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Death Rituals & Funeral Rites of Different Religions

Regardless of your beliefs, culture, or location, death is something we can’t avoid. However, the ways that we respond to it are vastly different. 

Thousands of years ago, the death rites of the early Dilmun civilisation involved burying their dead in thousands of low, cylindrical towers. The Mayans buried their loved ones with corn in their mouth, so their souls had something to feed on during their journey to the afterlife. 

Even today diverse examples of burial practices can be found across the globe.

Many after-death rituals have endured for centuries and are still common. In addition, relatively new traditions shaped by environmental challenges are being practised more and more.     

Modern death rituals

When a loved one dies, tradition and local customs often guide the family in how they lay the person to rest. Family and friends follow mourning practices and hold different events to honour the lives of their loved ones. 

Modern funeral practices are built on strong cultural influences or threads of tradition in the ceremony. Let’s look at some of the most common modern ceremonies you might experience when you attend an event in honour of a loved one. 

Wearing black for mourning

Wearing black during the mourning period is funeral etiquette that dates back to Roman times and continues in many cultures today. In these cultures, wearing dark clothing shows that a person is in mourning. In other cultures, other clothing norms may apply to rituals after death.  

Celebrations of life

An increasing number of people choose to hold a celebration of life event to honour the deceased. The celebration might be held in a place of worship, restaurant, park, sporting facility, or pub. A celebration of life is an event that focuses on a life that was lived. A person’s interests, achievements, best qualities, and impact are the focus, rather than mourning their death.  

Bagpipes playing

It’s not uncommon for bagpipes to be played during Scottish and Irish funerals. They have also become a distinctive feature of a fallen hero’s funeral, for example, military, firefighters, or police officers. The piper might choose to play a favourite song or one of the best funeral songs there are to choose from.  

Bringing funeral flowers

Funeral flowers are a means of expression. Since it can often be difficult for those mourning a death to put their feelings into words, flowers can act as an expression of love, comfort, sympathy, and respect. People often choose to add messages for funeral flowers. It is an opportunity to say goodbye to the loved one who’s passed away and to offer sympathies to their families.   

Holding a memorial service

A memorial service can take place weeks or even months after the death of a loved one.  The service can be held in any location, but often, people choose locations with personal significance, for example, a favourite park, family home, beach, religious place of worship, a banquet hall, or some other event space.

There is no formal structure and people can choose to participate in many different ways, such as singing songs, playing musical instruments, delivering a reading or prayer, or sharing a memory of the person who has died.  

Death rituals around the world

Let’s take a brief look at some of the more fascinating and intriguing ways that different cultures around the world handle death. 

Sky burials in Tibet

The main religion in Tibet is Buddhism. It was introduced into Tibet from India and China beginning in the 600s. The ancient practice of sky burials is one of the Buddhist death rituals that is still practised today.

The corpse of the person who has died is placed on a high peak so that vultures and other birds of prey can eat it. This might sound a little macabre but it does serve a symbolic purpose and is very sustainable. 

It represents the impermanence of life for followers of the Buddhist faith. They believe that a corpse is not more than a discarded shell and that the soul has already moved on toward reincarnation. 

It’s considered a good sign if the vultures eat the entire body. Tibetan custom holds that even vultures wouldn’t eat the body of a person who had committed evil deeds. 

White funerals

Traditionally, Hindu funeral rites include chants and mantras which are overseen by an officiant, who is usually a Hindu priest or the eldest son of the deceased. 

Hindu funerals, along with several other religions such as funerals in Islam, wrap the body of the deceased in a white sheet if it is a male, or a red sheet if they are a female. 

It is customary to set up a small shrine in the home to remember the deceased. Fresh flowers, incense and lights are used in daily acts of remembrance that can offer great comfort.

Water burial

Many cultures, particularly in Nordic countries, embraced water in their death rituals. However, it’s not common practice nowadays.

In Hawaii, however,water burials have been practiced for thousands of years and are still practiced today, albeit with some modifications.  

Jewish funeral

A Jewish funeral follows fairly specific rites, although they do vary according to local custom. Judaism death rituals normally take place as soon as possible and include:

  • Bathing the body
  • Wrapping the body: Men are shrouded with a kittel (white linen or cotton robe) and then with a tallit (shawl). Women are shrouded in a plain white cloth
  • Keeping watch over the body
  • Funeral service that includes brief prayers and eulogies
  • Burial in a grave
  • Filling of the grave traditionally by family members and funeral guests
  • The body is often positioned so that the feet face the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

The coffin will usually be the cheapest possible because a showy funeral and expensive coffin are inconsistent with the belief that money should be spent on the living, not the dead. 

Islamic funeral etiquette

Sharia (Islamic religious law) calls for the burial of the body. Before that happens, a simple ritual takes place that involves bathing and shrouding the body, followed by prayer (salat). 

Islamic death rituals and beliefs insist that burial rituals should take place as soon as possible, and generally include:

  • Bathing the body with water, camphor, and leaves of Ziziphus lotus
  • Enshrouding the body in white cotton or linen cloth
  • Reciting the funeral prayer
  • Burial of the dead body in a grave and positioned so that when the face of the body is turned to the right side, it faces Mecca

Usually only men may attend the burial itself.

Ancient death rituals

The first burials may have taken place as long ago as 50,000 years ago. But the oldest known international burial site is Qafzeh in Israel, which dates back almost 10,000 years. These early humans placed their dead in a cave, using coffins and various burial items, such as clothing, trinkets, and food.

Let’s look at some of the other ancient death rituals that have happened in subsequent years. 

Viking death rituals

Vikings believed in the afterlife and we know this because of the way they tended to their dead. They would place the dead in a grave along with all their personal belongings and other things they believed could come in handy in the afterlife. 

According to Norse mythology, half of the Viking warriors who died in battle would go to Valhalla, while the other half would go to Folkvangr. 

When we think of Viking funerals, the image of a burning boat floating on the water, but this type of funeral was not frequent. Very few Vikings were sent into the afterlife on a longship, however they were often buried in a ship-shaped grave. 

Egyptian death rituals

The Egyptian civilisation lasted for more than three thousand years and during that time, their approach to death evolved. We tend to picture the elaborate tombs of the Pharaohs, but not everyone could afford such an expensive burial and different burial rites applied to different strata of society. Here are just 5 of the death rituals of Ancient Egypt:

  • The pot burial: This is the oldest form of ritualistic burial discovered in Egypt and consisted of an individual enclosed within a burial pot.
  • Mummification: The aim of mummification was to preserve the body, in order to house the ba and ka, two aspects of the Egyptian soul 
  • Tomb reliefs: The people depicted in the tomb reliefs have heads and legs turned sideways because Egyptians understood images to have power and wanted to show  all parts of the body so that a person would retain them all in the afterlife
  • Inscriptions: These inscriptions of the walls of tombs often contained incantations to aid the deceased through his journey to the afterlife
  • Rituals: Spells and rituals were carried out by the living during the process of embalming and burial and for all stages between death and internment in the tomb

The importance of remembering a loved one

Remembering a loved one, however, you choose to do it, is a way of honouring their life and the role they played in shaping who you are. It also allows you to say your final goodbyes and is an important part of the healing process.

As funerals become more private and secular many families are developing their own traditions and grieving rituals. Sharing memories online is one relatively new trend, creating a place where family members can visit whenever they need to.