Three Thought-Provoking Death Practices From Around The World

Posted by ash_stevens



The ideology of death is a fascinating thing. It may seem that there is only one way of viewing it and conducting the process, but the ideas we’re immersed in are not universal. The beliefs and practices surrounding death will vary by country, culture, region, and religion/philosophy. At first, these death rituals may appear strange, but when you explore them deeper, the strangeness takes new form. Consider these three rituals from across the globe.

 

Celebrating Life And Death In India

The country of India is vast and heavily populated with many variations in rituals and beliefs, but death is a time of ritual and profound meaning. Upon death, the departed body is bathed. Once it has been cleansed and dried, it is adorned with sacred ash and markings. In the room where they died, there is drinking water and a lit lamp to comfort the lingering spirit of their loved one.

 

No cooking is done in the household of the deceased until after the cremation, so the community provides the family with meals following special and specific guidelines that honor the importance of this time. The family will remain at home to rest and process their loss for 13-40 days (depending upon their caste). This is a sacred period with an important spiritual cause, and so work and “obligations” are set on the backburner.   

 

When it’s time to cremate the body, the family will lay flowers upon their body, put coins in their hands, and place rice in their mouth. After cremation, there are many rituals which may be performed from a deeply spiritual angle, like the singing of religious hymns, reading from the Bhagavad Gita, and many large feasts and social gatherings.

 

Two of the most common rituals are the recitation of the thousand names of Vishnu (the god of protection), and the Shraddha. The Shraddha entails the offering of food and prayers to the deceased or, alternatively, they may be given to the poor and hungry as a virtuous act in honor of the dead. Friends and family will also gather to feast and remember the one who passed. These gatherings are often done once a month for one year. After the first year, there will be a Shraddha ritual held once a year in their honor based upon tithi (a date determined by the death date and the positioning of the sun and moon).          

 

Expressing Detachment And Rebirth In Tibet/Mongolia

Tibetan Buddhists follow an age-old practice of burial known as a “sky burial” or “celestial burial” (in Tibetan, it’s Jhator or “giving alms to the birds”). Upon death, the body is left untouched for three days while monks chant sacred mantras. The day before the burial, the body is cleaned, wrapped in white cloth, and then put into a fetal position. Finally, the body is led to the charnel grounds by a line of monks chanting as a means of appealing to the deceased’s soul.

 

When the chanting is finished, the sky burial begins. Poorer families may just bring the body of their dead to a high mountain to be fed on in entirety, but those who can afford otherwise will hire rogyapas (body breakers) to cut and handle the body. The rogyapas’ cutting process is methodical, with flesh and organs being cut into pieces and the bones being ground. When all is finished, the bone meal is fed first to the waiting vultures. Then the organs, and finally the flesh. The body is thoroughly and methodically fed to the vultures. These birds are seen as Dakinis -- “sky dancers” with status much like that of an angel. It’s important that the body be completely consumed, for the dakinis are holy and honorable. Consumption by the dakini vultures ensures that the dead will be taken into the heavens where they’ll await reincarnation.

 

The thought of chopping up a body and feeding it to vultures may sound crude, but this act signifies the spirit’s return to the heavens. It is also seen as honorable, because one’s body is used to feed animals, thus sparing the lives of living creatures while also contributing to the natural cycles of life. Dear ones are encouraged to watch the process; to witness the impermanence of life and to understand that the body is nothing more than a temporary vessel for the soul. A soul which will soar to the heavens, and then again return to Earth rebirthed in a new physical body.

 

Death In America

Body chopping and stuffing the dead with rice and coins sound like strange customs indeed. How can America possibly compete with such odd, intense, and unsanitized traditions? Well, there’s actually a dash of madness in our death customs too.

 

When one dies in America, the body is loaded up for certification and processing. If the death is certified by a physician, a certificate of death or cremation is issued. If the physician is unable to certify the death because the cause of death is uncertain, the death is reported to the local coroner. If they determine that a postmortem examination is necessary, the body will be cut open, organs pulled out, tissues sampled, and parts will be poked and prodded. Once a cause of death is determined and “closure” is now achieved, ole’ doc signs off on the death certificate and the body is transferred from morgue cold storage to funeral home cold storage (or the crematory).

 

Where burial is the resting option of choice, bodies will be prepared by morticians for their final appearance. Embalming fluid rich in formaldehyde, methanol, disinfectants, and skin-colored dyes is then pumped through the body, forcing out their blood which drips down into a sink that leads to the local sewage system. Then fluid, feces, and urine are sucked out from the abdomen. Finally, the body is cleaned and dressed (a very personal act which is performed by the mortician -- a person who was completely unaware of the deceased’s existence until they met their dead body on a gurney). Then the hair is styled and the face is touched up with makeup so that they may appear alive even though they are very much not. It’s a clean process, and one which allows the dead to appear to defy death days or weeks after their passing.  

 

When burials aren’t performed, the body is burned and ashes are collected via cremation. Cremation is an ancient practice in countries across the world, but the spread of Christianity during the Dark Ages had replaced European crematory practices with ground burials. The practice didn’t make its first official appearance in America until the late 1800s, and slowly gained popularity over the next hundred years. Because cremation is inexpensive and eco-friendly, it’s used for low-budget funerals and to manage a low carbon footprint (even in death). The ashes can be kept in an urn as a friendly reminder, scattered on a mountaintop, or compressed into a diamond and turned into a ring.

 

Such practices seem far more civilized and sophisticated than chopping up flesh in Tibet or handling dead bodies in India. But these practices feel barbaric in a spiritual sense. The grieving are expected to take time off as HR policy permits, and they’re referred to grief counseling to cope with their pain as the community remains unaware and/or uninvolved. There are no feasts or celebrations to remember the dead and rejoice being alive. The burning of the physical body doesn’t symbolize the release of the soul or the importance of detachment, nor does it signify the natural processes of life. Instead, these practices fight against these ideas. America categorizes the death rituals of other cultures as “out there,” but it’s time we took a good look at our own...


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