Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Funeral Traditions Around the World
Death is a universal happening, we all come into this world and we will all leave it. However, much like our birth story, the story and celebration of our death will be different for each person. Throughout the world, different cultures approach death in distinct ways, let us explore a few.
Ghana- Fantasy Coffins Have you ever wanted to be buried in a coffin shaped like a fish? Or how about being laid to rest inside your favorite sneaker. Look no further than Paa Joe’s fantasy coffin creations in Ghana. Joe, who has worked in the funeral industry to five decades has become one of Ghana’s most well known coffin artists. The creations, known as “Fantasy Coffins” are depicted to represent the deceased’s life and hand made for each individual. This custom began in the Ga Community of Ghana, where families believe in celebrating their loved one with good tidings as they send them into the afterlife.
Tibet- Sky Burial Sky burial, or a Celestial Funeral is not in fact, a burial at all. This Tibetan Buddhist tradition refers to the disposal of a body to be devoured by vultures and exposure to the elements. This tradition is strong in religious and cultural customs and carried out to respect both the deceased and the elements around it. After death, the deceased is wrapped in a white cloth and placed in the family home. During this time, monks or lamas will recite prayers and prepare to bring the body to the celestial burial platform. When the day comes, the deceased is brought to the burial site in the mountains, and a celestial burial master takes over the ceremony. The ceremony itself is sacred and should not be intruded upon by the public.
Madagascar-Turning of the Bones For some tribes in Madagascar, the continued care and celebration of their deceased is just as important of that of the living. Among groups such as the Malagasy people, famadihana, or “the turning of the bones” is a ritual celebration that takes place every two to seven years. During this time, the dead are exhumed from the family crypt and wrapped in new silk shrouds and brought out to join the festivities. This time is not one of sadness, but in fact celebration. Music, dancing and a huge feast follow the shrouding, and the deceased are showered with family news and asked to give their blessings. Once the celebration has ended, they are re-buried with gifts of money and alcohol and placed upside down, signifying the closed cycle of life and death.
Alaska-Spirit Houses If you find yourself in the tiny Alaskan town of Eklutna, about 25 miles outside of Anchorage you may stumble upon the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church Cemetery. Here, you will find more than 100 colorful, dollhouse like structures, known as spirit houses. This tradition represents the co-mingling of two peoples, the native Athabaskans and the Russian Orthodox missionaries who came to the area in the early 1800s. Prior to their arrival, the natives would cremate their dead, allowing their spirits to continue their journey onward. As the two cultures began to merge, the prevalence of burial grew, and a cemetery was built on church grounds. Forty days after burial, the spirit houses are built and placed over the grave. They are decorated in colors that represent the family and allows the spirits a place to go until they are ready to take the next step in their journey. However, unlike that majority of other cemeteries, these spirit houses are not maintained. In keeping with Athabaskan tradition, they crumble and decay as they will, following the idea that whatever is taken from the earth must be allowed to return to it.
Seattle, Washington- Recompose For those looking for an environmentally friendly disposition option, soon they may have to look not further than Seattle, Washington. Recompose, founded by Katrina Spade, is a process by which the dead human body is transformed into soil. The process takes place over a time span of about two months and creates about one cubic yard of nutrient rich soil, which can be returned to a forest, garden, or the deceased’s family. The process itself is fairly hands off, the body is laid in its vessel, surrounded by wood chips, alfalfa, and straw, then placed in another vessel, covered with more plant matter, and left for 30 days. After the initial 30 days, the resulting soil is removed and allowed to cure for 2-4 weeks before going to its destination, such as conservation land or forests. This alternative option was made legal in May of 2020, when a bill passed in Washington State made natural organic reduction a legal means of disposition. Other states, such as California and Colorado, are aiming to legalize this process in the future. By choosing Recompose, families can choose a disposition option that gives back to their earthly environment in different ways.