As you travel the globe you’ll encounter countless burial rites, each as rich as the culture from which they bloomed. From South Korean burial beads to the sky burials of Mongolia and Tibet, we look at some of the world’s more exotic funeral practices.
What’s the bet when you think of a “traditional” Western, Christian funeral you think of a dark and gloomy occasion?
Relatives and friends all dressed in head-to-toe black. They shuffle into a church or funeral parlour for a solemn funeral ceremony. Prayers are said and hymns are sung. Tea and coffee – or something harder if you’re that way inclined – are served at the family home.
Sounds like a familiar scene, right? Well that’s not how it is in every culture…
Burial beads – South Korea
In harmony with the Confucian tradition of revering your ancestors, South Koreans traditionally prefer to bury their dead so that they can tend to their graves as a sign of respect. But with over 8.4 square kilometres each year being swallowed up by new cemeteries, burial plots were not only becoming rarer – they were becoming expensive. That’s where burial beads come in.
To create these beautiful glass-like beads, the body is cremated at a heat so high that it yields a kind of ceramic bead. The stunning result is usually kept on the mantelpiece to be admired, creating a permanent remembrance of those passed.
Sky burial – Tibet and Mongolia
The Buddhists of Tibet and parts of Mongolia believe the soul moves on after death leaving the body as an empty vessel. Add to this that much of the ground in these areas is far too rocky to dig a grave and wood for cremation is scarce, and a sky burial seems like the logical answer.
When someone dies, a close friend of the deceased carries the body on his back to the sky burial location. This is when the process of returning the dead back to the earth begins.
A rogyapa or ‘breaker of bodies’ places the body on a mountaintop to eventually decay from exposure to the elements and the local vulture population . Once the vultures have done their work, the rogyapa collects and crushes the bones into a powder which is mixed with barley flower and yak butter and fed back to the birds. And the cycle is complete.
Famadihana – Madagascar
This sacred ceremony comes from the Malagasy people of the African island of Madagascar, and occurs every five to seven years. Also known as the ‘turning of the bones’, it involves living family members removing their deceased relatives from their ancestral crypts. The burial garments are cautiously unwrapped from the corpses, and the bodies are then wrapped in fresh silk shrouds.
Then the festivities really kick off. Guests drink, chat and dance with their forebears and just before the sun creeps below the horizon, the bodies are carefully returned to the tomb and turned upside down. The crypt is then resealed for the next Famadihana in five to seven years.
This now outlawed funeral practice was once prolific in Indian Hindu communities, and involved a new widow throwing themselves on the funeral pyre of their recently deceased husband. Seen as a voluntary and selfless act in the Hindu tradition, there have been a number of unfortunate instances where women were forced to commit Sati.
To this day some forms of Sati still exist, such as being buried alive or drowned, but these are less and less prevalent than days gone by. Interestingly, India wasn’t the first and only culture to adopt this custom – other traditions practising similar rituals included the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Goths and Scythians.
These are just a small snapshot of some of the stunning – and sometimes sinister – ways different cultures honour their loved one once they’ve passed away. If you’d like to know more, you can feed your curiosityhere and here.
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