Death is one of the few universal constants in the world. Across time and space, uncounted billions of people have lived and died, and dealing with their remains has always been a matter of concern. This became more important as people settled into one place as disposing of the dead was a critical health concern. Simple burials and cremations were not always the norm, and some cultures practiced rituals that we would view as unusual or outlandish today – perhaps even horrific.
With that in mind, we present a list of a few unusual death rituals from around the world.
This is probably one that you were expecting, so best to get it out of the way early. Many cultures around the world have practiced the consumption of the deceased. This practice of ‘endocannibalism’ usually had ritualistic significance. Some beliefs related to the practice include beliefs that it connected people with the dead or helped the spirit remain vigorous even after the body has passed.
This particular practice is still seen today among Tibetan Buddhists. The practice involves chopping up a dead body and leaving it in the open. Sometimes the body is left intact and placed outside in the middle of the wilderness. Through this practice, the body is exposed to scavengers which then consume the corpse. This practice came about due to the view that a corpse is merely an empty vessel, and to have one’s body used to provide sustenance for other living creatures is an act of charity and compassion. It is this viewpoint that has made the sky burial popular among Tibetan Buddhists.
While similar to sky burial, Zoroastrian beliefs surrounding death mean it merits a separate entry of its own. The Zoroastrian belief is that the moment that a person dies the body becomes impure and tainted. To bury it would be to contaminate nature and ‘pollute’ the world around it. Funerary rites do not allow for physical contact with the body and after respects have been paid the body is sent to be consumed by vultures.
It’s worth noting that modern Zoroastrian’s living in Mumbai, India have resorted to using ‘Towers of Silence’. Unfortunately, declining vulture populations in the region have created problems. Those living in parts of the world where such exposed burials are illegal or simply impractical, cremation has become a popular alternative.
Mortuary Totem Pole
A tradition that emerged among First Nations peoples of the Northwest Coast, free-standing totem poles were once used as memorials. During the early 19th century a practice emerged where a niche was carved at the top of the pole and the remains of important individuals were placed in a box that was then put in the niche. These totem poles can still be found today in southeast Alaska and northwest Canada.
Dealing with the deceased has been a long-standing necessity for people throughout time, and today is no different. Many different rituals have emerged over time, but they all share certain common themes – learning to let go, and giving the living a chance to say goodbye.