I am an artist who loves to research cultural anthropology. I've been writing about how different cultures handle grief for over two years.
In America, the melting pot of culture, there isn’t one specific way to view death. America is a country of immigrants who come from all over the world. Every time I see a funeral procession I am curious about what culture the family belongs to and what their particular ways of celebrating or mourning death include. When studying how different cultures handle dying and the deceased, it's best not to judge. Each culture has its own view of death. There's no one way to allow a spirit to pass into the immortal unknown.
How African Cultures Handle Death
In Africa, death is a celebration of life that continues long after the person has passed. Just like in the United States, Africa is a diverse place with many different traditions.
Some of these cultures and traditions include:
- The Ga-Adangbe people who live in Ghana are known for their coffins. They build elaborate coffins that represent the interests of the deceased. These coffins are expensive and cost about one year's salary (Popovic 1).
- In Kenga, Sudan, the people celebrate their dead by dressing in their likeness and dancing. They call this “Dodi”.
- In Kirinda, Rwanda there are three phases to the death process: attending to the dying soul, the time of mourning, and the end of mourning. In the first process the last rites are performed for the person as they lie on their deathbed. This includes division of possessions, drinking of ceremonial beer, and the anointing of the body. Once the individual has passed, the body is lowered into a grave where a small boy is lowered in as well to toss handfuls of sand on the body. That boy is rewarded with a cow or a goat and is considered a son of the deceased from that point forward. After the funeral, the family is not allowed to work their fields, sell their seeds, and must refrain from sexual encounters. It is believed anyone who does not obey these rules will catch a socially isolating skin disease (Van 't Spijker 158).
The mourning period lasts four days after the death of a woman and eight after the death of a man. During this time, the family and all of their possessions are sprinkled with white chalk. It is at this time that sexual intercourse is not only allowed, but required. If the deceased was their child, they are required to try again. If a woman has become a widower, she is required to have sex with someone not of her family. This happens for all people in the household. They do this because they believe it is a sexual cleansing and will allow proper marital relations in the future. The end of mourning happens a year after the death. At that time, a feast is made and a plate is reserved for the deceased (Van 't Spijker 162).
- The Urhobo of Nigeria have one of the most interesting ceremonies. While they are devout Christians, they celebrated death in a much different way. They consult with the spirits to find out the true cause of death. While most Christians do not believe in witchcraft, the Urhobo do. They also believe there are good deaths and bad deaths. There are requirements for both. To qualify as having had a good death the person must be at least 70 years old. Dying young is considered to be immoral (Popovic 2). People who die a “bad” death are not buried but thrown into an evil forest to be eaten by the wildlife. They do this so the spirit does not find peace and cannot be reincarnated. When someone dies young, and lived a morally sound life, the deceased is granted burial but is not allowed festivities to celebrate their passing. People who die without children are also buried this way. Often, when someone dies at a young age, the deceased is buried with weapons to help them obtain revenge in the afterlife. They also believe that children cannot die. Instead, they are killed by abomination or witchcraft (Popovic 2).
How Japanese Culture Views Death
In Japan, children are taught from birth about death. It is considered taboo in many countries to explain death to a child until necessity brings it forth. Japanese children learn at a very young age that death is imminent. They are taught to respect their elders as they move through the “cycles.”
There are phases an individual must go through before they can be considered “reborn.” One’s 60th birthday is a very auspicious time. This is when two zodiacs of the person's birth year align. This is known as kanreki. There are several other changes in spiritual status that follow. These phases upon the path to rebirth are measured in 10 year increments (Tsuji 29). It is the family's responsibility to make sure that the elder is celebrated at each particular phase so that they may earn a status of rebirth. Obtaining the status of rebirth qualifies them for reincarnated.
In Japan, death is a very involved process. Respect is very important as well. People who know the deceased must offer their condolences every year on the anniversary of the loved ones death. They continue these rituals periodically until everyone who has ever known that person has also passed. Often, after the person has passed they are cremated but at a very low temperature so that the bones may be preserved. They are then placed in an ornamental grave that was purchased for them by their parents when they were born. Family members visit the grave sites for the first 15 days after the person passes (Tsuji 30). Afterwards, they slowly continue to drop visit days until they are just visiting on the anniversary of the deceased person's death.
How Indian Culture Handles Death
In India, there is a process that must happen prior to the funeral procession. For most families in India, there is no need for a funeral home or undertaker. The burial of the family member is placed solely in the hands of the family. When the person dies they are placed on the floor of their home, sprinkled with holy water, and a sprig of basil is placed in their mouth. Women handle the bodies of women and men handle the bodies of men. They prepare for the ceremony by washing the body, wrapping it in a white cloth (silk, if it is available), and adorning it with the finest jewels (Laungani 192). The body is then carried by loved ones to the pyre in which the body will be burned. As they carry the body, family members chant holy songs the entire way. Afterwards, the body is cremated. Cremation is the only way a spirit can be freed.
Since India has a caste system in place, the social status of the deceased is very important. Social class depends on how and where the body will be burned. Most high caste families do not complete their own family rituals, but hire low caste assistants to take care of the “dirty work” required prior to the ceremony. The ceremonies move fast as the body should be cremated within 24 hours of death. There are three reasons for the speed of the ceremony: hygiene, purification, and spirituality (Laungani 195). In India, most of the dead are not embalmed like they are in the United States, so bodies that sit start to stink quickly. Washing, purifying, and blessing the body must occur quickly. Many Indians believe that the spirit leaves the body shortly after death and must be blessed on its journey to the afterlife. They also believe that a quick cremation allows the spirit to, essentially, move to the front of the line in the great circle of reincarnation.
Since most of India's population is not wealthy, cremating your loved can turn into an all day process because the ghats (funeral pyres) that affordable may all in use. High caste members have personal ghats or can pay to use ones at temples. Once the ghat is available, sandalwood (which is required for the proper passage of the soul) is purchased for use in the cremation. It can be very expensive (Laungani 197). At the end of the crematory service, the family returns home and has to wait 10 days to receive their ashes for the ghat services. In most cases, the ashes are part of several different people because they do not clean the ghats between each service.
All in all, how people handle death and dying is as diverse as the cultures we have. Even with adoption of modern day religions, ancient rites are still practiced. Each person has their own perception and actuation of death. Cremation is the most popular form of releasing the spirit. From India's concept of cremating (then mixing with the souls of others) to Japan's slow cooking and bone collecting, there are many different forms of cremation. I make no judgements of their processes and accept their spiritual reasons. There's no one way to handle death, and the more we learn from other cultures, the better we'll be handling death in our own lives.
Popovic, M. (n.d.). African Death Rites. Retrieved December 5, 2014, from Traditions and Customs, website: http://traditionscustoms.com/death-rites/african-death-rites
Tsuji, Y. (2011). Rites of Passage to Death and Afterlife in Japan. Generations, 35(3), 28-33.
Van 't Spijker, G. (2005). The Role of Social Anthropology in the Debate on Funeral Rites in Africa. Exchange, 34(3), 156-176. doi:10.1163/157254305774258654
Laungani, P. (1996). Death and bereavement in India and England: A comparative analysis. Mortality, 1(2), 191-212
© 2018 Lain Golden
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Very interesting article. There are indeed many ways people bury their dead. One thing is certain - whether young or old, rich or poor, death happens to all. I think that death, regardless of age, is a terrible, tragic thing and that it a true cause of deep sorrow.