Death isn’t really something we like to think about. Still, the truth is death is the one axiom of life we learn to (be it subconsciously) contend with. In many other cultures, however, death is not only more embraced — it’s honored. In ceremonies that may seem bizarre or even sexist to some, here are five ways people around the world — in the past and present — revere the dead. If you haven’t checked out our previous take on the subject, be sure to start your journey through the wild and often macabre world of death rites here.
1. Not quite burning at the stake: the ancient practice of Sati.
While the idea of dying for ones’ love is romanticized in many pop songs, whether or not it’s taken literally is another story – unless you were a widower in ancient India. Some parts of India practiced a burial ceremony called Sati in which widowed women publically burned themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. Luckily for all new brides, sati is no longer allowed in India. No one really knows what sparked this practice. Was it introduced to prevent wives from killing wealthy partners so they could marry their true lovers? Or was it a conduit for the wife to join her husband in an afterlife? What is known is that Sati was not solely practiced in India alone (contrary to popular belief). Other ancient civilizations practiced variations of this tradition, including the Egyptians, Goths, Scythians and Greeks.
2. ‘Till death do we… eat? It’s eating you up inside.
The Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and the Wari people of Brazil once believed eating the dead helped the living and recently expired create an everlasting connection. What anthropologists call endocannibalism, eating a deceased loved one was also viewed as therapeutic: a way for you to express your apprehensions and fear of death and tragedy. Some anthropologists argue that the dead expected the living to devour them, as a final salute of honoring the tribe and family. We should have warned you not to try eating lunch while reading this article.
3. One last altruistic sign-off (or chewing your food).
Instead of chewing on the skin of your dead loved one, let a wild animal feast on them instead. This, at least, is what many Tibetan Buddhists believe. Keepers of a tradition known as Sky Burials, they would dismember the dead into small pieces and drop the remains for animals, particularly birds and vultures. While the thought of it may make your stomach churn, Buddhists see sky burials as deeply sustainable. They see the dead body as an empty vessel. Providing sustenance to another living creature is in accordance to the Buddhist worldview of reverence for all life. It’s seen as a final nod of altruism. Buddhists still widely perform Sky Burials today, a custom they have been observing for thousands of years.
4. Going caving on the Hawaiian islands.
If you ever plan a trip to Hawaii, make sure you explore their caves. Depending on which Hawaiian island along the coast of Maui you’re visiting, you may stumble upon skeletal remains. These are remnants from a traditional burial practice in which the recently deceased is buried inside the cave. Family members often bend the body into a fetal position and cover it with a cloth comprised of mulberry bush bark — they consider the bones of a body sacred. As a result, they may remove the internal organs and rub salt on the body for better preservation.
5. When your coffin is the sea: watery around these parts.
Mariners have long viewed the seas as an appropriate burial site for their colleagues at sea. Some historians argue that sea burial may have been the most common form of burial across the world in recorded history. In fact, according to international law, the ship captain can perform an official funeral service at sea — this is true of any captain from any part of the world.
The deceased is wrapped inside a burlap bag. The captain and his team then attach weights like rocks along the bag so it doesn’t stay afloat. They may even cover the bag with the nation’s flag. The funeral ceremony is then, sombrely we imagine, conducted on deck. According to old customs, the British navy used to thread the last stitch through the dead person’s lip – just to make sure they were really dead.
Your Turn: An amateur anthropologist outraged by this article? We’d like to hear from you. Have another death rite we haven’t covered in our previous articles that you’re just dying to share (pardon the pun) — let us know. Leave us a comment.