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Honouring those we’ve lost

A look at funeral rites from around the world

Honouring those we’ve lost

We all want to provide our loved ones with a memorable and dignified funeral, however ideas about death and dying vary enormously from culture to culture. Here’s a look at just some of the interesting customs from around the world to honour those we’ve lost:


Cremation has been practiced in Asia for thousands of years, however it’s becoming more common in the West too. Last year, cremation rates in the US eclipsed traditional burials for the first time ever.

In high-density countries like Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong space is a premium – there’s simply no room for graveyards, so most people are cremated. But cremations aren’t just a practical solution in congested cities, it has spiritual significance too; many believe the fire releases the soul from the body, purifying it for the afterlife.

Reincarnation – the afterlife

Buddhists and Hindus believe in a cycle of reincarnation in which the body dies but the soul is reborn. Funeral rites thus often centre around guiding the soul safely into the afterlife.

In Cambodia this might include praying over the dead body for anything from 3 to 7 days. In some parts of Tibet and Mongolia ‘sky burials’, in which the deceased body is dismembered and left on top of a mountain, are common, as it’s believed the vultures will carry the souls into heaven.

During Balinese ‘fire burials’ the deceased are cremated in a colourful float decorated with flowers, and the ashes scattered into a river. Death is not considered the end, but merely part of life, so burials are a joyous occasion, often followed by an elaborate, celebratory meal.

Fantasy coffins in Ghana

The Ga people of Ghana share a similar attitude towards death; it merely marks the next phase of life. To honour lost ones, they’re buried in what’s known as ‘fantasy coffins’ – colourful coffins which resemble something the deceased loved or aspired to – and can be anything from an aeroplane to a coke bottle to a mobile phone.

Ma’nene Festival

In what’s known as Ma’nene or the ‘Cleaning of the Corpses’ Festival, the Torajan people of Indonesia periodically remove their deceased relatives from their coffins – the corpses are cleaned, groomed and clothed and placed in the home, where they’re fed daily meals. Such a ritual might seem strange to us, but to the Torajan it has huge cultural and spiritual significance, as a well-preserved corpse is believed to bring good fortune on surviving relatives.

The turning of the bones in Madagascar

The Malagasy people of Madagascar do something similar in a ritual called ‘famadihana,’ or ‘the turning of the bones.’ Once every five or seven years, the bodies of loved ones, wrapped in cloth, are exhumed and sprayed with wine or perfume. It’s a lively event, where family members dance with the bodies. The Malagasy believe this allows them to communicate with the deceased and ask for their blessings — for others, it’s simply a time to remember loved ones no longer with them.

For someone who is not part of these cultures or religions, some of these practices may seem morbid and bizarre. But despite radically different customs surrounding death, our motive is always the same – to celebrate and remember the lives of our loved ones, and to prepare them as well as we can for whatever comes next.

What sort of funeral rites are important to you and your community?

— Zanine Wolf —

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