Death is a pretty grim topic by all accounts, but the best way to deal with it is to celebrate the life of the person who passed and to find ways to remember them. This is something that we have been doing for centuries, though not always in the same way. In fact to an outsider many of the rituals may seem very peculiar indeed. Here we will look at some of the strangest from around the world and from history. But remember, they probably think that the way we do it is odd!
Ghana Fantasy Coffins
Here’s a nice one to start with – in Ghana many people ask to be buried in coffins that represent something about their lives. Often these will represent the works of those people (particularly for artists) while in other cases they might be shaped like cars, like books or as a number of other fantastic objects. It makes a square box look rather boring by comparison…
Sutee means ‘self-immolation’ and was the name for a traditional Hindu ritual once practiced in India. Here widows would voluntarily lay themselves next to their deceased husbands on the funeral pyre in order to burn alive right next to them. The tradition was outlawed by occupying British in 1829, but there have still been cases of it occurring (the most recent being in 1981). In some horrific cases the widows would change their minds and attempt to run away, at which point bystanders would often enforce the ritual.
Speaking of carrying out your own death ritual early, self-mummification was popular in Japan until 1800s. And if you thought that Sutee was bizarre then you’ll find this one really odd: these people weren’t wracked with grief mourning for loved ones. Rather self-mummification was a result of the belief of Buddhist priests that you could achieve enlightenment by separating yourself from the physical world. As such, these priests would fast for up to 1,000 days, then they would dehydrate themselves for a further 1,000 days (using a special laxative tea). Next you would sit in lotus position in a stone room until death. Unsurprisingly this practice was also banned.
Body exposure was an alternative ‘burial’ ritual practiced by Australian Aboriginals. The process involves exposing corpses on raised platforms until they disintegrate entirely save for the bones. Said bones are then retrieved and painted red, before being warn or left in a cave to further dissolve. Another part of the ritual forbids surviving relatives from saying the deceased’s name and encourages the surviving relatives to destroy all of their belongings.
This is a ritual still practiced today in China and involves the burning of paper money as well as various paper-crafts made in the likeness of different objects. This usually takes place in the holiday seasons and is done with the hope that those items will be passed on to the spirits of the deceased in the afterlife. You can even buy iPhones and iPads made from joss paper, though whether or not there’s a strong WiFi connection in the afterlife we won’t know for a while. Today not everyone will necessarily believe the tradition works literally, but it is a nice way to remember those who have passed away and to make some kind of sacrifice in their honour.
Vajrayana Buddhists in Mongolia and Tibet believe that spirits leave the body after death and that the body becomes nothing more than an empty vessel that should thus be ‘recycled’ back into the Earth. To accomplish this, the Buddhists will chop up the bodies of their lost relatives and then place them at the top of a mountain to be exposed to the elements. Many of the remains end up becoming food for Vultures. This is still common among Tibetans being the preferred choice.
I think I’ll just stick with a simple cremation thank you very much!