.
The dead remain in the lives of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, through their practice of “famadihana,” or “the turning of the bones.” Once every five or seven years, a family has a celebration at its ancestral crypt where the bodies are exhumed, wrapped in new silk shrouds and sprayed with wine or perfume. It’s a lively event where a band while family members dance with the bodies. The Malagasy believe their ancestors serve as intermediaries between the living and God and have the power to intervene in events on earth until their body has completely decomposed. The bodies are replaced in their tombs, with gifts of money and alcohol, before sunset, because the sun is the source of energy.
Tending to a dead loved one in the Aboriginal society in Australia’s Northern Territory, begins with a smoking ceremony held where the person lived to drive away their spirit. Next a feast is held, with mourners painted ochre, a shade of yellow from natural pigments, as they eat and dance. The body is traditionally placed atop a platform like a funeral pyre, except the body is covered with leaves and allowed to decompose. In some traditions, if the person was the victim of murder, fluids from the platform were believed to help identify the killer.
Some cultures believe a physical representation of emotional pain is essential to the grieving process. Some members of the Dani tribe of Papua-New Guinea tribe cut off the top of their finger. This ritual is specific to women, who will cut off a section of her finger if she loses a family member or child. The practice was done to both placate the spirits and to provide a way to use physical pain as an expression of sorrow and suffering. They numb the finger by tying a string tightly around it in advance, which also controls the bleeding. The section of finger is dried and then either cremated or stored in a special place. This may seem extreme to us, but it’s an important part of their cultural identity and is every bit as valid as [two examples].
Speaking of seeming extreme, there’s one funeral practice we won’t be covering today — cannibalism. There are cultures who honor their dead by consuming them. It’s not on the list for today because I’ve got a cannibalism episode in the pipeline and those are examples of endo-cannabalism, or eating people within our group.
In many of the diverse peoples of Africa, it is believed that witches and sorcerers are not admitted to the spirit world and are therefore denied a proper burial. The same applied to anyone who was generally a bad person. Those not buried rightfully are believed to become wandering spirits who were refused admittance into the world beyond. They wander the physical realm aimlessly and wreck havoc whenever they can. They are mostly feared and believed to become evil spirits perpetuating and causing evil plagues and occurrences. For them, this means being cut off from the community of their ancestors in death and is the nearest equivalent to hell. As in the Malagasy, they believe an ancestor can intercede for the living and protect them and to be in the community of ancestors is a continuation of life. Naturally, what constitutes a proper burial varies from culture to culture. For example, the Abaluya of Kenya bury their dead naked as a preparatory stage for rebirth in the next world.
To the Asante of Ghana, the stool is the most important object, representing power and unity and denotes the office of a high chieftain. When a new chief is enthroned, he is given his own special stool which he must never abandon. So when a chief dies, the stool then becomes the abode of their spirit. It is ceremonially blackened, first by smoking it, then smearing it with kitchen soot and egg yolk. From then, the black stool becomes an ancestral seat, a permanent reminder of the beloved ruler. It is guarded in a special room, where it’s placed on animal skins or beds and never directly on the ground. Sacrifices are made to the stool and it brought out to the public for festivals. A new chief must bare his chest and kneel before the black stool of his predecessor in humility and respect. Elsewhere in Ghana, some people aspire to be buried in fantasy coffins that represent their work or something they loved in life. You might see a coffin shaped like a Mercedes-Benz for a businessman, a giant fish coffin for a fisherman, or a coffin in the shape of a Bible for someone particularly devout. In America, we have a lot more options in coffins and caskets these days, including biodegradable alternatives for green burials, made of materials like willow, bamboo, or seagrass.
You can learn more about them by checking out the YouTube channel Ask a Mortician by Caitlyn Doughty, either of her great books, or her website, undertakingla.com. You could say this episode is dedicated to Caitlyn for helping me and my family to become more death-positive.
The Banyankole tribe of Uganda hold a special death ritual for people who die while harbouring a grudge. They bury the corpses of the grudge-holders with various objects to occupy the grumpy spirit so they won’t have the time or inclination to haunt the people they were holding grudges against. When a married person in the Buganda tribe dies, the corpse is buried wearing the underwear of the surviving spouse. If the deceased is a man, his wife dresses him up in her underwear, while saying out loud to him that he has gone to the grave with his wife. This death ritual deceives the ghost of the dead spouse, convincing him/her that they’ve been buried with their living spouse, so they won’t haunt the living spouse by seeking marital relations with them.
Some clans of the Igbo of Nigeria still practice a ritual of burying their chief or family head in an upright position with a long funnel leading from the grave right into his open mouth. The family would then feed the departed with palm-wine or other spirits. In addition to making sure the deceased doesn’t miss the party, it helps maintain the bonds between the dead and the living, ensuring the deceased’s name is never forgotten.
In South Africa, the windows of a house in which a death has occurred may be smeared with ash, all the beds are removed from the dead person’s room so mourners can enter, and occasionally a ritual sacrifice of an animal may occur to please ancestors. After the funeral, everybody may wash off the dust and dirt from the graveyard before they enter the house, to wash off bad luck.
Funeral and mourning practices change over times, sometimes as a matter of fashion and sometimes as a matter of morals
Statistically-speaking a fair number of my gentle listeners are fans of the late great David Bowie, but you may not know that his wish for his mortal remains was Ngaben, the traditional Balinese cremation ceremony. Like an Irish Wake or a New Orleans second line, the Ngaben is a long celebration of life. Most Balinese practice a form of Hinduism unique to the island, which mixes Hindu beliefs with Buddhism and local traditional animist practices. The ritual’s name comes from the word ngabuin or ngabu, which means “turn to ash.” In the interim, the family will construct a Wadah, a tower-like structure built of papier-mache, wood, and bamboo, and a Lembu, a sarcophagus in the shape of an ox. Royals and high-caste people have Lembu in the shape of other animals, such as a lion or dragon. The deceased is placed in the Wadah and is taken to the cremation site in a joyful, parade-like procession. The body is transferred to the Lembu and a priest oversees the burning of the body. Twelve 12 days after the cremation, the ashes are scattered into the sea, or a river leading to the sea, in a final act of purification.
That’s where we run out of ideas at least for today. I’ll leave you with one culture whose mourning traditions are definitely an inverse of the majority — they mourn birth. The nomadic Bopa and Kalbeliya tribes of Rajistan accompany the bodies of their dead to the cremation pyre with dancing and great revelry, celebrating the soul being freed from the prison of its body. Conversely, they mourn when a new baby is born as continued reincarnation is viewed as divine punishment. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.