Death across the world

In most cultures, the identity of the dead is kept intact and the relationship is maintained through methods such as tending the grave, talking to the deceased and prayer. In performing this duty, the connection with the dead is maintained in the minds of the living and in tangible memorializations.

Rowlandson’s crowned skeleton sits atop the globe with his equipment at his feet drugs, compounds, gun powder, arsenic, mercury.

In this view, continuity between the living and the dead and the natural and supernatural worlds are maintained. The living can assist the dead into an afterlife where the dead will await reunification with those still alive. For those who don’t believe in any afterlife reunion with the deceased and just pay a tribute, the separation between the living and the dead is permanent.


With gladiatorial combats, constant wars, and even human sacrifice, the Romans lived close to death, but they remained highly respectful when one of their own passed away. They had numerous laws and customs which had to be followed exactly to ensure that the deceased would succeed in the afterlife. Funerary rituals themselves seem to have changed little, while forms of burial varied widely and changed over time.

Funerary rituals

All relatives who can possibly do so appear at the bedside of the person who is reaching the end of his life. The dying Rom must never be left alone. This is not only out of compassion for his condition, but also for fear of possible anger. He must not die in his or her habitual place. During the agony, tears and lamentations are publicly displayed. No food is prepared or served and only the drinking of coffee, brandy, or other liquors is permitted. Mirrors might be covered and vessels containing water emptied.

When death finally comes, the lamentation increases. From that time until the burial, certain traditional customs are observed. Above all, there is total absorption in the mourning, with no distractions or activities. After he deceit, the body is placed in the atrium with the feet pointing toward the exit. His family placed a cypress branch over the door to notify the priests of Jupiter, who were not allowed to enter the house of a dead man.

Touching the body of the deceased is discouraged, for fear of marimé, or contamination. Because of this he or she is washed and dressed, in the finest clothes, immediately before death. If death has been unexpected and this has not been possible, a non-Roma, such as an undertaker, is usually called in to perform these tasks immediately following the death. Some families may plug the nostrils of the deceased with beeswax or pearls to prevent evil spirits from entering the body. An important step is the gathering together of the grave gifts that will ease the transition of the deceased into the afterlife and be placed in the coffin. These can include almost anything, such as clothing, tools, eating utensils, jewelry, and money.

There is inevitably a large crowd at a Roma funeral. It is an occasion for friends and family to unite, to wish the departed a good journey as he or she enters a new life. A small band plays marches, going ahead of the coffin. This band is followed by the widow or widower, other mourning relatives and, if local religious customs must be followed, by a priest. As this procession enters the cemetery, the sobbing of the mourners increases. This display of sorrow reaches its peak as the coffin is lowered into the grave. The mourners generally throw coins and handfuls of earth into the grave. If the man was a patrician, the designator, who had also embalmed the body, would direct an elaborate funeral procession. Musicians led the way in the great escort and were followed by hired female mourners (praeficae) singing the funeral dirges (naeniae), the bands of buffoons and jesters, actors wearing the imagines (wax masks of the family’s ancestors), the memorials of great deeds of the deceased, the dead man himself with his face uncovered, then his family and friends in mourning garb and torchbearers. If the man was a prominent figure, the procession would stop in the Forum for the laudatio funebris (funeral oration), which was given by the oldest son of the deceased or another close relative while the body was displayed upright.

The color worn by mourners at Roma funerals is traditionally white or red. White has been thought of as a symbol of purity, of protection, and of good luck. Red, too, has symbolized protection against the evil spirits of the dead and has often been worn at Roma funerals.

Following the burial, all material ties with the dead must be carefully destroyed. Whatever can be burned, such as clothing and linens, will be turned into ashes. Articles such as plates, cups, glasses, or jewelry that belonged to the dead will be broken or mutilated. Sometimes animals that belonged to the dead must be killed. There should be no trace of the deceased in the Roma camp or household. This removes any possibility of marimé from the deceased. Even the use of his or her name is avoided, except when absolutely necessary.

Another tradition following the funeral is a dinner called a pomana. It is an enormous meal, usually the first one eaten by the mourners since the death of their friend or relative. These pomana are held at various intervals, traditionally nine days, six weeks, six months, and, finally, one year after the death. At each of these pomana, certain relatives, beginning with the most distant ones, announce their intention to end their period of mourning. Last to do so, after one year, are the deceased’s immediate family. As declared by law, parents and children over six-years-old could be mourned for a year, children under six for a month, a husband for ten months, and close blood relatives for eight months. Whoever did not suppress their grief after these periods were punished by public disgrace. Those people in mourning would display their grief by wearing vestes pullae (dull wool clothing) and by neglecting to wash, comb their hair, cut their nails, or change their clothes. Nine days after the body was laid to rest, the family members ended the funeral with the novendiale sacrificium, the sacrifice of the ninth day. Then, they participated in another great feast at the gravesite called the cena novendialis.

Marimé and Mulo

According to traditional Roma beliefs, life for the dead continues on another level. However, there is a great fear among the survivors that the dead might return in some supernatural form to haunt the living. Every man in Rome worried about arranging a funeral before he died, for those left without a proper burial were cursed to walk the earth forever as ghostly lemures. They are also worried about the possible revenge the dead, or muló, might seek against those who remain in the world of the living.

It is for this reason that the name of the dead should not be mentioned, that the body should not be touched, and that all objects (save one) that belonged to the dead must be destroyed. The survivors must be protected in every way from the evil marimé spirits that the dead can emit. To avoid this, stones or thorn bushes are sometimes placed around the grave.

The Roma believe that the soul of the dead might be reincarnated in another man or animal. Most feared of all is the possible reappearance of the dead as a muló or “living dead.” Unless strict precautions are taken, this muló might escape from the body and seek revenge on those who had harmed him when living or had caused his death.

Forms of burial


Cremation became popular in the late republic and was the main practice in Roman society until the mid 3rd century A.D.
Many of the great heroes of the Odyssey and Iliad were consumed in blazing funeral pyres. This is also true for many of the great men of the Roman empire. Although many of the earliest Roman and Etruscan burials are thought to have been inhumations, cremations was the standard of burial throughout the Roman Empire from about 400 BCE to 100 CE. Cremation offered many of the benefits of burial, since grave items such as weapons and food could be consumed along with the deceased and the ashes intermingled. Furthermore, one did not usually have to worry about grave robbers as much when cremation was employed.

When the procession reached the section in the graveyard set aside for cremations (ustrinum), the body was set upon the large funeral pyre piled with offerings and smelling strongly of perfumes. The dead man’s heir lit the pyre with a torch, and the mourners feasted at the site. After the fires were doused with wine, the ashes were placed into containers ranging from leather pouches to gold canisters, depending on the affluence of the deceased. The container was then used walled in tegulae or other masonry and then was often buried. Similar to inhumation burials, a pipe leading from the container to the surface was often installed to allow libations to be offered to the deceased and the gods.


Around the 2nd century CE, inhumations began to rise in popularity. Urns and mausolea fragments from the Roman period provide evidence of the increasing prevalence of inhumation (burial in a pot, coffin, or vault) rather than cremation. While the upper class was laid to rest in sarcophagi housed in mausoleums, the Roman middle class was usually buried in graves marked with a large upright pot, or amphorae, partially thrust into the ground. This allowed offerings, in the form of libations, to be poured into the grave of the deceased.

With the increasing weight of the oriental part of the Empire, the elaborately carved sarcophagi which exhibit one’s life accomplishments or religious scenes were reintroduced. Sarcophagus is a Greek word that means “flesh eater. In fact, Asia Minor (Anatolia) became especially famous for the manufacture of detailed sarcophagi. These Asiatic sarcophagi are a class unto themselves, carved on all four sides and usually possessing some type of marble effigy on the lid. They are sometimes known as funerary couches because of this likeness of the deceased draped over the lid. There is evidence that these sarcophagi were in great demand, and many leading families of Rome had them imported all the way from Asia minor. Furthermore, these sarcophagi provided the basis for Christian sarcophagi later in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. Sculptures would often adopt the pattern and technique of the Asiatic artists, simply substituting images of Christ and the apostles for pagan themes.


The bodies were treated with spices, herbs and chemicals so that they became mummies rather than decomposing. The corpses were then placed in cotton cloth wrappings and put inside of a wooden case that was put inside of another case that was decorated with details of their life and a mask of their face.

This was then placed in a coffin that was put in a sarcophagus. The largest and oldest monuments ate the pyramids that served as tombs for their kings.

However, the bodies of poor people were treated less elaborately, but on the other hand cats, sacred animals, were mummified. The powder of mummies was sold in the Middle Ages by apothecaries. Mummies were also produced in Peru and Mexico.

More about mummies


In keeping with Roman tradition, the first Christians were buried outside the city, often in catacombs. In time, the well-to-do sought burial inside a church, usually under the floor, or in a crypt, preferably close to the altar. As interior space became scarce, churchyards were created. The vast majority of people were simply wrapped in a shroud before burial in a wood coffin, but some were interred with objects symbolic of their esteemed rank. A fifth-century chieftain might be buried with his weapons, a bishop with his miter, or a king with some of his regalia.

By the thirteenth century, tomb sculptures themselves became elaborate status symbols. Carved effigies showed knights in full armor, kings with crown and scepter, architects with measuring instruments. Later tombs might show an entire family, carved in wood and brightly painted, kneeling in prayer. Brass tomb slabs were incised with figures and installed on church floors. Tomb sculpture both commemorated the deceased and invited prayers for his or her future life. Churches were often remodeled to display tombs prominently, or entire churches—such as Westminster Abbey in London or Saint-Denis near Paris—came to serve as royal necropoli.

Upon death, the soul was thought to leave the body through the mouth, awaiting the final Day of Judgment. At the end of time, the dead would rise up from their graves and Christ would either welcome them to heaven or banish them to eternal hell. The final days, described in the Book of Revelation, inspired commentary and vivid imagery in books, while scenes of the Last Judgment appeared frequently over church doorways, on church walls, or on small devotional objects.

In Byzantium, death was long regarded as the necessary and intermediary step to attaining salvation. Koimamai (“to sleep”) designated the rest in death, a time when the soul separated from the earthly body and awaited the Last Judgment. As in western Europe, the living could offer prayers on behalf of the deceased and, in turn, the dead could intercede on behalf of the living. The Virgin was the primary advocate for mankind during the Last Judgment.

Byzantine burial attests to a wide range of funerary forms: burial in the earth in open-air cemeteries (the most modest form); within a church beneath the floor in unmarked graves; and in elite tombs within the church, distinguished by sarcophagi and funerary portraits. As in the medieval West, church architecture could be heavily influenced by the desire to build lavish burial monuments, as in the case of Constantine’s imperial mausoleum, the fourth-century Holy Apostles Church; the twelfth-century Monastery of Christ Pantokrator; and the fourteenth-century Church of Christ in Chora, all in Constantinople.


The Christians of Ireland are one of these such religions, and their practices are similar to all other Christian burial practices. When someone dies, they are kept in a “wake house”, which is traditionally the house where they lived and died (Turner, 110). Traditionally people placed salt on the bed, which was believed to keep evil and ghosts away from the mourners (Turner, 110). People may still do this because it makes them feel more at ease, even though they do not believe that it has any effect. Candles are also traditionally placed around the bed (Turner, 110). Friends and family walk into the room where the dead is laying, and say a prayer for the soul of the dead. In Irish custom, everyone shares a smoke – the tobacco was important to have at a wake (Turner, 111). It probably helped people be more at ease, and be able to share their feelings and cope with their loss. The friends and family of the deceased sit around and talk how good of a person the deceased had been (Turner, 111). They also share all of their memories of the dead, showing respect for and honoring the dead as they did. They also talked so that they would forget their sorrow.

The mourners later put the body in a coffin and carry it to the graveyard, taking a long route. This was done to fool the “other ones” (fairies and the dead who have died before) (Turner, 114). If anyone was walking along the road and met the procession, they would walk along with it for a ways and say a prayer.

There is a custom of “keening”. It is an old custom that dates back to Celtic times. Keeners sang and wailed about the person’s life and virtues. This is done at either the grave or the bedside (Turner, 110). The women also wail and lament about the deceased while standing over the grave (Turner, 116). After the funeral rites are done, people leave the grave one by one. The men go to the pub, and the women to home. They believed that too much mourning was not good for the dead (Turner, 116).

Some believed that on a day when more than one burial was taking place, the deceased carried in the last of the processions to reach the cemetery had to take care of the other dead souls buried that day. This happened in big cities, and sometimes fights even broke out (Turner, 115).

As for what causes death, the Irish used to believe that the “other ones” took the young ones, but everyone goes at the end (Turner, 113). The Irish believed that the death of a young person was unnatural, like a murder, but they realized that the death because of old age is natural.


Estonians of eastern Europe who follow the old folkways like to throw banquets in their graveyards and eat with the departed. They put a few delicacies on each tombstone to share their food. On certain days when the dead return home for a visit, bathrooms are kept heated and food is laid out in festive array. In this way, bonds are preserved and strengthened between loved ones on both side of life’s gate.


Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible, following a principle of honoring the dead . Only if immediate relatives cannot arrive in time from abroad, or there is not enough time for burial before Shabbat or a holiday, are burials postponed for a day. Upon hearing about a death, a Jew recites the words, “Baruch dayan emet,” Blessed be the one true Judge.

Men prepare men for the burial and women prepare women. They wash the body with warm water from head to foot and dress it white burial shrouds (tachrichim), which are purposely kept simple to avoid distinguishing between rich or poor. Men are buried with their prayer shawls (tallits), which are rendered ineffective by cutting off one of the fringes. From the moment of death, the body is not left alone until after burial. This practice, called guarding/watching (shemira), is also based on the principle of honoring the dead. A family member, a Chevra Kaddisha member, or someone arranged by the funeral parlor passes the time by reciting psalms (Tehillim) as this person watches over the deceased.

Traditional Jewish funerals are very simple and usually relatively brief. Before they begin, the immediate relatives of the deceased – siblings, parents, children, spouse – tear their garments to symbolize their loss.

Sometimes the rabbi will tear their garments for them and recite a blessing.

Instead, Reform Jews the rabbi tears black ribbons and hands family members a torn black ribbon to pin on their clothes to symbolize their loss.

At the cemetery, another custom in traditional funerals is to stop seven times – as the coffin is carried to the grave. Once the coffin is lowered into the grave, family and close friends cover the coffin with a few handfuls of dirt.

After the burial, it is customary for the family to sit Shiva (in mourning). This was traditionally done for seven days, although many Reform and other Jews now sit Shiva for three days, and some for one day. Traditional Jews cover all mirrors during this time and sit on Shiva benches. It is customary for friends and family of the deceased as well as friends of the deceased’s relatives to pay a Shiva call to the designated location where people are sitting Shiva, usually at the home of a close family member. Being surrounded by family and close friends often helps mourners cope with the immediate loss. Often, family members find great solace from sharing memories of the deceased during the Shiva period.


Islamic people believe in a peace from “total submission to and acceptance of the One and Only God (Allah) and His will” (Sedki Riad, 1). People who submit themselves to Allah are called “Muslims”. Muslims believe that their lives on this earth are only a transition that precedes their afterlife.

Muslims ancestors were ancient Arabs. “The ancient Arabs had no conception of either resurrection or the existence of another life after death” (Said Ennahid, 1). Even so, they seemed to believe that the dead continued on after death. It has been shown that they had ideas of wandering and thirst associated with dying. They believed that the dead who were left without burials and those whose death was not avenged were left with their spirits wandering and thirsty (Ennahid, 1). With the advent of Islam, they believed that life and death were divine decrees, given by god, not by events or parents (Ennahid, 1). They also believe that their God judges them after death and that the spirit continues on after death. Said said, “by embracing Islam, Arabs substituted the notion of community of faith to the previous notion of community of blood”.

When death approaches, the close family and friends try to support and comfort the dying person through supplication as well as remembrance of Allah and His will. The attendance is to help the dying person to iterate his commitment to unity of God. “According to the Sunna, it is preferable to whisper the shahada in the ear of a dying man whose face is turned to Mecca” (Ennahid, 2). The “Sunna” is the teachings of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, and the “shahada” is an Islamic prayer (Ennahid, 4). This act is similar to the sacrament of anointing of the sick, which is practiced in the Catholic and other Christian religions (The anointing of the sick was traditionally known as the “Last Rites”).

Upon death, the eye lids are to be closed, the body should be covered, and preparation for burial takes place as soon as possible. The body must be placed on its sides and washed with warm water and soap, generally by a member of the same sex, with the final washing having scented water. There must be an odd number of washings (a trend against odd numbers is also visible in the Hindu faith), some of the stomach’s must be pushed out, and the teeth and nose must be cleaned on the outside as a form of ablution (spiritual cleansing).

Burial prayers are then said facing Mecca before a silent procession takes the corpse to its burial, where everyone shares in filling the grave with soil and a second pit with bricks while saying additional prayers. The wrapped body is to be laid directly at the bottom of the dug grave on its right side facing the direction of Makkah. A ceiling is attached to the grave and then covered with dirt.

The grave is to be marked by raising its top level of dirt above surrounding grounds. A stone may be used to mark its location, but no writings are allowed. Buildings or other forms of structures are not allowed on top of the grave. Charity, fasting, prayers, and pilgrimage is often performed on behalf of the dead. Visiting the graves is recommended for the living to remember death and the day of judgment.

The family of the dead has a responsibility to fulfill any debts he had as soon as possible. They have the commitment to maintain contacts and courteous relationships with close relatives and close friends. They frequently pray and supplicate for him.


Hindus traditionally cremate their dead, for swifter, more complete release of the soul. Burial, which preserves the bond, is generally forbidden.

Death’s anniversary is called Liberation Day. For saints, it is celebrated rather than the day of birth. To some extent, the funeral rites serve to notify the departed soul that he has, in fact, died. It is possible for a disoriented soul, not understanding that he is on the other side, to linger close to the physical plane. He can still see this material world, and even observe his own funeral. Some of the ritual chants address the deceased, urging him to relinquish attachments and continue the journey. The rites are also for the living, allowing the family to say a respectable and dignified “farewell,” to express grief, loss and the mosaic of emotions they naturally encounter.

The deepest significance of the funeral rites lies in their yoking the inner and outer worlds, Bhuloka and Devaloka, and their recognition that a family consists not just of its living generations, but its ancestors as well. Often a group of souls will sequentially incarnate into the same extended family, so that, for example, a grandson may be the returned soul of the father. In this way collective karma and dharma are worked through. Those in the inner worlds help relatives living in the outer world. When their turn comes in the outer world, they strive to attain spiritual progress that is only possible in physical incarnation. Ceremonial uniting of the deceased with his forefathers and yearly honoring of ancestors keep open the inner communication which makes the family prosperous and preserves its longevity.

The Vedas proclaim, “When a person comes to weakness, be it through old age or disease, he frees himself from these limbs just as a mango, a fig or a berry releases itself from its stalk” – (Sukla Yajur Veda, Brihadharanyaka Upanishad: 4.3.36).

Rites of Transition

Hindu death rituals in all traditions follow a fairly uniform pattern drawn from the Vedas, with variations according to sect, region, caste and family tradition. Most rites are fulfilled by the family, all of whom participate, including the children, who need not be shielded from the death. Certain rites are traditionally performed by a priest but may also be performed by the family if no priest is available. Here is a simple outline of rites that can be performed by Hindus in any locality. Variations are noted and suggestions made for Hindus in Western countries.

1. As Death Approaches

Traditionally, a Hindu dies at home. Nowadays the dying are increasingly kept in hospitals, even when recovery is clearly not possible. Knowing the merits of dying at home among loved ones, Hindus bring the ill home. When death is imminent, kindred are notified. The person is placed in his room or in the entryway of the house, with the head facing east. A lamp is lit near his head and he is urged to concentrate on his mantra. Kindred keep vigil until the great departure, singing hymns, praying and reading scripture. If he cannot come home, this happens at the hospital, regardless of institutional objections.

2. The Moment of Death

When a person dies he is immediately laid on the floor and a small flame is lit near the body. The body is laid out on the floor so that the germs that emanate from the corpse do not spread on the mattress. The Hindus believe that when a man dies his spirit comes out from the body and, because of his attachment to his family and material possessions, continues to inhabit his home. Since the spirit does not possess a physical form any more, the Hindus believe that it rests on the flame that has been lit near the dead body.

If the dying person is unconscious at departure, a family member chants the mantra softly in the right ear. If none is known, “Aum Namo Narayana” or “Aum Nama Sivaya” is intoned. (This is also done for sudden-death victims, such as on a battlefield or in a car accident.)

Holy ash or sandal paste is applied to the forehead, Vedic verses are chanted, and a few drops of milk, Ganga or other holy water are trickled into the mouth. After death, the body is laid in the home’s entryway, with the head facing south, on a cot or the ground–reflecting a return to the lap of Mother Earth.

The lamp is kept lit near the head and incense burned. A cloth is tied under the chin and over the top of the head. The thumbs are tied together, as are the big toes. In a hospital, the family has the death certificate signed immediately and transports the body home. Under no circumstances should the body be embalmed or organs removed for use by others. Religious pictures are turned to the wall, and in some traditions mirrors are covered. Relatives are beckoned to bid farewell and sing sacred songs at the side of the body.

3. The Homa Fire Ritual

If available, a special funeral priest is called. In a shelter built by the family, a fire ritual (homa) is performed to bless nine brass kumbhas (water pots) and one clay pot. Lacking the shelter, an appropriate fire is made in the home. The “chief mourner” leads the rites. He is the eldest son in the case of the father’s death and the youngest son in the case of the mother’s. In some traditions, the eldest son serves for both, or the wife, son-in-law or nearest male relative.

4. Preparing the Body

The chief mourner now performs arati, passing an oil lamp over the remains, then offering flowers. The male (or female, depending on the gender of the deceased) relatives carry the body to the back porch, remove the clothes and drape it with a white cloth. (If there is no porch, the body can be sponge bathed and prepared where it is.) Each applies sesame oil to the head, and the body is bathed with water from the nine kumbhas, dressed, placed in a coffin (or on a palanquin) and carried to the homa shelter. The young children, holding small lighted sticks, encircle the body, singing hymns. The women then walk around the body and offer puffed rice into the mouth to nourish the deceased for the journey ahead. A widow will place her tali (wedding pendant) around her husband’s neck, signifying her enduring tie to him. The coffin is then closed. If unable to bring the body home, the family arranges to clean and dress it at the mortuary rather than leave these duties to strangers. The ritual homa fire can be made at home or kindled at the crematorium.

5. Cremation

The Hindus cremate the body, symbolizing that all elements present in the body return to the elements present in the Cosmos. Then there is a period of prayers in the home of the deceased that last usually 12 days.
Only men go to the cremation site, led by the chief mourner. Two pots are carried: the clay kumbha and another containing burning embers from the homa. The body is carried three times counterclockwise around the pyre, then placed upon it. All circumambulating, and some arati, in the rites is counterclockwise. If a coffin is used, the cover is now removed. The men offer puffed rice as the women did earlier, cover the body with wood and offer incense and ghee. With the clay pot on his left shoulder, the chief mourner circles the pyre while holding a fire brand behind his back. At each turn around the pyre, a relative knocks a hole in the pot with a knife, letting water out, signifying life’s leaving its vessel. At the end of three turns, the chief mourner drops the pot. Then, without turning to face the body, he lights the pyre and leaves the cremation grounds. The others follow. At a gas-fueled crematorium, sacred wood and ghee are placed inside the coffin with the body. Where permitted, the body is carried around the chamber, and a small fire is lit in the coffin before it is consigned to the flames. The cremation switch then is engaged by the chief mourner.

6. Return Home; Ritual Impurity

Returning home, all bathe and share in cleaning the house. A lamp and water pot are set where the body lay in state. The water is changed daily, and pictures remain turned to the wall. The shrine room is closed, with white cloth draping all icons. During these days of ritual impurity, family and close relatives do not visit others’ homes, though neighbors and relatives bring daily meals to relieve the burdens during mourning. Neither do they attend festivals and temples, visit swamis, nor take part in marriage arrangements. Some observe this period up to one year. For the death of friends, teachers or students, observances are optional. While mourning is never suppressed or denied, scriptures admonish against excessive lamentation and encourage joyous release. The departed soul is acutely conscious of emotional forces directed at him. Prolonged grieving can hold him in earthly consciousness, inhibiting full transition to the heaven worlds. In Hindu Bali, it is shameful to cry for the dead.

7. Bone-Gathering Ceremony

About 12 hours after cremation, family men return to collect the remains. Water is sprinkled on the ash; the remains are collected on a large tray. At crematoriums the family can arrange to personally gather the remains: ashes and small pieces of white bone called “flowers.” In crematoriums these are ground to dust, and arrangements must be made to preserve them. Ashes are carried or sent to India for deposition in the Ganges or placed them in an auspicious river or the ocean, along with garlands and flowers.

8. First Memorial

On the 3rd, 5th, 7th or 9th day, relatives gather for a meal of the deceased’s favorite foods. A portion is offered before his photo and later ceremonially left at an abandoned place, along with some lit camphor. Customs for this period are varied. Some offer pinda (rice balls) daily for nine days. Others combine all these offerings with the following sapindikarana rituals for a few days or one day of ceremonies.On the 10th day after the persons death the diya (flame) which had been lit in the house is carried to the sea, after night-long prayers. The immersion of the diya into the sea is to inform the spirit that now he should truly break attachment with the former life, and start his progress in the world beyond.

9. 31st-Day Memorial

On the 31st day, a memorial service is held. In some traditions it is a repetition of the funeral rites. At home, all thoroughly clean the house. A priest purifies the home, and performs the sapindikarana, making one large pinda (representing the deceased) and three small, representing the father, grandfather and greatgrandfather. The large ball is cut in three pieces and joined with the small pindas to ritually unite the soul with the ancestors in the next world. The pindas are fed to the crows, to a cow or thrown in a river for the fish. Some perform this rite on the 11th day after cremation. Others perform it twice: on the 31st day or (11th, 15th, etc.) and after one year. Once the first sapindikarana is completed, the ritual impurity ends. Monthly repetition is also common for one year.

10. One-Year Memorial

At the yearly anniversary of the death (according to the moon calendar), a priest conducts the shraddha  rites in the home, offering pinda to the ancestors. This ceremony is done yearly as long as the sons of the deceased are alive (or for a specified period). It is now common in India to observe shraddha for ancestors just prior to the yearly Navaratri festival. This time is also appropriate for cases where the day of death is unknown.

Once a year, the devout Hindu feeds a pandit (priest), what the departed soul liked to eat during his lifetime, believing that by feeding a priest the departed soul would get satisfaction. This system is called “Shradh” and is derived from the word ‘Shradha” which means faith and devotion.

Hindu funeral rites can be simple or exceedingly complex. These ten steps, devotedly completed according to the customs, means, and ability of the family, will properly conclude one earthly sojourn of any Hindu soul.


Intuit (Alaska)

Some Inuits covered the corpse with a small igloo. Because of the cold body would remain forever, unless it was eaten by polar bears.


Bodies were buried in shallow graves and then later exhumed. The bones were preserved and brought by relatives to a central burial following a mourning feast. The bodies were accompanied by presents for the spirits.


Like the pygmies, fear led them to destroy the house of the dead person, and then relatives burned the body. On their way back home, they were careful to take a circuitous route that prevented the spirit from following them and stood in smoke to purify themselves.


When someone dies in a Dakota Indian tribe, there is mourning and wailing. The women gash their legs and arms until blood flows (Turner, 79). The men blacken their face with ash. After the wailing, the Dakotas prepare people for a scaffold burial. The deceased is dressed in fine clothes. They also paint the dead’s face red, the color of life (Turner, 80). They also believe that the dead are reborn, or have a life after death, as shown by their coloring the dead red.

The Dakota build platforms on the outside of their camp. The dead are placed on these platforms with all of their favorite things (Turner, 81). This shows both caring for the dead, and also fear that they might want to come back if something is forgotten.

Sometimes, if the dead is a child and was very treasured, the parents will keep a “ghost lodge” for the child’s spirit (Turner, 82). There are a lot of ceremonies involved in this, and the parents must devote a lot of time and effort if they decide to make a ghost lodge, but the Indians feel it honors the spirit, and helps the tribe. In the lodge is kept a lock of the dead’s hair, along with their favorite possessions and a feeding bowl (Turner, 82). The poor and starving of the tribe can also eat from the bowl (Turner, 83). Generosity is the way of the Dakotas. In this burial practice, they not only honor the dead, but also help the less fortunate of the tribe.

Inca (Andes)

The Inca also mummified their dead, using ice, leading to a great deal of investigation. Priests would have surrounded the body in symbolic objects. The Inca also partook of human sacrifice.


A priest would deliver a formalized speech over the newly dead person, following a ritual to ease their path to the next level of existence. Water was trickled onto the head as during a baptism, and words of mourning pronounced. Papers were laid on the corpse which were intended to aid the person to pass through the hazardous journey they faced.


Mexicans are “seduced by death.” To the American eye, their culture is steeped with morbidity: there’s the life-death drama of the bullfight; the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos observances and folkart, replete with skeletons and bloody crucifixes; the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato; and the pervasive death themes within the works of such muralists as Orozco, Jose Guadalupe Posada,, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. This death-rich cultural tradition reflects the fusion of Indian and Catholic legacies, the former includes the heritage of human sacrifices practiced by the Mayans and Aztecs.

Such phenomena, despite their surface appearances, are not necessarily features of a death-accepting culture. In a country historically marked by unstable, corrupt, authoritarian regimes, it is interesting to note how honoring the dead has given individuals license to comment on the living. There is a satirical magazine that is published in even the smallest hamlet that owns a print shop. This publication, called LA CALAVERA (the skull), is filled with satirical poetic eulogies of living members of the community, ranging from the town drunk to the mayor’s wife.

The famous skeletal caricatures of Posada served to raise political consciousness in Mexico before the revolution. In sum, it is not simply the case that life is so miserable that death is preferable. In fact, the festive death rituals are neither positive nor negative, but rather “an existential affirmation of the lives and contributions made by all who have existed…(and) the affirmation of life as the means for realizing its promise while preparing to someday die” (Ricardo Sanchez, 1985, “Day of the Dead Is Also about Life,” San Antonio Express-News, Nov.1). They reflect not only Mexico’s cultural heritage but also its fusion with economic and political exigencies.

Haïtian Voodoo

According to voodoo belief, a human being is made up of five basic components:

  • the corps cadavre, or mortal flesh;
  • the n’âme, or spirit of the flesh;
  • the z’étoile, or star of destiny;
  • the gros-bon-ange and the ti-bon-ange, the two parts of the soul.

The physical or mortal parts of a human being are the corps cadavre and the n’âme. The corps cadavre is the body that decays after death. The n’âme is the spirit that allows the body to function while alive and passes as energy into the soil after death.

The z’étoile is the person’s destiny and resides in the heavens, apart from the body.

The gros-bon-ange means, literally, “great good angel” and reflect the part of the cosmic energy that turns into lifeforce; it could be possible to separate a person’s gros-bon-ange from him or her, and store it in a bottle or jar, where the energy can be directed to other purposes.

The ti-bon-ange makes up the other half of a person’s soul. Meaning “little good angel,” it is the source of personality. The ti-bon-ange represents the accumulation of a person’s knowledge and experience and is responsible for determining individual characteristics, personality and will. It can leave the body when dreaming, for instance, or when the body is being possessed by a loa. The ti-bon-ange is the part of the human make-up that is most vulnerable to sorcery, even more so than the gros-bon-ange.

Voodoo belief does not consider death to be a cessation of life. Rather, in death, activities are simply changed from one condition to another. The body, the shell for the lifeforce, simply decays while the n’âme that animated the body returns to the ground as earth energy. It is the soul, the gros-bon-ange and the ti-bon-ange, that endures in a different form. The gros-bon-ange returns to the high solar regions from which its cosmic energy was first drawn; there, it joins the other loa and becomes a loa itself. The ti-bon-ange hovers around the body for a time and then departs for the land of the dead, aided by rituals performed by the houngan.

Death rituals accomplish a number of functions in voodoo. The most important is to send the gros-bon-ange to Ginen, the cosmic community of ancestral spirits, where it will be worshipped by family members as a loa itself. If this is not accomplished, the gros-bon-ange can become trapped on earth, bringing misfortune on surviving family members.

The ti-bon-ange hovers around the body for a period of nine days, at which point a ritual called nine night is performed to ensure that the ti-bon-ange stays in the grave. If this is not done, the ti-bon-ange may also wander the earth and bring misfortune on others.

To banish the ti-bon-ange, it is first placed in a jar or govi. Sometimes it resides there as a worshipped spirit, as described above. At other times, the houngan burns the jar in a ritual called boule zen. This burning of the jars releases the spirit to the land of the dead, where it should properly reside. Another way to elevate the ti-bon-ange is to break the jars and drop the pieces at a crossroads.


A Buddhist priest comes to the deceased house house to recite a sutra. On the second day, members and close relatives burn incense sticks (called “senko”) in front of the family altar (butsudan) all night long. The third day, they burn the body to ashes at a funeral hall and bring the ashes back to their house. Finally, funeral service is conducted. People burn incense by turns in front of the altar while the priest recites a sutra. After the service is over, family members and close relatives go to the graveyard and lay ashes to rest. “ko-den” (money) to either “otsuya” or funeral service and hand it to the person at the reception

The family who has a newly deceased member visits the family grave once in a week during seven weeks starting from the funeral ceremony. On the 49th day from the funeral, they offer feasts again to the close relatives and neighbors. The custom is called “Shiju-ku Nichi”, which literally means “the 49th day” Most Japanese people visit their ancestors’ grave at least four times a year, once in each “higan” (equinoctial), and twice in “obon” (Buddhist festival days).

Many Japanese families have a Butsudan (small family altar in front of which they pray their ancestors for safety and whatever they wish) and offer meals everyday to it. Most Japanese people believe that ancestors are always with them, watching, protecting and guiding them.


Tibetan views, in synch with other Buddhist views in Asia, on death are most cogently expressed in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Essentially, they feel that death must be confronted to truly achieve spiritual progress. In fact, knowledge of the steps occurring at the time of death is acquired through study, in the hopes that the confrontation will be so directed toward virtuous thoughts to allow enlightment, the achievement of Bhudda status rather than continuing the cycle of rebirth. Meditation occurs on the topic of death, event. Relatives present at the time of death attempt not to distract from this confrontation, and a lama may be present to offer advice and read sacred texts, helping the living as well as the dying. Tibetans reportedly even hacked up their dead for bird food because they had no respect for the body.


Although practices have changed, they still involve celebrating nine night, which is a celebration to support the relatives of the dead and provide for the body’s safe journey to the next part of life. It is held in a veranda or a bamboo and coconut tent next to a house. Fried fish and, cake and bread sits on a central table and is left until midnight, so that the spirit of the dead can drop by for a snack. The ceremony also involves dancing, extensive singing and 100-proof rum. It ends nine nights after the death, though additional singing must occur 40 nights later, when supposedly the soul has ceased roaming and will no longer pester the living. Journey cakes (“johnnycakes”) are also laid with corpses, and often obedah or vodoo ceremonies will occur to help put souls to rest. Previously, sexual images often were present on tombstones, and burial occured near homes.

Australia (Aboriginals)

In an Aborigine tribe, when a person is dying, the village is very quiet and calm. They believe a dead person is like poison and will cause bad hunting (Turner, 67). They feel that a death is always a murder, there are no natural causes. “How else could you explain how a person died so suddenly, who before had been so full of life?” was their reasoning (Turner, 69).

The relatives of the dead are responsible for finding the murderer (Turner, 69). They would have to question everyone. After a person dies, everyone in the camp raises up a wailing, and shows their pain of mourning. Sometimes they would do this so they would not be suspected of the murder (Turner, 69).

Once the person is dead, they spread red earth on the body, which looks like the blood shed at birth (Turner, 70). This indicates that the dead person is being reborn into another world. They then paint the designs of the clan in white and yellow on the chest and stomach. They believed that “these signs would change the dead man into a sacred being who could then enter the world of the spirit” (Turner, 71). They then placed the body in a tree.

After three months, the body is removed, and the bones are cleaned (Turner, 75). They then watch the bones for 2-3 months, to make sure the spirit is gone. Then, the bones are placed in a log in the center of the camp (Turner, 76). The aborigines try to help the dead on their way to the spirit world, and continue watching to make sure that the spirit has made it. Through this, and in the treating of the dead’s remains with respect, they show caring towards the dead of their tribe.

New Zealand (Maoris)

The Maoris have an elaborate ritual. When people are dying they are placed in huts which are later burned. The corpse is sat up and dressed in nice clothes to be viewed by the public, and the mourners wear wear wreathes of green leaves, cry out and cut themselves with knvies. They chant praises and then have a feast where they give the dead’s relatives gifts. After a few years, the bones are cleaned, covered in red earth and put in a special cave.

Solomon Islands

In the Solomon Islands the dead were laid out on a reef for the sharks to eat. At a different point in their history, they stored skulls in fish-shaped containers.

Chukchee (Northern Siberia, Russia)

A three day silent watch was kept to insure the soul then departs. The dead were removed from their huts via special holes cut in the side and then immediately sewn to prevent the spirit from returning and bothering them. The bodies were burned or just taken to a secluded spot.

Pygmies (African Congo)

The Pygmies appear to be sort of uncomfortable with death. When a person dies, they pull down his hut on top of him, and move their camp while relatives cry. Then the dead person is never mentioned again.