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Death in Other Cultures

Imagine for a moment, that you are preparing to attend a funeral of someone close to you. For most of us, this would entail dressing in black, packing tissues, and mentally and emotionally preparing yourself for a long, heavy ceremony with lots of sadness and crying. What if, though, instead of this, you dressed in all white, or in bright colours, and when you arrived there was music and dancing and celebration? This is the case in many other countries and cultures, leading me to wonder, the more I look into how others ritualise loss: are we doing this all wrong?

Western society has a real “denial” approach to death: let’s just not think about it, talk about it at all, until of course it actually happens and then when it does, let’s stuff those emotions down in public and ‘stay strong’ and ‘get through it’. Why is it so surprising then, that this approach can potentially lead to completely overwhelming emotions, unexpressed grief and years of therapy in dealing with the loss of a loved one? Because we are unprepared. And we really don’t allow ourselves the healing power of ritual and release when saying farewell.

In many other cultures, however, they have a much healthier approach to death: it is part of life and they recognise and honour this process, and include celebration as part of the farewell ceremony.

New Orleans, for instance, still to this day taps into their Creole/Cajun heritage, with a great example of how to mix sorrow and celebration at their jazz funerals.

These encompass a parade through the streets of the coffin surrounded by musicians playing jazz at full volume – usually starting with sad songs, and after the ceremony, playing more upbeat and joyous music to encourage dancing and revelry. They embrace the life that was lived, and encourage the expression of emotions from those who knew them.

Asian countries in general seem to be much more accepting of death as part of daily life, such as seeing bodies in the street and publishing the photos in newspapers without censorship. Why hide away the truth of the situation? There seems to be much less overwhelming emotion in countries that have this acceptance, as it is not a shock to experience loss, and in fact something quite commonplace.

Some areas in the Philippines for example, get very up close and personal with their dead, dressing them up and putting them on chairs at home, sometimes with cigarettes in their mouths, before they send them on their way. Their burial traditions include hanging coffins vertically in trees on clifftops, to help them get as close as possible to the heavens, and people can choose which tree they would like to be buried in beforehand.

India too has quite the tactile and inclusive process for family members to say goodbye to a loved one. When a person first dies, their body will be placed on a mat at home with family and priest to come and sing, pray and chant and think happy thoughts in order to assist their loved one to a happy place. They will then bathe the body in oil, wrap it in white cloth, then carry down to the River Ganges to be placed on a pyre and cremated in front of everyone, where generally there is not much crying, as it is believed that the person has not really died, simply moved onto the next realm.

After a 10 -30 day mourning period, sometimes up to a year, they will then hold a shraddha ceremony in respect of their ancestors and as a closure to this time. This ceremony is performed annually in honour of their lost loved one. Another reminder to me of how once someone is gone here in the West, there is no ritualistic reminder of them, no anniversary celebrations.

Would it not be a worthwhile tradition to introduce an anniversary ‘party’ or tribute at least, each year after someone special leaves us?

Many other cultures have annual traditions, such as Mexico with a festival called Day of the Dead, where they paint their faces to look skeletal and dress up ghoulishly, light candles and sage, and often tend the graves or tombs of loved ones. This day marks respect for those they have lost and is way to honour their memory. New Orleans often adopts this tradition as well.

Other cultures go even further: Madagascar has a Dancing with the Dead tradition, where every few years they open the tombs to take out the bodies of loved ones and redress them in new burial cloths, all with music playing and a sense of celebration.

Now of course all of this may not be to everyone’s cup of tea, and may appear quite scary or controversial to us in Western culture, but the principle remains: honour and continued respect for family long after they’ve gone. I think there’s something in this for us, and I’d love to see new traditions introduced whereby we regularly attend anniversary ceremonies for those we’ve lost, the way we would attend wedding anniversaries or birthdays. I’d love to hear your thoughts.



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