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Death rituals around the world

Death rituals around the world: Pitru Paksha in India, burning hell money in China, the Bon Odori dance in Japan, and a fantasy coffin workshop in Ghana

Funeral rituals are different across the world, incorporating a fascinating variety of cultural views on death and dying, death rituals and religious beliefs.

Here we look at the unique and fascinating funeral rituals from eight countries, which bring comfort to the bereaved as they lay their loved ones to rest.

Madagascar

Joyful procession to the graveyard, with man playing a trumpet and dancing Malagasy people walk to the cemetery to exhume their loved ones for Famadihana. Photos by NH53 and Henry Zo Rakotondramanana via Flickr

Every few years, the Malagasy people of Madagascar conduct a sacred ritual called Famadihana, or the Turning of the Bones. This involves exhuming the graves of loved ones, washing and redressing their bodies, and throwing a huge party in their honor.

This ritual is based on the Malagasy belief that the spirit does not depart this world until the body has fully rejoined the earth. Therefore, loved ones need caring for long after they die. It is a joyous occasion, with lots of food, music and dancing to give thanks for their ancestors.

China

Woman crouching beside a bonfire, burning joss paper A Chinese woman burns Joss paper and Joss paper in the shape of designer clothes. Photos by Clemens Marabu Jorge Láscar via Flickr

Burying grave goods and giving food offerings to the dead is an ancient funeral tradition. Today in China, this has evolved into the practice of burning Joss paper, to help departed ancestors and loved ones navigate the spirit realm of Diyu. Made from bamboo or rice paper, Joss paper is often made to look like money and is burnt in order to ‘give’ the money to the souls of those who have died.

Joss paper in the form of fake money is sometimes called ghost money, spirit money or hell money. Because the Chinese believe that the spirits of ancestors will be given these things in the afterlife, Joss paper is also sometimes shaped into desirable goods such as clothes, cars, houses and food.

In 2006, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs tried to ban ‘vulgar’ Joss paper offerings, such as luxury houses, sports cars, and even paper mistresses. However, elaborate paper offerings are still made and sold. They are often made to look like the latest gadgets and trends, from smartphones, designer clothes and shoes, to bicycles, cameras and even kitchen appliances.

Australia

Colour illustration of Australian funeral An Aboriginal Funeral, painted by Joseph Lycett in 1817. The funeral procession, each person painted with traditional white body paint, carries the body towards the burial site.

Funerals and mourning are very much a communal activity in Aboriginal culture. Families, friends and members of the larger community will come together to grieve and support each other when someone dies. Ceremonies can last for days and even weeks.

Within some indigenous groups, there is a strong tradition of not speaking the name of a dead person. It is believed that doing so will disturb their spirit. Communities often refer to the person who has died by a substitute name, such as ‘Kumanjayi’, ‘Kwementyaye’ or ‘Kunmanara’.

Photographs or depictions of a person who died may also be seen as a disturbance to their spirit. This is why some Aboriginal families will not have photographs of their loved ones after they die. Not all communities conform to this tradition, but it is still commonly observed in Australia’s Northern Territory in particular.

Ghana

Fantasy coffin craftsmen standing outside their worshop; a coffin shaped like a leopard The Kane Kwei Workshop in Accra and a leopard-shaped fantasy coffin. Photos by Photo by Jean-Michel Rousset via Wikimedia and David Stanley via Flickr

Ghanaian fantasy coffins are not only beautiful works of funeral art, but fully-functioning caskets, made to look like all manner of animals and objects, from lions and chickens, to designer shoes and cars. The practice is thought to have evolved from to the traditional burial rites of the Ga people of Ghana and Togo.

The modern fantasy coffin has been pioneered by craftsmen who first came to fame in the 1960s. The workshops of leading lights including Paa Joe, Ataa Oko and Seth Kane Kwei remain open and active today. The bereaved can choose many different shapes and design for their loved one’s fantasy coffin, often reflecting the person’s profession or hobbies.

Indonesia

Funeral procession with red and gold coffin; wooden sculptures on cliffside balconies A funeral procession carrying an elaborate Torajan coffin and the tau-tau on their balconies. Photos by Sergey via Flickr and Michael Gunther via Wikimedia

In Tana Toraja in the mountainous region of South Sulawesi, death is a part of life and almost inseparable from it. Torajan funerals are incredibly elaborate, notoriously expensive and can last days or even weeks. The ceremony usually begins with the ritual slaughter of water buffaloes and pigs. The bereaved family will collect the horns of the buffalo and display them outside their home.

The people of Tana Toraja tend to bury their loved ones in communal tombs, which are built into cliffs or caves. A tau-tau is then made, a wooden effigy that represents the loved one. The tau-tau of all departed community members are placed on balconies, where they stand watch protectively over the communal tomb.

India

Many people on the riverbanks in India, undressing to bathe in the river Hindu worshippers gather on the riverbanks to bathe before Shraddha. Photo by Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia

The Hindu festival of Pitru Paksha, also known as Pitri Paksha, is celebrated every year in India. Worshippers believe that at the beginning of Pitru Paksha, the spirits of the ancestors leave the afterlife to return to the family home of their descendants. The visiting spirits must be welcomed and fed so that they will bestow blessings upon the family.

Family members perform rituals known as Shraddha, as a way of offering food and water to the spirits. Before Shraddha, participants take a purifying bath, often in a river or the sea. The food they offer includes rice balls, lentils, spring beans, lapsi (a kind of wheat porridge), and pumpkins. The ritual can involve chanting, reciting the names of ancestors and praying to the Hindu gods. If a crow eats the food, it is considered that the ancestors have accepted the offering, as it’s believed that crows are messengers from Yama, the god of death.

Bali

A black and gold ox-shaped coffin carried by mourners; an elaborate Waddhu on fire Mourners carry the Lembu to the cremation and the Waddhu is burned for the Ngaben ceremony. Photo by William Cho via Flickr

Ngaben processions are colourful, noisy and joyous.This lavish and expensive ritual is thought to guide the spirit into its next life and is considered a celebration. Ngaben literally means ‘turning into ash’.

Mourners build a Waddhu, also sometimes called a Bade, a ceremonial tower of multiple levels, made from bamboo, wood and paper. The coffin containing the person who has died is called a Lembu, which means ox, and is often also shaped to look like an ox or other animal. It is carried by mourners as part of the procession and burned along with the Waddhu. The ashes from the cremation are scattered in the sea.

Japan

Japanese women in kimonos dancing in a circle Women in traditional dress performing the Bon Odori dance during the festival of Obon. Photo by Guilhem Vellut via Flickr

The Bon Odori dance is performed in towns and cities all over Japan during Obon, a three-day Buddhist festival held to honor departed ancestors. Wooden scaffolds or stages are built in public places like town squares and parks. Known as a yagura, the stage is where singers and musicians perform traditional songs while members of the community gather to dance the Bon Odori.

Each region in Japan has a different variation of the Bon Odori dance, with different moves and ways of performing it. Often the dancers will move in a circular pattern around the yagura, or sometimes the dance will form a procession, moving through the streets of the town.

Find out more about religious funeral traditions.