Death is an inevitable event that we’ll all deal with at some point in our lives. While it certainly isn’t easy, cultures around the world have developed their own rituals and traditions to celebrate and deal with the reality of death.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Celebration of Death in Latin America
- European Funeral Rituals
- Muslim Rituals for the Celebration of Death
- Unique African Rituals for the Dead
- North-Asian Customs to Commemorate the Dead
- Australian Celebration of Death
If you’d rather celebrate death than ignore it, perhaps you could draw from these examples of how death in different cultures is handled.
Tip: No matter what a family's culture and traditions are, planning or attending a funeral isn't easy. If you'd like some help and guidance through the process, check out our post-loss checklist.
1. Celebration of Death in Latin America
Catholicism plays an important role in Hispanic funerals. With most of the Latin American population identifying as Catholic, most countries there have similar approaches to burying and commemorating their loved ones.
Generally, a funeral is composed of the following activities:
- Wake: Usually held at the house of a direct relative. Family members and friends accompany the direct relatives in their mourning, and the body of the deceased is usually present inside its coffin.
- Mass: Held at a Catholic church or designated place. Family and friends attend a mass in honor of the soul of their loved one.
- Burial: A priest blesses the grave and family members and friends may say their eulogies before the burial takes place.
Besides the standard funeral rituals, the celebration of death is present in annual festivities. Most South American countries celebrate the Day of the Dead and each nation has adapted the day to their own traditions and culture.
The Day of the Dead is known as “Dia de Finados” in Brazil. This celebration is a national holiday held on November the second. People travel across the country to reunite with family and remember loved ones that are no longer with them.
During this holiday, Brazilians pay visits to cemeteries bringing flowers and gifts. In comparison to other countries, this occasion is tranquil and reflective, rather than colorful or festive. Families also attend mass and gather together to eat Churrasco—the Brazilian barbecue.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 2 in most Latin American countries—this also applies to Colombia.
As mostly Catholics, Colombians go to mass on this day and visit their loved ones at their resting places. They offer gifts that the deceased person appreciated during their life such as toys, books, food, and flowers.
A particular Colombia tradition on this day is eating Mondongo or Sancocho soup which contains beef, potatoes, and vegetables.
Perhaps one of the world’s most famous celebrations of the dead is the Mexican “Día de Los Muertos.” This is a massive event that lasts three days, beginning on October 31. According to Mexican traditions, families have the responsibility to keep the memory of loved ones present for as long as possible.
The celebrations are nationwide and full of color with parades, singing, dancing, and people with skull face paint taking over the streets. An essential part of the festivities is paying a visit to the graveyards of loved ones. At the graves, people clean, weed, decorate, and bring gifts such as candles, flowers, and food.
Prehispanic Peruvian cultures, such as the Incas, celebrated death rituals with music and food. Since these ancient traditions mixed with the Catholic faith, it’s normal to see Peruvian wakes and burials where people drink and dance accompanied by artists and folkloric bands. Another unique characteristic of Peruvian funerals is that the wake host will present gifts of memorabilia with the deceased’s picture to guests.
There is also a national two-day celebration of death. Starting in November first, Peruvians celebrate “All Saints Day” by going to church and sending thankful prayers to Saints acknowledged by the Catholic church. The following day, the Day of the Dead is celebrated.
On the second of November, people remember their loved ones by visiting their resting places in cemeteries. During this visit, they bring drinks, flowers, and even small gifts.
2. European Funeral Rituals
It’s commonplace to have a secular celebration for death in Western Europe but in Eastern Europe, religion and beliefs play a more relevant role. Here are some example of what happens in a few European countries:
In Poland, the doors and windows of the house of the deceased are kept open because it’s believed that the soul needs a path to go to the spiritual world. In addition, mirrors are covered and clocks are stopped.
In Ireland, people open the windows for a period of two hours. They believe that souls need a path to leave. If someone blocks the way for any reason, they will suffer from bad luck. After the two hours have passed, the windows must be closed to prevent the soul from coming back.
3. Muslim Rituals for the Celebration of Death
Muslim death celebrations adhere to Islamic beliefs. In accordance with the Quran, the Islamic holy book, burials should take place as soon as possible and cremations should be avoided. Cremations are strictly prohibited among conservative groups.
After the coffin is buried facing the Mecca, death and mourning rituals continue for several days and include specific rituals according to the day:
- Third day: A memorial service takes place.
- Seventh Day: People pay visits to the grave and bring food for the poor.
- Fortieth Day: Mourners transition from wearing black to regular clothing and place the headstone at the cemetery.
In Turkey, they also gather with family and friends on the 52nd day after death. They pray and commemorate their loved ones in a ceremony known as Mevlit.
4. Unique African Rituals for the Dead
The celebration of death in African countries is not merely a family affair, but an important socio-cultural event. This is a unique characteristic of the continent as compared to others across the world where usually only family members and a few friends attend funerals.
African families go to great lengths to organize funerals, and some even incur debt to afford to host the event. The arrangements for a funeral typically include buying new clothes, custom-made coffins, offering food for guests, hiring singers, and even hiring coffin dancers. These expenses often take a toll on families, to the extent that economists have raised their voices of concern over this issue as well.
In Ghana, fantasy coffins are custom made resembling something meaningful for the deceased. For instance, it's usual to find coffins with animal or airplane shapes.
In Nigeria, people print posters to announce the death of a loved one and even offer animal sacrifices.
5. North-Asian Customs to Commemorate the Dead
In North-Asian countries, rituals are inspired by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Across different countries, communities recognize the significance of death in their rituals.
Even in non-religious communities, families put in the effort to provide a dignified farewell for their loved ones. Asian countries also have a strong culture of respect for the elderly, and this is seen in their rituals.
In China, Qingming is the biggest remembrance day for the deceased. Known as the Tomb Sweeping day, the Chinese pay their respect to their loved ones by taking care of their graves, cleaning their tomb surroundings, cutting weeds, and adding fresh soil.
As this ancient tradition evolved with current times, many people bring offerings such as paper that symbolizes money. Families also fly kites with lanterns that represent good fortune.
Koreans remember their ancestors in their Chuseok festivities. This holiday is considered the biggest one in the country is regarded as the Korean version of Thanksgiving.
Celebrated on August 15 of the lunar calendar, Koreans believe that their ancestors harvest the crops of fruits and grains during this time. Food is a key component of this ritual. The Chuseok menu is full of classic Korean dishes such as japchae, bulgogi, and songpyeon—a special rice cake.
On the day of Chuseok, families wake up early in the morning to prepare the table for their ancestors. They pay respects by bowing towards the table twice and wait for their ancestors to accept their gifts—a ritual known as Charey. After the ritual, they proceed to eat. Part of the Chuseok traditions requires families to pay a visit to their ancestors’ tombs as well.
The Japanese celebrate the Obon Festival to commemorate the dead. This tradition is believed to have originated around 500 years ago, under Buddhist influence. The festival is celebrated during the course of three days from the 13th through the 15th of the 7th month of the lunar calendar.
The Japanese believe that their ancestors return to visit during Obon, so they place lanterns around the city, rivers, and lakes to guide them back to their origins. In addition, families visit their loved one’s grave to clean and pray.
Northern Asian cultures share some similar traditions such as lighting lanterns and showing respect to their ancestors by visiting their graves.
6. Australian Celebration of Death
A good portion of the Australian population declares to have no religion, but the main religions practiced in the country are Christianity and Catholicism.
Because of this, Australian rituals for death and funerals are similar to that of other Western. Most people dress in back attire and it is common to have personalized funerals. Funerals with special music and memorials in unique locations are also popular.
The Significance of Death Around the World
Death doesn’t have to be ignored, shunned, or relegated to a twenty-minute acknowledgment. Sometimes, the best way to handle death is by acknowledging its role in each of our lives and marking the passage of time since a death has occurred with rituals, traditions, and celebrations.
- ABS Census. “Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia - Stories from the Census, 2016,” Australia Bureau of Statistics, ABS, June 28, 2017. abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/2071.0~2016~Main%20Features~Religion%20Data%20Summary~70
- Jindra, Michael and Noret, Joel. “Funerals in Africa,” Academia, Academia, Copyright 2011. academia.edu/6542434/Funerals_in_Africa._An_Introduction
- Internal Report. “Peru 2018 International Religious Freedom Report,” United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Copyright 2018. state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/PERU-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf
- Pew Researchers. “Religious Commitment by Country and Age,” Pew Forum, Pew Research, June 13, 2018. pewforum.org/2018/06/13/how-religious-commitment-varies-by-country-among-people-of-all-ages/
- Pew Researchers. “Religion in Latin America,” Pew Forum, Pew Research, November 13, 2014. pewforum.org/2014/11/13/religion-in-latin-america/