Our beliefs about life after death–about heaven, hell and purgatory, or that there might not be an afterlife, shape our everyday lives and how we live them. ~ Professor Greg Garrett
Living in Western society, it is easy to forget that there are many different belief systems that define cultures around the world. Although the celebration of death is unique to an individual’s religion or ethnic group, we share one commonality: the care we take in honoring those who have passed. Below are some intriguing ways death is celebrated in other regions of the world.
Imagine living with your deceased relatives and lovingly caring for them in death. Until families can afford a proper tomb and burial, corpses of the Torajan people remain in the home or in specialized buildings called tongkonan. Mummified loved ones are referred to as sick and are dressed and offered daily meals. They are not considered dead until a proper burial occurs which is often years later. Even after the deceased are placed in a tomb, relatives visit regularly. In a ceremony known as Ma’nene (caring for the ancestors), bodies are cleaned and clothes are refreshed. Loved ones are buried with their favorite possessions, so grave robbery can be a problem. Death is literally a part of life in this remote mountain community. If you look up into the mountains, you will see burial caves with effigies of the deceased waiting to greet you.
Within a 57 acre zone in Mumbai, one can find funeral towers rising above forest and gardens. Before laying out the dead on specialized towers called dakhma or Towers of Silence, Zoroastrians cleanse the corpse with bull urine followed by a visit from a holy dog or Sagdid. Once placed on the tower, vultures feed on remains, and the body vanishes within a few hours. The Zoroastrians’ prophet, Zarathushtra, revered all elements and believed that the body becomes corrupted in death. To avoid contamination, the corpse must remain separated from the elements (earth, fire, water, and air). After birds of prey pick the bones clean, they are put into a pit at the bottom of the tower. Urbanization combined with the decimation of the vulture population currently threatens this unique tradition.
Considered sacred, the Ganges River is the final resting place for many Hindus. Hundreds of bodies are cremated day and night on funeral pyres. To break the cycle of rebirth, ashes of the deceased are discarded in the Ganges at Varanasi. The process, called moksha, leads to a transcendent state of salvation. For most Hindus, the cost of funeral pyres has become too expensive as a result of deforestation. It is estimated that 100,000 bodies of various cremation levels are tossed into the Ganges each year creating sanitation issues.
Image via Redeeming God
Located 10 miles south of Manila are the Caviteño people. The Cavite people have a reverence for trees as they provide them with fruit and wood. Before a person nears death from sickness or old age, they will journey into the forest and choose a tree. When the Cavite people become terminally ill, family members build a hut under the tree. While the dying individual lives out his or her final days, family members hollow out the trunk of the tree where they will eventually entomb their loved one. Using trees as tombs is an expression of gratitude and a means for the Cavite people to give life back to the trees.