Confronting our Mortality

In the western world, death is a word that often carries a negative connotation, often seen as dark and dreadful. What can we learn from other cultures that celebrate death?

Death is part of life. 

It serves an integral role to help us all recognize how amazing life is, and to live every day as if it is our last. 

Nothing is guaranteed in life, including waking up in the morning. 

So what can we learn from cultures around the world that celebrate death? 

1. Bali - Cremation

Ngaben is a Bali funeral rite that sends the dead to the next life. The deceased's body is presented as if they are sleeping, and the family will continue to treat them as though they were alive. 

Because the belief is that the dead are only temporarily absent and can reincarnate or achieve enlightenment, there are no tears.

The rite's climax occurs when the spirit is freed from the body by the flames, the moment of reincarnation. 

It is customary for the elite class to conduct this ceremony within days of death. For everyone else, the dead are buried and then cremated in a mass ceremony.

Ngaben, Bali funeral procession

2. Mexico - Dia de Muertos

Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, dates back to the Aztec Empire. It has evolved into a lively celebration of the dead, blending with the Catholic holiday of All Souls' Day. 

Family and friends gather to pray for and honor those who have died and encourage their spiritual path in the afterlife by going to cemeteries and building private altars containing favorite foods, drinks, pictures, and personal belongings of the deceased.

The intention is to allow the spirits of the deceased to be present so they can hear the prayers and stories of the living. 

More often than not, the day is festive and light-hearted as amusing stories are shared, but for some, it is a day of calm and remembrance.

Day of the Dead celebration

3. Ghana - Fantasy Coffins

People in Ghana are often buried in ornate coffins that honor their life's passions. 

These "fantasy coffins" come in various forms, including animals, luxury vehicles, and other symbols, representing the deceased's job or passions. 

They act as vessels meant to encourage the dead to continue their passions in the afterlife, as the belief is that death is not the end but similar to our time on Earth.

The deceased are thought to be exceptionally powerful and capable of influencing the lives of the living. As a result, families go to great lengths to show respect by building these coffins to honor their abilities and interests in life.

Ghana "Fantasy Coffins" Funeral Procession

4. Madagascar - Turning of the Bones

The Malagasy people of Madagascar have a significant burial tradition known as Famadihana. Every five to seven years, people remove the bodies of their ancestors from their family crypts and re-wrap them in fresh cloth, then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music, a tradition known as "the turning of the bones." 

They believe that the souls of the deceased will only enter the afterlife after their bodies have properly decomposed and proper rituals have been performed.

Wrapped in linen, the remains are exhumed and sprayed with wine or perfume. Then, family members dance with their bodies while a band performs. 

This ceremony allows people to share important family news with the deceased and ask for their blessings and remember and tell stories about them.

Madagascar "Turning of the Bones" Ceremony

5. New Orleans - Jazz Funeral

The jazz funeral procession is a well-known tradition in New Orleans, Louisiana, combining grief and celebration into a ceremony led by an elaborate marching band and family and friends of the deceased. 

The procession takes place en route from the home, church, or funeral home to the cemetery and the march typically starts with solemn songs, such as funeral hymns. 

After the deceased has been buried and final goodbyes have taken place, the sound of the procession gradually shifts to one of joy and dance, typically involving twirling a parasol or handkerchief in the air.

New Orleans jazz funeral procession

I think all of these customs are a fantastic way to celebrate a person after death. It would be interesting to see how these cultures view death in the end though. Are these rituals for the dead to feel better or for their family and friends to feel better? Just something interesting to think about.

Living in America, I've become so accustomed to the few and select ways of approaching death here that sometimes I fail to remember how many other cultures also have their own ways of facing death and the afterlife. The "turning of the bones" is a very interesting custom!

I'm going for New Orleans style!!

The topic of death is so complex for so many. I am very comfortable with the idea, and I do not feel like a fear of death is keeping me from living. So many other cultures embrace the concept and appear to live freely, which I try to do for myself each day. When my time comes, it will come. I encourage friends and family to live free until then.

I think finding a way to cope with death in whatever way is most comfortable for the person, is a good thing. Great piece!

I think the fear of dying is making people "play it safe." After living through this pandemic and seeing all the precautions taking and the world basically being "shut down," people are more scared than ever. But now that the world is opening back up, it's given people some sense of hope. It makes us realize that life is worth living, and we should just live and put fear aside.

I do love the idea of Celebrating death. My fear of death comes from the thought of losing loved ones not my own death. Reading this article does bring comfort. I am not catholic but I love knowing about the day of the dead. I also love the jazz funerals held in New Orleans but Is there a way to ever be at peace with the death of a loved one?

Celebrating death can also be seen as celebrating a life well-lived. They say if you lived and died at 50 that it is a shame since they died young, but if someone died at 80 or 90, that it was a life well-lived. Whatever the age, the way different cultures interpret death and the afterlife is something that is magical and thought-provoking. I'm not sure what the afterlife presents, but I am sure as heck going to be the best person I can be during my life and making sure that my life is a life well-lived everyday.