One of the most interesting ways to learn about a culture is to study how they show respect for the dead. The practice varies all over the world and is dependent upon a culture’s religious beliefs, traditions, economy, and geography.
One thing we all have in common is our need to record and share our family stories, especially those of our family members who have gone before us. Some of the ceremonies listed in this article allow participants to remember the deceased as they celebrate their lives.
As we look at ways that different cultures show respect for the dead all over the world, consider where your family’s personal mourning customs fit in. Chances are you will see that you have more in common with people in different cultures than you realized.
1. Rain Dance from the San People in Southern Africa
The San people show respect for their ancestors by performing a mysterious rain dance. The purpose of this dance is not to bring rain.
Instead, the dance is used as a way to transport their living souls to the spirit world to communicate with the deceased.
2. Sky Burials in Tibet
If you grew up in a western culture, you might shudder at the idea of leaving your family member’s deceased body out for wild animals to eat.
But in Buddhist Tibet, this practice is called a sky burial. In it, the deceased’s body is left on a platform for vultures to eat. The Tibetans believe that after the funeral, their loved one’s soul arrives in paradise, and so the body is left with no purpose.
3. Funeral Customs from Ilocano people of the Philippines
Every culture practices some superstitions. The Ilocano people who live on the third-largest Philippine island are no exception.
During a funeral on this island, a family member may behead a rooster or a hen as the pallbearers leave the home to ensure safe passage to the afterlife for the deceased. Broken plates also are used as an offering for the dead.
4. Day of the Dead in Mexico
Perhaps you are already familiar with the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. During this celebration that occurs in early November of each year, deceased family members are remembered and celebrated with parades, grave decorations, and the sharing of stories.
Sugar skulls are made or purchased. Families eat sugar skulls as well as an orange-flavored sweet bread.
5. Jesa Ceremony from Korea
Koreans also have a yearly celebration to honor and remember dead family members. It takes place on the anniversary of a loved one’s death as well as during other important festivals throughout the year.
Like the Day of the Dead ceremonies in Mexico, the Jesa Ceremony involves the gathering of family members, the preparation of specific foods, and the cleaning and decorating of a loved one’s grave. The living family members create a shrine for the deceased, and the participants take turns to ceremonially bow in front of the shrine.
6. Sitting Shiva from Judaism
Shiva is a week-long mourning period during which Jews sit in stillness and meditate on the life of the deceased. During this time, all mirrors and reflective objects are covered in the house.
Family members sit on low chairs while visitors bring gifts of food and snacks.
7. Seven Sacred Ceremonies of the Pipe from the Lakota Tribe
When a member of the Lakota Tribe dies, the family member takes a lock of the deceased’s hair and purifies it over burning sweetgrass.
The hair is then wrapped in buckskin, and the sacred pipe is smoked. The buckskin-wrapped hair is kept in a special place and is called a “soul bundle.”
8. Endocannibalism from Yanomami People of South America
A tribe living in the Amazon rainforest called Yanomami participates in endocannibalism after the death of a member of their community. They cremate the remains of the person and mix the ashes with fermented bananas.
All members of the community consume the mixture. The practice is completed to keep the spirit of their family members alive for the generations to come.
9. Mask Wearing in Melanesia
Melanesia is an area of many islands west of Polynesia. In this culture, masks play an essential role in ceremonies.
While some masks are used in harvest ceremonies, others are worn to help the island inhabitants connect with ancestors in the spirit world.
10. Famadihana Ceremonies in Madagascar
Visitors to Madagascar may see one of the most shocking death ceremonies in modern times. The ceremony is called famadihana, and during this event, family members take deceased ancestors out of the family tomb, rewrap the bodies, and dance in a large circle while passing the bodies around to other people of the family.
Food and drink accompany the event. At the end of the ceremony, the bodies are returned to the family tomb to wait for the next famadihana celebration.
11. Right of Reclamation for Those Practicing Voodoo
One year and one day after a funeral, a Voodoo priest or priestess will perform a Rite of Reclamation. During this ceremony, the soul of the deceased is called into a govi or a clay jar.
Only then will the dead be considered to be at peace. Members of the family keep the govi, and from there, the deceased will offer guidance when needed.
12. Fantasy Caskets in Ghana
One way that citizens of Ghana show honor to a deceased family member is by purchasing an elaborate casket for the dead.
Many times the caskets are carved and painted to look like an item that the deceased may have enjoyed during life.
13. Qingming Festival in China
The Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Festival, is held on the same day every year. During the festival, the weeds on a tomb are cleared and swept away.
Offerings are left for the deceased relatives. In the past, the offerings would be mainly food or drink. At times, relatives would leave paper to symbolize money. Now, people may leave fake cell phones for their deceased relatives during the Qingming Festival.
14. Gai Jatra Festival in Nepal
The Gai Jatra Festival is a yearly celebration that occurs in Nepal. The party lasts a week, and it includes a parade through Kathmandu for families who lost a relative within the past year. Mourning family members bring a cow with them as a symbol of the deceased relative.
At times, children also dress up as cows. Although the festival is celebratory, it is also a time designated to honor the dead.
15. Jazz Funerals in New Orleans
As a funeral procession in New Orleans leaves a church or funeral home and heads to the cemetery, it is customary that the musicians perform a slow dirge or spiritual.
After the body is placed in the tomb, the music changes and becomes more upbeat. At this time, you may hear “When the Saints Go Marching In” and other tunes that are associated with a New Orleans Jazz Funeral.
16. Smoking Ceremony by the Aborigines in Australia
One of the first parts of the Aboriginal death ceremony is a smoking ceremony. This is held in the home of the deceased, and it is meant to drive away their spirit from the house.
A feast traditionally follows the smoking ceremony, and, commonly, the mourners paint themselves ochre before they eat and dance.
17. Cremation Ceremony in Bali
It is considered a sacred duty for survivors to cremate the deceased in Bali. According to their tradition, cremation releases the soul so it can inhabit a new body. The more famous the individual, the more elaborate the ceremony.
When a member of the royal family was cremated, thousands participated in the service, where a platform holding the body was carried along with a giant carved bull and dragon.
How Do You Show Respect to the Dead?
How do you show respect for the members of your family who have gone before you? Perhaps you place flowers or small gifts at their grave.
Maybe you display their photographs in your home. Perhaps you carry on traditions that were important to your loved one. Although the methods may vary, all cultures show respect to the deceased.
- Clark, Josh. Learned Cannibalism: Endocannibalism. How Stuff Works. people.howstuffworks.com/cannibalism2.html
- “Smoking Ceremony.” Australia Day. australiadaysa.com.au/pages/smoking-ceremony