Every culture and religious organization has its own way of interpreting death. In modern civilization, the death ritual usually involves a dead body being displayed for the friends and relatives to pay their respects. It’s as good a custom as any, but strange if looked at from an outsider’s perspective. Why would you take an artistic and expensive box and the person’s best clothes and bury it? It’s strange to think about, but the following death customs make our modern rituals seem mundane by comparison.
From offering bodies to vultures to self-mummification here are thirteen of the most unusual death rituals practiced around the world.
1. Smoked Mummies
In the Menyama region of Papua New Guinea, for the last several hundred years the Anga tribe have been practicing a form of mummification that involves smoking the meat of their dead. Before smoking, the guts and drippings from the corpse are collected and smeared onto the skin relatives, which the Anga people believe transfers the strength of the dead into the living. Any leftovers are then used as cooking oil. After the smoking process is complete the brightly colored bodies are placed on the steep cliffs that overlook the nearby village so they can look down and protect the village below.
2. Hanging Coffins
The last remnant of the Bo people in Luobiao, Xuanguan in Southwest China are the wooden coffins suspended on a cliff. Historians remain baffled as to why this ancient tribe felt that this was the best way to honor the dead, but the 160 caskets remaining (some coffins have fallen over the years) nailed high up on the Cliffside mark the only reminder left by the Bo people, who were exterminated by the Ming Dynasty around 400 years ago.
3. Finger Amputation
Many cultures see a relationship between physical and emotional pain, and the Dani people of West Papua, New Guinea take it to the extreme. In this ritual, members of the family have a finger amputated when a loved one dies. This was used to protect against evil spirits, as well as to manifest emotional pain by way of physical pain. Although it is outlawed today, older members of the tribe still show signs of this practice.
While many cultures around the world have been credited with cannibalism, most have done so in the form of a death ritual or custom. From eating the flesh to grinding bones, in New Guinea, Brazil, Australia, and other locations throughout the world people have taken part in ritualistic cannibalism. Generally believed as a way to physically connect with those who recently have passed, the Yanomami tribe for example, who live in the Amazon rainforest, believe that by consuming the ashes of a deceased tribe member will keep their spirit alive and well for generations to come.
Famadihana, also known as ‘turning the bones’ is still practiced by the Malagasy people of Madagascar. Every seven years or so, the community open their family crypts and exhume their ancestor’s bodies to hasten decomposition. In this culture, decomposition is seen as a crucial step in entering the afterlife. When the body is exhumed, the people wrap it in cloth and dance with it to live music, animals are sacrificed and the meat is distributed to various guests and members of the family. The festival is seen as a way of celebrating their loved ones and demonstrating the importance of kinship even after death.
6. Sky Burials
In the Tibetan Buddhist culture, corpses are seen as no more than an empty vessel. Many Buddhists prioritize the living over the dead, and thus decide to have their bodies eaten by wildlife. It is seen as only fitting that the last act of a person is to nourish another living being. Sky burials are still practiced today, with over 80% of Tibetan Buddhists choosing this method of burial.
Sati was a ritual practiced in India, in which a widowed Hindu woman laid with her deceased husband on his funeral pyre and was burned alive. However other forms of sati existed, including being buried alive with her husband’s corpse and drowning. Widely regarded by as the ultimate form of womanly devotion and sacrifice, there have been many occurrences in history when women were forced to perform this act. Today, the practice is illegal in India, but similar practices have been witnessed across cultures and civilizations.
8. Viking Funeral
Similar to the fate of the widowed Hindu women, the Vikings had their own version of Sati. Instead of a widow, it was a slave of the nobleman who joined him in the afterlife. The slave girl who was chosen had to have sex with every man in the village until she was eventually strangled, stabbed, and sent adrift with her master’s corpse on a flaming boat ensuring that she would serve her master in the afterlife as faithfully as she had in life.
9. Zoroastrian Burial
The Zoroastrians have a peculiar, yet strangely sensible ritual surrounding the dead. They consider everything that a dead body touches to be defiled, even the ground or fire. They cleanse the body with Bull urine and make sure all of the bad spirits are sent away. After loved ones pay their respect (without touching) the body is sent to be eaten by vultures. A ritual such as this is strange, but with dead bodies being one of the most common carriers of diseases, it’s easy to see how a civilization developed such a ritual and stigma around the dead.
10. Drive-Through Funeral
An unusual modern-day funeral practice can be found in Los Angeles, CA. Evidently, people have better things to do than sit in a church, and time can be saved by paying your last respects from the driver’s seat of your car. These funerals take place behind bulletproof glass and became popular with gang members after cemetery shootouts in the 1980s made them reluctant to gather for funerals.
11. Aboriginal Burial
The aboriginal people of Austrailia would leave their dead in the open to rot under a layer of leaves and dirt. As the body decomposed, the liquid was often rubbed onto the children of the community, an act which was believed to pass on the person positive qualities and attributes. After this, the bones were displayed in caves or around the family’s neck as a keepsake of the deceased.
12. Totem Pole Coffins
Totem poles are iconic Native American statues, but there is more meaning behind them in some cases. In the cases of more prestigious deaths, the Haida people would crush the bodies until they fit into a small box. They were then be placed in totem poles and displayed in front of the deceased’s home to ward off spirits.
Sokushinbutsu, or self-mummification was a process practiced by Japanese Buddhists between the 11th and 19th century. The act of self-mummification required that the monk remove all fat from their body, and preparation usually began over 3,000 days in advance by sticking to a strict diet of pine needles, resins, and seeds. When ready, the perspective mummy would enter a stone room, meditate, and slowly reduce then stop liquid intake, thus dehydrating the body and shrinking all organs. The monks would die in a state of meditation, and their body would be naturally preserved as a mummy with skin and teeth intact without decay.
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