Death And Dying Practices Around The World
Death is the same across all cultures; the cycle of life is the same but how we view death is different. Conversations on death and what may come next have varied significantly from culture to culture with each group expressing exclusive opinions.
Death and dying practices vary throughout the world and are influenced by many factors which may include culture, religion, personal beliefs and community traditions. This is a guide that gives a brief overview of death cultures around the world.
Celebrating Death in Africa
Africa is a continent of 54 countries and over a billion people and so it’s not possible to write an inclusive guide to every death custom. Still, there are some shared beliefs across the continent. In Africa, the deceased continue living after death and so it isn’t common to discuss one’s end-of-life wishes. Most Africans believe in ancestors; the dead who continue living and guiding their family in the afterlife. Without a proper funeral and burial, the ancestor will become a wandering ghost.
African funerals are colourful, lively and elaborate affairs.
In Nigeria, the Igbo tribe celebrates death with not one but two burials. The second ‘burial’ is a celebration of the deceased. The multi-day ceremony features a bull slaughter, ritual drumming, and poetry all to celebrate ancestors (loved ones that died).
In the Yoruba society, there are many types of burial rites but the one everyone would love to have is the ‘Isinku’ which is the right given to the person who has died of old age. The burial rite constitutes the end and beginning of life and it involves a sacred ritual and cost so the family is given enough time to prepare for the event before a date is given. The funeral may happen anywhere from a month to a year after the initial burial.
The San people of Southern Africa are the oldest living humans on Earth and in a mysterious ‘rain dance,’ they transport their souls to the spirit world to speak with the deceased.
If the individual is not buried properly or did not live an honourable life, they can wreak havoc as a ghost to the family, as well as the community. Depending on the certain community or tribe, burials may happen right away or be delayed.
Death Customs in Asia
Asia makes up 30 per cent of the Earth and also 60 per cent of the population and in many Asian cultures, those in mourning wear white to represent the passing of an individual, many Asian cultures believe in the afterlife.
Chinese death rituals centre on honouring their elders and funeral rites will depend on the age of the deceased individual as well as their social standing. It is believed that not following proper rituals means misfortune for the grieving family. In Tibet; a remote Buddhist territory, Tibetan sky burials leave the deceased’s body on a platform for vultures to eat. After the funeral, the deceased’s soul arrives in Paradise.
In Indonesia, many people believe in the afterlife and funerals vary from simple to extravagant, with some cultures holding more than one funeral for a deceased loved one. Burial tends to be more popular than cremation.
Korean funerals centre on devotion to parents and Confucian tradition. Families in Korea keep cremation beads in their homes as a unique way to honour the deceased.
In the Philippines, superstitions mix with Catholic beliefs to make unique death customs. Some Filipino funerals even include animal sacrifice.
In Thailand, Buddhist funerals generally consist of a bathing ceremony shortly after death, daily chanting by Buddhist monks and a cremation ceremony. Theatrical entertainment plays an important role in Thai funerals.
Death Culture in America
Most Central Americans are deeply Catholic, and the vibrant cultures of countries like Panama and Guatemala show the significance of family in life and death. Immediate and extended family members provide comfort and aid in grief. Superstitions like kissing dirt before throwing it on the coffin or burying a loved one with keepsakes are commonplace.
In countries like Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the family holds vela or celebration for the deceased where guests drink alcohol and eat pastries as they stay up all night sharing memories of their loved ones.
In North America, some individuals select more eco-friendly burials such as bio-urns while others prefer cremation or traditional burials in a casket. They may hold wakes before the funeral service, have traditional funerals or celebrations of life as well as post-funeral receptions to honour the deceased individual.
Those in the military, as well as police officers, and firefighters also have their cultural practices when it comes to honouring deceased personnel which may differ based on community and department.
Christianity is the dominant religion in America. Christians don’t view death itself as a reason to celebrate and it’s the afterlife that is celebrated. American Atheists, on the other hand, are more likely to treat death naturally.
In the United States, holding a wake, funeral or memorial and a post-funeral get-together is common. Some people’s funerals are led by religious leaders while others may celebrate life events to honour their loved ones. The discussion around death tends to be taboo.
In many South American countries, funerals may be colourful and may feel more like a celebration than a solemn event. Some cultures believe that their deceased loved ones can come back from the dead to join in the Day of the Dead celebration while grief is often viewed as acceptable and respectful of the deceased loved one.
The Yanomami are the largest isolated tribe in South America; they drink a mixture of ashes and bananas to keep the spirit of the deceased alive.
Across Latin America, people celebrate their ancestors on the Day of the Dead. In some cultures like Peru, families believe the deceased can rise from the dead and join them in celebration. The Latino culture is an example of how the relationship between loved ones continues to exist after death.
In Columbia, if a child passes away, they are thought to become angels that go to heaven; the mourning period is often short as loved ones seek comfort in knowing that their child is in heaven. Women sing lullabies to deceased children.
In Peru, there is often a graveside service or cremation service. In some instances, guests will chew coca leaves which are thought to allow them to be with their deceased loved one. Some even believe that their loved one is in a deep sleep.
The Day of the Dead is a time to remember, honour and celebrate those that have passed, Mexicans take to the streets in joyful song and dance and leave offerings at cemeteries for the deceased all over the country. Some even sleep next to their graves at night.
Burial Customs in Europe
With over 44 countries in Europe, about 75 per cent of Europeans identify as Christian. Small communities often have their death ritual traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation that can make the funeral or memorial unique. Black is the traditional colour of mourning in many European countries.
In Germany, dying is expected and inevitable. German people believe in giving everyone a respectful burial or cremation and there are laws in place that ensure that this happens. The law also requires that cremated remains are buried.
In Italy, because many Italians practise Catholicism, religious overtones can be observed at funerals. Caskets are typically stacked in mausoleums instead of in the ground. Funerals are a community event with solid support from loved ones in the community. Italian funerals are a prime example of the closeness of family in the death of Europeans and their dedication to traditional burials.
In Ireland, death rituals can go on for days before an individual is buried. Before being taken to the funeral home, friends, neighbours, and family gather to share stories, sing and pray.
Many Eastern Europeans are more likely to be highly religious and follow Orthodox or Christian traditions and they mix folk religions in their death customs, too. For example, before a Russian funeral, family members stop clocks and cover mirrors to avoid more death in the family.
Death in the Middle East
The majority of people living in the Middle East believe in the religion of Islam, Muslim funerals are simple and they focus on the deceased’s actions in the earthly realm.
Families show emotion openly, often screaming, crying, or even slapping their faces. Family, friends, and neighbours also gather together to bring food to the deceased’s family and share in prayer.
Only God knows the timing of each Muslim’s death, and each Muslim has a set time they will pass into the afterlife. To reach the afterlife, Muslims have to follow Islamic laws based on the Islamic holy text Qu’ran.
People all over the Middle East unite over religious customs because it’s an integral part of Middle Eastern culture.
It can be overwhelming to think of your death and your funeral wishes, but you can begin to think about your wishes and your views on death to share them with friends and family and fully live in the present.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.