Even for the best of us, death is a ubiquitous phenomenon — it’s certain, and therefore, certainly unavoidable. Surviving the death of someone else is far more complex and, simply said, is never easy.
It’s a bit humbling to consider that it’s an experience that touches even the furthest settlement of this lonely planet, and there’s not much we can do in the way (when it’s finally upon us) to accept it and move on.
Still, every culture has found very particular and sometimes downright peculiar ways (at least to our small minds) to grapple with the concept that their loved ones have passed on; and anthropologically speaking, the sheer diversity of settlements around the earth have contributed to some very intriguing death rites and rituals.
Before we start, we’d like to point out that this hasn’t been written by a qualified, boots-in-the-field cultural anthropologist; instead, it’s information we’ve compiled from our own experiences as the very well-read forensic scientists we are.
Here we present (to our own taste) some of the most intriguing death rites from around the world.
1. Pygmies in the African Congo and their mild discomfort with death.
The Pygmies in the Congo are famously (and too simplistically) known as one group, but in actuality, there’s at least a dozen. We’re referring here to the best-known and described group, the Mbenga or the Baka, of the western Congo Basin.
They appear to be slightly uncomfortable with death — and we’re putting that a teensy bit lightly. When a person dies, the group pulls the individual’s hut down on top of him and then proceed to move the entire camp while relatives have a wailing funeral procession. The deceased person is never named or mentioned again.
2. The Maoris of New Zealand and their elaborate funeral rituals.
The Maoris (pronounced May-Or-Ee) are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Traditionally, a dying person is placed in a hut which is later burned to ashes. The corpse is sat up and dressed in embellished clothes to be viewed by the public (like a wake) and the mourners wear wreaths of green leaves. There are indications that the proceedings are quite emotional, and can also involve elements of self-mutilation (in which relatives might also cut themselves with knives).
The ritual ends by chanting praises and with a feast, where the relatives of the deceased person are given gifts. After a few years pass, the bones are properly cleaned, covered in red earth and put in a designated cave.
3. The feasting Estonians of Eastern Europe.
Of all the death rituals listed here, this has to be our favourite one (read: the one we wish was a little bit more socially acceptable where we are). The Estonians who follow the “old folk ways” throw banquets in their graveyards and eat alongside the departed. A few delicacies are arranged on each tombstone so that the items are shared with the dead. It is believed the dead return home for a visit on certain days, so naturally the bathrooms are kept heated and food is laid out in a festive array.
4. The Parsees and their eco-friendly approach.
Parsees are members of the larger of the two Zoroastrian communities in India. Historically, they immigrated to India during the 10th century AD to avoid persecution by Muslim invaders who were then conquering Persian and Iran. A highly-gifted and scholarly people, they took a very interesting approach to their death rites: the Parsees of Bombay, for instance, used to leave their dead on top of towers to be eaten by vultures. This appears to persist in some regions.
5. It’s always shark week on the Solomon Islands.
A little geographical reminder since we know it’s been a while since you put down that textbook: the Solomon Islands are located in Oceania and is east of Papua New Guinea. Still have no idea where it is? It doesn’t matter — the most interesting part of this narrative is what happens when it’s all over. There’s nothing at all to suggest this happens anymore, but the dead were laid out for the sharks to eat. At another point in their history, Islanders stored the skulls of the deceased in fish-shaped containers. Just something to contemplate when you’re at the aquarium gift store.
Your Turn: Think we’ve missed something really strange? Want to argue about how strange wakes and burials are? We agree, but we’d still like to hear from you. Leave us a comment.