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Funeral Rituals Across Different Cultures and Religions

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Death plays a central role in all cultures around the world. Various rituals and ceremonies have accompanied the burial of the deceased since time immemorial. Some of these practices may seem strange to us.

In this article, we would like to introduce you to some interesting burial rituals from different religions and cultures. 

 

Burial Rituals of Different Religious Communities

The burial customs of the major world religions differ significantly in several respects. 

 

Christianity

Germany is predominantly a Christian country, making Christian burial rituals the most familiar to us. The traditional form of burial here is in the ground. Christian symbols like crosses or a Bible are often found on graves. The funeral service is accompanied by a church service, and during the mourning period, special services like praying the Rosary are common. 

It is only in recent years that cremation has become more established. 

 

Islamic Burial

In Islamic burials, the deceased is laid to rest in a shroud, not in a coffin. In Islam, there is the concept of eternal rest, meaning a grave must never be leveled or reused.

In Germany, this often poses a problem for Muslims since graves have limited resting periods, and there is an additional requirement for a coffin. As a result, many families choose to repatriate their deceased loved ones to their respective home countries for burial according to tradition.

It is only since the late 1990s that some urban cemeteries have begun to make exceptions for Muslim burials. 

 

Jewish Burial

Before World War II, Jewish burials were common in Germany. During the war, not only the Jewish culture but also many cemeteries were largely destroyed. Many old Jewish cemeteries serve today as memorials. Jews traditionally bury their deceased through ground burial. The funeral service follows strict rituals and rules designed to provide support and strength to the bereaved. 

 

Hinduism

Hinduism encompasses many smaller sects with varying funeral rites and customs that can also differ based on caste. A common belief in Hinduism is the cycle of birth, life, and death, with the soul undergoing reincarnation. Cremation is traditional in Hinduism. In predominantly Hindu countries, cremations often take place outdoors and publicly, as it is believed the soul cannot ascend if the deceased is cremated in an enclosed space. The ashes are returned to nature, usually to a body of water like the Ganges. In Germany, Hinduists often opt for sea burials in the Baltic or North Sea. 

 

Buddhism

Despite the many schools of thought within Buddhism, certain burial rituals are consistent. Both ground and cremation burials are allowed. Central to Buddhist culture is the belief in the eternal cycle of birth and rebirth. The soul leaves the body upon death and after some time seeks a new one.

Upon a person's death, they are first laid out in rest, and during this period, the body should not be touched, as it is believed the dying process is not yet complete. In Buddhist countries, these periods of laying in rest can last several days. In Germany, it is not permitted to keep the deceased at home for such extended periods. However, there are now funeral homes familiar with Buddhist rituals.  

Funeral Rituals in Different Cultures - Buddhism

  • Verstirbt ein Mensch, wird er zunächst aufgebahrt | © Verstirbt ein Mensch, wird er zunächst aufgebahrt
    When a person passes away, they are initially laid out

    Der Verstorbene wird aufgebahrt

  • Während der Aufbahrung darf der Verstorbene nicht berührt werden | © Während der Aufbahrung darf der Verstorbene nicht berührt werden
    While in storage, the deceased must not be touched

    Der Verstorbene darf während der Aufbahrung nicht berührt werden.

  • Die Aufbahrung dauert mehrere Tage an | © Die Aufbahrung dauert mehrere Tage an
    The laying out process takes time

    Die Aufbahrung dauert mehrer Tage an.

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Ghana: Coffin Burials Full of Imagination

In Ghana, coffin burials are conducted in a very unique manner. People here do not settle for a classic and ordinary wooden box for the burial. 

Instead, coffins are elaborately and colorfully crafted and painted in various imaginative ways. The coffin is meant to reflect the life of the deceased. Therefore, in Ghana, coffins are transformed into fish, bottles, airplanes, cars, and many other objects. 

 

China: Hiring Professional Mourners

When a relative passes away in China, it is a common tradition to cry and wail during the mourning ceremony. Understandably, not all bereaved family members can meet this ritual because they are too overwhelmed by grief. As a result, professional mourners are hired. 

The role of these professional mourners is solely to perform this ritual, encouraging the grieving guests and family members to cry and wail together.

Funeral Rituals in Christianity?

The traditional form of burial here is in-ground burial. Christian symbols such as crosses or a Bible are commonly found at gravesites. The funeral service is accompanied by a church service, and during the mourning period, special services such as the recitation of the rosary are customary.

Funeral Rites in Hinduism?

Cremation is a traditional practice in Hinduism. In predominantly Hindu countries, it often takes place outdoors and publicly, as it is believed that the soul cannot ascend if the deceased is cremated in an enclosed space. The ashes are then returned to nature, typically to a body of water like the Ganges. In Germany, Hinduists often choose sea burials in the Baltic Sea or North Sea.

Indonesia: Toraja Funeral Ceremony

On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the deceased's body is embalmed and kept in the home of the deceased until the multi-day ceremonies by the Toraja are held. 

This can actually take several years, as such a burial ritual is a significant financial burden for many families, which may take many years to afford. When the funeral ceremony takes place, water buffaloes and pigs are slaughtered. 

The final resting place for the dead in this type of burial is within a rock. The graves are carved into the rock beforehand, allowing the deceased to be laid to rest there. 

 

India: Water Burial in the Ganges

In Hinduism, the dead are traditionally cremated. Afterwards, the ashes are scattered in the holy river of the Hindus—usually the Ganges—similar to a water burial. 

An unfortunate side effect of this burial ritual is that the Ganges is already heavily polluted. The water burials of the deceased contribute further to this pollution.

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Tibet: Sky Burial in Tibet

The Sky Burial in Tibet truly lives up to its name. In this burial ritual, the deceased are anointed with barley and yak butter and then offered to vultures in the steppes.

The Sky Burial has a straightforward reason. In this region, traditional ground burials are impossible because most of the soil is rock. Although the Sky Burial originally comes from Mongolia, it is now mainly practiced in Tibet. 

 

Japan: Burial in Buddhist Tradition

In Japan, the deceased are predominantly buried according to Buddhist traditions. Before burial or cremation, the body is bathed and washed. Additionally, the deceased is dressed in a white kimono and covered with a white cloth. 

To keep evil spirits away, a knife or sword is placed on the chest of the deceased. After cremation, the ashes are handed over to the relatives in an urn. 

 

Philippines: Hanging Coffins in Sagada

A unique and interesting burial ritual is the so-called 'Hanging Coffins in Sagada.' This custom, which can mainly be observed in the Philippines, originates from the Igorot people living there. The Bo people of Southwestern China also practiced this burial ritual. 

The reason behind this type of funeral ceremony is that these communities did not want to bury the dead in the ground, believing that the souls of the deceased might suffocate there. Thus, coffins are placed on cliff faces for the burial. 

 

USA: Jazz Funeral

Since the 20th century, burial ceremonies in the US state of Louisiana have traditionally been conducted with jazz music. Initially performed by the local African-American community, this ritual is especially favored when a musician passes away. However, even ordinary citizens can experience this ceremony. 

During the festivities, mourners march from the deceased's home to the cemetery. Both the procession and the burial are accompanied by jazz music. There is even dancing encouraged during the burial itself. 

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Madagascar: Famadihana Reburial

The so-called Famadihana Reburial is by far one of the most important ancestor cults in Madagascar. The unusual aspect of this burial ritual is that the ceremony takes place only after the initial burial. 

When the celebrations begin, the dead are lifted from their graves, and the entire village dances with them. This gesture is meant to show respect for the deceased and to honor the ancestors. Additionally, the old silk shrouds of the dead are replaced with new ones. The ritual is accompanied by live music and a festive meal. 

 

New Guinea: Burial of the Dani (Finger Amputation)

In New Guinea, more specifically in West Papua, lives the indigenous tribe known as the “Dani.” Funerals are a tradition and an important part of life for this tribe. 

When a tribe member dies, a painful and gruesome burial ritual takes place. The female relatives and children of the deceased have their fingers amputated as a sign of suffering and to honor the dead. Fortunately, this practice is now banned. 

 

Football Burial

Die-hard football fans might want to stay connected to their club even after death. It may sound unusual, but this burial ritual is regularly performed in places like England. 

A professional funeral home organizes this type of burial and takes care of the elaborate stadium decoration. In a football burial, the deceased is cremated first. The ashes can then be either scattered over the “sacred pitch” or interred behind the goal line. 

 

Space Burial

Space burial is a truly extravagant and costly burial ritual, currently offered only by the American company Celestis. The so-called “Memorial Spaceflight” can cost up to €25,000. The ashes of the deceased are placed in a capsule and subsequently transported into space via a rocket.

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