According to archaeological evidence, funeral rites were one of the very first elements of human culture to emerge. Funeral rites can be found in every culture, both ancient and contemporary, although of course these rites differ considerably between different parts of the world and distinct spiritual/religious traditions.
Sometimes even the funeral choices of people from our own culture can seem unusual. For those with a strong religious faith, a funeral service conducted according to their religious beliefs is an absolute essential, but growing numbers of people in the UK have no religious faith at all. They generally opt for a humanist or celebrant service, which usually consists of people sharing memories of the deceased and a reading of an appropriate poem or piece of prose.
This is a fairly relaxed ritual that most people from a western culture would be happy to participate in, but things get slightly more unusual when you go further afield. In Tibet they practice a rite called “sky burial”, where the bodies of the deceased are exposed to birds of prey, high in the mountains. This may seem abhorrent to us, but there they see it as a much more dignified alternative to burial or cremation.
The Australian Aboriginals are another culture who forego burial or cremation in their traditional funeral rite. The remains of the deceased are generally covered in leaves and other vegetation, and then left on a platform to decay naturally. This gives the surviving friends and family members months to grieve and celebrate the life of the deceased. After the body has sufficiently broken down, the bones are cleaned and placed in an upright log. Of course the Aboriginals have a diverse culture and this practice varies between tribes.
In common with many cultures, the Malagasy people of Madagascar celebrate the lives of their ancestors for many decades after their deaths. However, rather than simply visiting a graveside as we would, they employ a practice called Famadihana. This involves visiting the family crypt, temporary removing the remains, spraying them with perfume and wine, and wrapping them in silk. Rather than being a sombre occasion, this practice is accompanied with jubilation, as they remember the good times in their ancestor’s lives.
Many of the most arcane death rituals are now no longer practiced, but were relatively commonplace in the past in certain parts of the world. One such rite is Sokushinbutsu, a Buddhist self-mummification ritual where extremely dedicated monks would slowly mummify themselves in an attempt to reach enlightenment.
The Chinese Bo People were another ancient group who practiced a fascinating funeral rite in the past, although a slightly less grizzly one. Rather than burying their dead, they would place them in hanging coffins high up in the mountains. One of the most fascinating things about this practice is that archaeologists aren’t fully aware of exactly how the Bo People elevated these coffins to their final resting place. There are many competing theories, but no definitive solution has yet been proposed. This is one mystery that may never be solved.