How different cultures deal with death

If there's one thing all humans have in common, it's death. We all die - but what happens after that largely depends on where we lived.

In Western cultures, there's often a sense of mystery and dread when a person dies. The body is quickly picked up and taken to a morgue or funeral parlour, remaining out of sight of the grieving family until the wake or funeral.

It wasn't always like this. Up until the 19th or 20th Century, households in Europe and the US would keep the entire death process within the home, from final deathbed visits to preparing the body for burial.

But with medical advancements came a fear of death and, in particular, corpses. The funeral industry was born, and death became increasingly hidden from public view rather than a familiar part of life.

Māori

 

European wariness around bodies is very different to Māori custom. After a person dies they are displayed in an open coffin for a three-day tangi, traditionally held on a marae - although public halls or private homes are increasingly common venues.

According to Māori belief, the soul or wairua of a person remains until they are laid to rest. This is why there should always be someone watching over the body throughout the tangi.

Mourners attend the tangi of Māori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu in 2006.
Mourners attend the tangi of Māori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu in 2006. Photo credit: Getty

After the body is welcomed onto the marae, visitors come to pay their respects. Speeches are made and songs are sung in remembrance of the deceased. On the third day there is a service, commonly presided over by a minister or tohunga, and then the body is taken to the urupā (cemetery) to be buried.

It was traditional for the body to be exhumed and the bones reinterred after some time, but this has largely been replaced by the hura kōhatu ceremony in which a gravestone is unveiled a year after the burial.

Hindu

 

Hindu custom also dictates that the family of the deceased keep vigil by the body, which is kept at home in an open casket to be viewed by guests.

Within 24 hours, the body will be cremated and the ashes scattered at a sacred body of water or a location that had meaning for the deceased. The Hindu mourning period traditionally lasts for 10 to 30 days after death.

Islam

 

Islam is another religion that requires quick action after death, as we saw in the wake of the horrific Christchurch mosque attack. Returning the victims to their families was a matter of urgency, as Islam dictates that bodies be buried within a day - except in the case of exceptional circumstances.

The quick burial is intended both as a hygiene practice and as a way to "bring conclusion to individuals", according to the President of the Islamic Federation Mustafah Faruq.

The body is bathed by close family members of the same gender as the deceased, in a process known as 'ghusl'. It is then wrapped in pieces of plain cloth, the number and material of which vary by region. All 50 of the Christchurch victims were buried in shrouds of two pieces of white cloth.

Newshub reported that at the first burial following the shooting, there was no sermon or eulogy - just a quick prayer of 'Allahu akbar'. Under Islamic custom, it's acceptable for mourners to cry but not to wail, shriek, break things or express a lack of faith in Allah.

Mourners carry the body of one of the 51 killed into their funeral.
Mourners carry the body of one of the 51 killed into their funeral. Photo credit: Newshub.

Judaism

 

As in Islam and Hinduism, Jewish burials typically take place within a day of the death unless guests have a long distance to travel. The funeral is a private family affair and there is no public viewing of the body.

Jewish post-death rituals include an intense period of grief known as 'shiva' in which all trivial concerns are abandoned. For seven days after the funeral the family mourns at home and friends stop by to offer their condolences. The door is left unlocked and a memorial candle is lit, intended to burn for the entire week.

All the mirrors in the house are turned around or covered up to discourage vanity. Personal grooming, including shaving, is also frowned upon as it is seen as a distraction from grief.

Family members often sit on low stools to symbolise being 'brought low' by the death of a loved one, a practice known as 'sitting shiva'. Mourners wear a torn black ribbon on their clothing to symbolise a broken heart, and some avoid wearing shoes during shiva.

Elsewhere

 

But death isn't always a sombre affair. In Ghana, funerals are lavish community affairs to celebrate the deceased's entry into the afterlife, and are often advertised on billboards.

While Jewish coffins are plain and wooden, 'fantasy coffins' are hugely popular in the Greater Accra Region of Ghana, where it's not unusual to bury someone in a giant replica Coke bottle, race car or cigarette packet. Caskets are handcrafted by local carpenters to reflect the life, passions and social status of the person who has died.

Fantasy coffins are crafted by expert carpenters in Ghana
Fantasy coffins are crafted by expert carpenters in Ghana. Photo credit: Getty

In the small Greenland town of Upernavik, the dead are laid to rest in concrete-covered coffins that remain above ground because the soil is too hard for burial.

Biodegradable coffins have become popular around the world with the rise of eco funerals. Bodies are not embalmed so they break down in the soil more quickly, and are buried within the "active soil layer" to assist in the decomposition process.

Some of India's Parsi communities follow the ancient practice of leaving bodies in open-air towers to be picked apart by vultures. While it might sound grim, the tradition is much more eco-friendly than burial or cremation and may have boosted the declining population of Indian vultures.

Some communities reject entirely the idea that once someone has died, they leave their loved ones behind. Every five to seven years, the Merina tribe of Madagascar exhume their dead relatives from the family crypt and re-wrap them in fresh shrouds. A party is held in which the dead are the guests of honour.

People dance with the bodies, often carrying them over their heads, before they are returned to the tomb where they will remain for another five to seven years.

Indonesia's indigenous Toraja people are taught from an early age that death is a part of life. When someone dies, their family members treat them as if they're sick, caring for them and bringing food and water to their bed.

Similar to Māori culture, the Toraja believe the person's spirit remains near the body and needs care just like a living being. Corpses, preserved in formalin, may remain in the house for years until the family can afford enough sacrificial buffalo for a respectable funeral ceremony.

Death: A podcast about love, grief and hope is available on Rova, iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud, Spreaker,and all major podcast platforms. See more at newshub.co.nz/podcasts

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