There is a lot we can learn about a culture by their funeral traditions. Many places across the globe have stuck to their funeral practices and traditions for hundreds or even thousands of years. They’re a source of comfort and peace for those who lose their loved ones, and it’s important that these funeral wishes are followed no matter how strange they sound to outsider’s ears.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Green Funerals
- Fantasy Coffins in Ghana
- Sky Burials in Mongolia
- Madagascar Turning of the Bones
- Taiwanese Funeral Strippers
- Extreme Embalming
- Hanging Coffins in Asia
- New Orleans Jazz Funerals
- Eating the Dead in the Amazon
- Space Memorials
- More interesting traditions
If you’ve ever attended a funeral in the west, you likely know what to expect. Everyone wears black, you take a seat in a church or funeral home, and you listen to prayers and eulogies. These are often somber affairs, but they serve a purpose for the surviving family.
The funerals we recognize in our own culture are a place to lend support and kindness in a time of need. Funerals around the world perform this same function, even if they look different than what we’re used to. In this guide, we’ll take a trip to remote corners of the world to explore strange funeral or wake traditions.
1. Green Funerals
One of the most “unusual” funerals is actually practiced in North America. Believe it or not, green funerals are a popular option for those seeking funeral alternatives. As more people look for ways to reduce their environmental burden, this green option is more appealing than ever.
A green funeral is very flexible. In general, it’s any type of funeral that doesn’t use embalming, chemicals, or environmentally-harmful processes. Biodegradable caskets are what are used to bury people in the ground, eliminating the need for an expensive traditional one.
This is an increasingly popular option for people across the United States and the globe, and this is a customizable way to honor the environment.
2. Fantasy Coffins in Ghana
This tradition recently gained popular attention thanks to a Buzzfeed article. In Ghana, a lot of people use their coffins as a way to represent their work or their life. These are known as fantasy coffins, and they’re quite the work of art.
Buzzfeed highlights 29 images of some of the more outrageous fantasy coffins at Ghanian funerals, some of which might surprise you. Some feature shapes of luxury cars, while others are shaped like beer bottles. These personalized coffins are a true testament to a life well-lived!
3. Sky Burials in Mongolia
In Mongolia, it is believed that the soul moves on after death, leaving the body an empty vessel. In Buddhism, the body is to be returned to the earth to follow the cycle of life. The way Mongolians achieve this is by chopping the body into small pieces and placing it on the top of a mountain.
By exposing the body to the elements (and wildlife), they know it returns to the earth. This is a practice that’s been a part of the local culture in Mongolia and also Tibet for thousands of years. Many local people still choose sky burials today.
4. Madagascar Turning of the Bones
Most people don’t like to think about what happens to our bodies when we’re buried in the earth. In Madagascar, this is faced head-on in a practice known as the turning of the bones or famadihana.
Every five to seven years, families celebrate at their crypts. The bodies are exhumed from their graves, sprayed with either wine or perfume, and a celebration ensues.
Family members dance with the bodies, share news, and ask for blessings. This is also a time for feasting, having fun, and just sharing stories about the deceased. While this might sound a bit morbid to outsiders, this is a great way to bring the family together over death.
5. Taiwanese Funeral Strippers
While the words “funeral” and “strippers” might not sound like they belong in the same sentence, Taiwan proves otherwise. In Taiwan, having an extravagant, large funeral is a sign of wealth and social status. Because of this, many families go all out to create the most awe-inspiring funerals imaginable for their loved ones.
Some families go so far as to hire Electric Flower Cars. These are trucks with bright, neon lights that have mobile stages for strippers. The dancers dance all the way to the graveside of the deceased. They definitely know how to put the fun in funerals!
6. Extreme Embalming
Embalming is the act of preserving dead bodies to make them appear more lifelike. If you’ve ever attended a wake or open-casket funeral, the body was likely embalmed. This practice has been the norm in American burials since the Civil War, but it hasn’t stopped there. A new trend of extreme embalming has attracted attention.
This alternative to traditional embalming creates a more lifelike presentation of the body. While this process is very effective, it only preserves the body for a maximum of 2 days.
For families who choose this for their loved ones, it’s a way to feel a connection to the deceased one final time. From posing socialites in their homes to famous people doing what they love, this is a unique way of respecting one’s life in death.
7. Hanging Coffins in Asia
In many parts of Asia, such as China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, hanging coffins is a longstanding practice. To spot these coffins, you’ll have to look closely. The sides of cliffs and mountains might seem normal from far away, but they’re actually dotted with coffins, some hundreds of years old.
These gravity-defying graveyards are a lot to take in, and they’ve left archeologists with more questions than answers.
Today, they’re a visual reminder of just what lengths societies will go to put their dead to rest. While this funeral tradition is mostly extinct, it shows just how death in different cultures means a lot of different things.
8. New Orleans Jazz Funerals
New Orleans jazz funerals prove you don’t have to travel far to see a unique cultural custom. Anyone who’s ever visited New Orleans knows this southern city knows how to party, and the same is true for their funerals.
With a culture that fuses together West African, French, and African-American funeral traditions, these are truly a celebration to remember. Mourners bounce between grief and joy as they parade through the streets. Jazz bands play famous songs in the streets, commemorating the lives of the deceased. The next time you’re in the Big Easy, keep an eye out for these famous funerals.
9. Eating the Dead in the Amazon
The Yanomami tribe in the Amazon has a very unique practice for handling their dead. After a tribe member dies, they consume their ashes as a way to keep their spirit alive in the surviving members. In their belief system, the body needs to be burned and eaten by living relatives in order to rest properly.
While it might sound unappetizing, the ashes are mixed with mana to make a soup. This is a local delicacy, and the entire tribe eats some. Though we typically frown upon cannibalism in our society, the Yanomami tradition uses this practice as a way to honor the dead and their families.
10. Space Memorials
A lot of people have an unyielding interest in what’s beyond our earth. New technology has made space exploration possible, but it doesn’t stop there. Today, a select few people are electing to have what’s known as a space burial or memorial. That is, rockets blast the cremated remains of individuals in space.
The first space memorials were in 1997 with the American company Celestis. Since then, other companies popped up to offer a similar service. In the few short years that this has been an option, several famous celebrities and icons have chosen this type of burial. From astronauts to the creator of Star Trek, this is becoming an increasingly alluring option.
11. Reef Memorial
For those who loved the ocean, it’s possible to be memorialized within a coral reef. Neptune Memorials created a gorgeous, eco-friendly memorial reef off the coast of Florida. Customers can choose to have their loved one’s ashes deposited as part of the living reef.
Not only does this create a place for family members to return throughout the years, but it does good for the environment. By blending the ashes with concrete and eco-friendly materials, it’s possible to build a unique tribute under the sea.
12. Irish Wakes
In Ireland, Irish wakes are a large part of memorial tradition. These were the norm until the mid-1900s, and they’re still common amongst more traditional communities today. For the Irish, following specific steps is a part of honoring the dead and the family.
To begin, all clocks are stopped at the time of death, and curtains are drawn over mirrors. This is a sign of respect, and it also prevents the souls of living family members from leaving their bodies too soon.
Next, the deceased is laid on a table for viewing. A loved one stays with the body around the clock to comfort the spirit of the dead. During this time, friends and family visit with the deceased, say their goodbyes, and share memories.
13. Viking Funeral
In Norse traditions, the sendoff to the afterlife was a huge part of the culture. While most bodies were cremated, the elite Viking fighters were given an even bigger goodbye. These individuals were buried with their own boats.
In these elaborate Viking funerals, vessels were filled with food, alcohol, and tributes. Once ready, the boats were lit on fire and set out to sea. This was seen as the ultimate honor, and it’s truly a larger-than-life sendoff. Though you can still have a sea burial today, the tradition looks much different.
14. Varanasi Death Parade
Every corner of the globe has its own opinion about death and dying, and Varanasi, India is no exception. A spiritual capital of Hinduism, this is a place people flock from across the country to pay their respects to its rich history and tradition.
Getting cremated in the holy city of Varanasi is seen as a way to reach nirvana and escape the cycle of cremation. This means people flock to Varanasi with an actual death wish, hoping to die in this famous place. Death is not hidden here.
Funeral pyres are openly displayed along the river Ganges, and tourists and locals alike are welcome to look on. Each day and night, there are quite literally parades in honor of death and dying, a way to respect this natural cycle of life.
15. Zoroastrian Tower of Silence
In Zoroastrianism, the dead are placed within what’s known as a Tower of Silence. Based in India and Iran, Zoroastrians believe that human bodies are unclean. After death, a corpse demon is believed to contaminate the body and everyone who comes into contact with it.
To keep the village clean, these Towers of Silence provide much-needed isolation. Bodies are placed within this circular, raised structure and exposed to the elements. This speeds up their decomposition, and it’s a holy process of returning the body to earth. Though these practices have been adapted for the modern world, many Zoroastrians still practice this death ritual in parts of India.
16. Finger Amputation in Papua, New Guinea
Grief reveals itself in new ways in Papua, New Guinea. We can all relate to the difficult feelings after the loss of a loved one. For the Dani tribe in Papua, New Guinea, some members cut off the top of their fingers after attending a funeral. This is a tradition limited to women, and it’s a way to drive away the spirits of death.
While this might seem grotesque, it’s a form of healing for the Dani tribe. The very real pain of losing a finger is similar to the trauma of a loss. Through a careful process, the amputation is mostly painless. This tradition continues to help people in this tribe and others throughout the world handle complex grief and loss.
17. Blindfolding in the Philippines
Across the Philippines, you’ll see varied funeral and memorial traditions. Each ethnic group has its own funeral practices. One that stands out is the Benguet of Northwestern Philippines.
For the Benguet, it’s important for their loved ones to stay close even after death. The dead are blindfolded and placed next to the entrance of the home. The dead keep guard, watching over their friends and family throughout the memorial service. In other parts of the Philippines, the dead are dressed in their best clothes and a lit cigarette is placed between their lips. Though it might sound strange, it’s all about respecting the dead.
18. Extreme Embalming
Last but not least, extreme embalming is becoming more and more popular in parts of North, Central, and South America. This process takes traditional embalming and takes it to another level, using the same techniques to create an extremely life-like appearance.
Beyond this, the body is typically posed and positioned at the funeral. Whether it’s propped up on a favorite motorcycle or on a chair in the center of the room, the body is a part of the funeral service. Friends and family take photos, share memories, and enjoy a final experience with their loved one.
Accepting the Unusual: Funeral Traditions Around the World
While these funeral traditions above might sound outrageous, they’re just the reality for people in these communities. It just shows how many cultures accept and welcome death as a natural part of life. Though we might approach our own death traditions differently, there might be something we could learn about the acceptance of grief, mourning, and celebrating life after death.
Some of these strange traditions are actually becoming more common. Things like green burials and even space memorials aren’t as far-fetched as they once sounded. Whether you want a traditional funeral or a unique celebration of life, start end-of-life planning today.
- “Funeral Strippers.” National Geographic: Video. NationalGeographic.com.
- Munnik, Jo, and Katy Scott. “In Famadihana, Madagascar, a sacred ritual unearths the dead.” CNN: Inside Africa. 27 March 2017. CNN.com.
- Notopoulos, Katie. “29 Insanely Elaborate Custom Coffins from Ghana.” Buzzfeed. 20 September 2012. Buzzfeed.com.
- Traer, Miles. “Podcast: Why Sky Burials Are Vanishing in Mongolia.” Smithsonian Magazine. 3 February 2016. SmithsonianMag.com.
- Ukiwe, Urenna. “Yanomami Tribe Bury Their Dead By Eating Their Flesh.” The Guardian. 6 August 2018. Guardian.ng.