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From Sky to Earth: Funeral Traditions From Around the World

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  • 28 Nov, 2019  |
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1 From Sky to Earth: Funeral Traditions From Around the World

There's never one set 'right' way to mourn the loss of someone you love, but traditions and ceremonies help us to celebrate someone's life and also come to terms with their loss. In the United States, we have a specific set of customs that most people abide by, but these customs vary widely around the world.
Varied belief systems lead to varied funeral practices. Here are just a few of the ‘weird and wonderful’ traditions from across the globe that might, to us, seem odd.
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Ghana, Africa

The Greater Accra Region in Ghana is home to the Ga people, who use elaborate ‘fantasy’ coffins to honor their dead. These coffins are made by specialist carpenters and usually represent the deceased’s profession in some way. Coffins have been created in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Some coffins are designed to represent specific regal symbol and can only be used by people of certain social status. Some are animal-shaped. Some are designed to represent specific proverbs or sayings, interpreted as a drawing that's then used to create the coffin.

Fantasy coffins are used as a way to make the dead person happy. The Ga people believe that ancestors, even those long gone, are much more powerful than the people they leave behind. They also believe that death isn't the end of life, and that the dead person simply carries on their life in the afterlife. Fantasy coffins are, therefore, an essential part of the funeral process. Some are so elaborate that they have been displayed in art galleries around the world.

Bali, Indonesia

Cremation is a part of the funeral tradition in many countries, but in Bali, it takes on a special significance, and a level of fun that many Western people might find odd. Called 'ngaben,' the ceremony is an elaborate and expensive affair that can take place as long as several years after someone has died. In Bali, death is seen as just part of the cycle that also includes birth and life. This cycle continues until our soul has been purified, and we're reunited with God.
The ceremony is purposefully happy and celebrative, so that the deceased person will feel happy to move on into their next life. They shouldn't be worried about those they have left behind. To further prevent them from coming back, the tower on which the ceremony is conducted is spun at the start. The family gives special offerings, and once the ceremony has been completed, the ashes are scattered in the sea. Over the following 12 days, the deceased's family members build, and then burn, further effigies of their loved one, and scatter those ashes in the sea, too.

New Orleans, USA

The New Orleans jazz funeral is one of the most unique in the United States. Born from traditions brought to the country by slaves, the jazz funeral has become one of the Pelican State's most enduring images. No wonder, jazz is in the city's pores.
During the procession to the cemetery, music performed is somber and traditional, but it's on the way back that things turn celebratory. This is because the body has now been 'cut loose' from its former life, and it's time for mourners to cut loose, too. Dancing is expected, and the streets are filled with the sound of celebrating life!

The music is performed by a 'second line' and, while the second line is no longer strictly a funeral tradition, it's with funerals that it remains most closely associated. These funerals are mostly seen in the burial of musicians, but anyone can have one if they'd like.

Tibet/Mongolia, East Asia

Buddhist people following Vajrayana traditions believe that after death, the body simply becomes empty as the soul departs. There's no need to preserve or take care of the body. It has no more function. To return this empty body to the earth, it may make itself useful once more as food or by decomposing.
The body is cut into pieces and simply left on a mountaintop, exposed to the elements (and any vultures that may be circling around). There, it's either eaten by scavengers or left to decompose. This tradition may make a Westerner's eyes water, but it remains a popular choice for many Tibetans.
There's also a practical element to this tradition. Much of Tibet's ground is hard and rocky, which makes grave-digging challenging.


A ritual called ‘famadihana,’ or ‘turning of the bones,’ is the ancient funeral tradition of the Malagasy people. During the ceremony, which takes place every five to seven years, families open their family crypts and bring out the bodies of their deceased ancestors. The bodies (wrapped in cloth at the time of their burial) are sprayed with wine and perfume, told the family news, and wrapped in fresh cloth. The family members then carry their ancestors over their heads and dance while music plays. The ceremony is a way to make sure the dead are always remembered and to bring families together.
In recent years, this practice is on the decline. Still, it relates to the belief, practiced in several Southeast Asian cultures, that the dead are continually reincarnated until their body has completely decomposed, and the ceremonies mark these beliefs with celebration and songs.

South Korea

In the year 2000, South Korea passed a law stating that due to a land shortage, anyone who died after the year 2000 and was buried could only stay where they were for 60 years. After that, they would have to be dug up and cremated. This has, unsurprisingly, made cremation in the first instance much more popular, but some companies are thinking more outside the box.

Burial beads are now a popular option, where the ashes of family members are turned into colored beads that are then displayed in the home. The beads are usually pink, turquoise, or black.

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