May 05

Funeral Traditions From Around The World

The funeral and burial process feels like the “standard” way to lay a loved one to rest. As a Brighton Funeral Director we recognise this is certainly the case for the UK and quite a lot of the Western World. Other parts of the world and other cultures, even in some parts of the Western world however, have very different and, frankly, interesting traditions for sending their recently deceased off on their “next adventure.”

New Western Traditions

In New Orleans, French, West African and African American traditions are melded together for funerals. Funeral processions are led by marching jazz bands. At the start of the procession, the band plays sad and mournful music. After the body is buried, though, the band switches to upbeat and happier fare. Mourners are encouraged to dance as cathartic dancing is seen as a way to honor the life of the person who has passed away.

In other parts of the US, the “green” (environmentally friendly) burial is quickly catching on. For these funerals, the family chooses to forego the embalming process for the deceased and, instead of concrete vaults or traditional coffins, woven willow caskets are chosen. These caskets are biodegradable and the body decomposes much more quickly since it has not been embalmed. There are currently forty “green” cemeteries within the United States.

Another growing trend in the US is to have a loved one turned into a “reef ball.”  Eternal Reefs, a company in the US, will take the remains of a loved one and compress them into a single sphere or ball and then attach that ball to a reef in the ocean. The reef acts as a habitat for local sea life.

South Korea

Because space is severely limited in South Korea, any family that opts for a burial has to remove the deceased after sixty years to make room for someone new. As a result many families are opting for cremation. Instead of choosing ashes (a standard used all over the world), the deceased’s loved ones are choosing to have the cremated remains pressed into black or brightly colored gem-like stones (or beads). These beads then get put on display in the bereaved’s home.

The Philippines

There are a myriad of interesting funeral traditions among the different cultures living in the Philippines:

The Benguet (people who live in the Northern Philippines) blindfold the deceased and place them right next to the entrance of the home.

The Tinguian put the body of the deceased in the person’s very best and finest clothes and then sit them in a chair and put a lit cigarette between their lips.

The Caviteno bury their dead in the hollowed out trunks of trees. The trees are selected by the person themselves, when they get sick.

The Apayo bury their deceased in graves under their kitchens.

Mongolia and Tibet

The Vajrayana Buddhists who live in these countries believe that when a person dies, his soul moves on and his body becomes an empty vessel that needs to be given back to the earth. To do this, the empty vessel is chopped up into smaller pieces which get placed on the top of a mountain—but are left exposed to the elements (like scavenger birds). The tradition is ancient but is still chosen by around 80% of the people who live in Tibet today.


In Madagascar, the Malagasy “turn the bones” (the ritual is called “famadihana”). Every five to seven years, the family of the deceased gathers for a celebration at the ancestral crypt. The bodies, which have been wrapped in cloth are exhumed and get doused with perfume or wine and then, while a live band plays, family members dance with the deceased, using the time to send along family news, ask for blessings and to remember and share stories about the people who have passed away.

These are just a few of the different traditions that exist around the world. Remember—while those of us left behind might be grieving and missing our loved ones, for many cultures, a funeral is a time to celebrate the life of the deceased or to send it off on a brand new adventure!

Funeral Wishes

Nobody likes to think about planning for their own funeral—especially if they are still relatively young and healthy. As a species, we like to think of death as a long way off and something that we will deal with only when we absolutely have to.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that most people pass on before they are ready and a large portion of the people who die every day do so unexpectedly. Accidents happen, illnesses are discovered too late, crime—there are lots of things that can get you. Do you really want to leave your loved ones with no idea about what your final wishes might be? Even if you haven’t talked about it or created a “death” file on your computer, you’ve undoubtedly thought about how you’d like your funeral to go.

Advance Planning

It is incredibly important to put together at least a rudimentary set of instructions or wishes that you would like people to obey. For example, if it is really important that the jewelry box your grandmother gave you be passed down to your own daughter, somebody needs to know that. If you want to be cremated and not buried, people need to know that too.

It’s okay if you don’t like the idea of planning things now—studies show that only 9% of people have actually planned out their funeral plans and last wishes. Even worse, only 42% of funeral directors have a plan in place.

My Funeral Wishes

My Funeral Wishes is a program that was put together by The Dying Matters Coalition and NAFD. It is designed to help people deal with this exact issue.

Promoted heavily during Dying Matters Awareness Week (May 12-18, 2014), My Funeral Wishes asks users a lot of questions that are designed to help people plan for their inevitable passing.

Money Matters

It is important to note that dying is also incredibly expensive. Not to sound crass, but an unexpected death puts a tremendous financial burden on those left behind. Even cremation—long preferred simply because burials are so much more costly—can be difficult for your loved ones to afford.

If you have a specific type of coffin in mind for your burial or a specific cemetery in mind for your final resting place, you should start saving up for those things now. Buying a burial plot for yourself is not as strange as it sounds. Many people do this at a young age to ensure that they are able to be laid to rest with family members or close friends.

Buy and Save Now

This is particularly important to arrange and pay for now because funeral and funeral related costs are only going to keep going up. In some places, the costs for burial have gone up as much as 64% in the last year alone! Some places will even double their fees if the funeral or burial is for someone who is from somewhere else.

Setting aside a small amount each month for your funeral might feel morbid, but—like planning your funeral service and explaining your last wishes—it eases the burden on those you are leaving behind.

It is absolutely important that your final wishes be honored but that can’t happen if nobody knows what you want. Yes, this is cliché but isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

Suit Hire

Not everybody has the right clothing to wear to a funeral. Moreover, some people simply do not want to wear their own clothing to a loved one’s funeral. It is understandable: once a person wear’s something to a funeral, that piece of clothing becomes “the suit I wore to so-and-so’s funeral” and is rarely worn again. This is why the Funeral Suit Hire business exists.

Currently, the Funeral Suit Hire is collaborating with ACS Clothing—the leading expert in hire wear—to both lend support to grieving families and to help businesses that focus on Brighton Funerals earn some extra revenue.

Why Does This Service Work?

As mentioned already, many people are reticent to wear their own clothing to the funeral of a loved one. Sometimes this is because they don’t already own clothing that is appropriate for funerals. Brighton does, after all, have high standards for what is appropriate and what is not. Other times it is because they don’t want to forever associate a specific suit with the burial of a loved one. Being able to rent a suit for a day allows someone to wear the appropriate clothing for Brighton funerals without worrying about having to remember the funeral every time they look into their closets.

How Does This Service Work for Funeral Directors?

The service is a basic rental service. You, the Brighton Funeral Director, will act as the “middle-man.”  You will pass along the information to the bereaved. You can even offer a discount of up to 25% off the cost of the “hire” (rental). ACS will send you literature to include in your informational packages that will explain the process by which someone can order a suit. Every Brighton funeral parlor will be given a unique discount code. That discount code is how ACS will track your commissions and know how much money to send to you.

How Does This Service Work for Customers?

The bereaved will go to the website printed on the literature. Once at the website, the customer will choose a suit and whatever other clothing is needed for other family members or friends and place the order through the site. ACS takes care of everything else from finding the clothing to packing it up and even delivering it to the customer. Customers are able to track their orders online through every step of the process.

Most orders are guaranteed next-day delivery at no extra cost to the customer. If the clothing is needed for more than just the one day, a per-day fee is charged.

What Kind of Inventory Is Available?

Most of the clothing offered via Suit Hire is two-piece suits. These two-piece suits are available in black, grey or navy blue for less than fifty pounds each. Typically the customer will supply his or her own shirt, tie and shoes but, if needed, those can be provided as well for an extra charge.

Commission-wise, with the suits being typically fifty pounds, the typical commission for funeral directors is thirteen pounds per outfit.

This service benefits everyone. It benefits the bereaved by taking care of their clothing needs. It helps funeral directors add value to their services and earn additional income. If you are interested you should contact ACS for a starter pack. 

The Dani Tribe: Dealing with Grief

The Dani Tribe are indigenous peoples to the island of New Guinea, mostly concentrated in small villages within the Baliem Valley.  The Dani live off the land through traditional farming methods within small communities of fellow tribesmen.    The Dani are one of the most widely-recognized tribes in West Papua as their isolated way of life continued well into the twentieth century, preserving much of their rich cultural heritage.  Not the least interesting of which was the funerary practice of severing a segment of finger whenever a close relative passed away.  Though a practice that is strictly forbidden now, it’s effects can still be seen in the hands of the Dani Tribe’s older members.

The Dani used the amputation of fingers as a way to grieve, and to show that grief at the funeral ceremony.   They believed that the more powerful the deceased was while living, the more powerful the spirit of that person becomes in the afterlife.   According to ritual, these spirits needed to be driven away, or appeased, which was done through the cutting off of and sacrificing of the dead’s living kins’ fingers. This practice mostly fell on the women and girls directly related to the deceased, who would have the upper segments of their fingers tied off with string for nearly an hour, before an axe was used to sever them.  The fingertips were left to dry before being cremated, the ashes buried ata sacred spot to appease the spirit of the dead.

The Dani believed that their pain and suffering in losing a loved one would be symbolized in the practice of applying physical pain, such as that of the finger-cutting ritual.   Rather than an act of horrific torture, the Dani people would do so gladly as part of the grieving process, and oftentimes the amputation was done in a quiet place by a loved one, such as a parent or sibling.

In addition to finger-cutting, the Dani mourn by rubbing their bodies with ash and mud to help drive the spirits away, the latter is still practiced today while the former has since been banned by the Indonesian government.  Despite being outlawed, it is rumoured that some continue to carry out the practice today.  

Do You Know What Funeral Music Your Loved One Wants?

If an accident were to occur today and your spouse or other close relative were tragically taken away from you, would you know what hymn or song they would want played at their funeral service? If not, you are not alone. More than seven out of ten people, or 71 percent, in a recent survey were not certain about what a love one would want played at their service.

The participants in the survey living in the East of England, and the study was conducted by the East of England Co-op. The 71 percent figure can be divided into two groups. Those who did not know which hymn or song their loved one would want but were certain their loved one would want one comprised 36 percent of the 3,500 adult respondents. Whereas, those who were completely unsure about the issue comprised the other 35 percent.

Popular Funeral Songs

At their own send off, a more individual choice of farewell music was preferred by people in the East of England region. In a previous survey of the nation’s top 10 most popular contemporary funeral songs, Englanders chose

  1. “My Way” by Frank Sinatra
  2. “Time to Say Goodbye” by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli
  3. “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler
  4. “Over The Rainbow” by Eva Cassidy
  5. “Angels” by Robbie Williams
  6. “You Raise Me Up” by Westlife
  7. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry & the Pacemakers
  8. “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn
  9. “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion
  10. “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole

However, in the East of England Co-op survey, over 50 percent of respondents said they would choose something different than these top 10 songs for their own funeral.

The most popular of those who did want one of the 10 songs was Bette Midler’s classic at thirteen percent. That was followed by Celine Dion’s anthem from the Titanic soundtrack and Robbie Williams’ number. Both garnered eleven percent of the vote. And, while it topped the voting across the nation, “My Way” only got five percent of the vote in the East of England.

Some Prefer to “Look on the Bright Side of Life”

A positive approach is preferred by the British nationally. From Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” was the most suggested song outside of the top 10. The celebratory “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes and the reflective “Never Forget” by Take That and “Who Wants to Live Forever” by Queen were among the other choices.

“Highway to Hell,” “Disco Inferno (Burn Baby Burn),” “Staying Alive,” and “Light My Fire” were included among the more tongue in cheek ideas. “Dancing Queen” by Abba, “The Timewarp,” Chesney Hawkes’s “The One and Only,” and “Gangnam Style” were upbeat and individualistic suggestions.

If the variety of song choices are any indication, we really have very little idea of what music our loved ones would want played at their funeral. This makes it all the more apparent that we should talk to them about it as part of any comprehensive funeral planning.

Are Your Prepared for a Loved One’s Death?

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people find it incredibly uncomfortable and morbid to discuss their final arrangements. This is because it makes it a little too apparent that we will actually die someday, and few are ready to face that reality.

One way to approach this problem is to look at what could happen if you do not make your final arrangements. If you were to die today (which is a possibility for every living thing), would your loved ones have the money to make your funeral arrangements? Would they know what you would want done with your body? Would they know how you would want to be remembered?

If the answer to these questions is not clear, cut, and dry, then you could be adding extra stress to an already stressful situation. As you are grieving over the death of someone close to you, you do not want to have the added burden of making decisions. On the flip side, you do not want your close family members to have to guess at what you would have wanted as they mourn your loss.

So, although facing the inevitability of your own or other’s death is rather grim, it is still important to plan for it. Otherwise, you may end up with funeral music that could cause you to roll over in your grave.

Traditional Headstones Not Your Thing? Try a Death Mask

To produce unique memorials in the form of death masks, Joss Nankoo, a stonemason, wants to use his craftsmanship to produce quality headstones for those who have suffered the loss of a loved one. Nankoo runs a business in Newbury, Berkshire called Stone Art Memorials. He said, “Nowadays, the bereaved can shop around for caskets and flowers and they can also do the same for memorials.”

Following death, a plaster or wax cast can be made of a person’s face. This is known as a death mask. Death masks may be used for the creation of portraits or as mementos of the dead. It is not uncommon to take casts of the deceased hands in the case of people whose faces were badly damaged by their death.

Nankoo went on to say, “We can offer something completely unique to celebrate the time shared with their loved one: something to help them focus on life instead of loss.”

Death Masks Have Been around for Millennia

Though they were not always wax or plaster impressions of the face of the deceased, Ancient Romans and Egyptians were known to make likenesses of the deceased. The face had to be bandaged when Egyptians would mummify bodies. The thinking was that in the afterlife the soul would need a face and a mask to recognize its own body.

Today, there is a lot more variety in the types of materials used to create death masks. Death masks come in a variety of finishes including

Clients can choose to have their hands, body, or face cast. Avoiding imported materials is an important part of Nankoo’s business, which sources its stone from within the United Kingdom. Into the cast of the bust, you can incorporate the ashes of the deceased.

The Death Mask Process

Traditionally, the plaster mold of the recently deceased was done by a physician, though it is not a medical practice. The process of making a death mask has remained relatively unchanged over the years. The eyebrows, facial hair, and the rest of the face are covered by a layer of grease. This grease allowed the bandages to release easily from the skin and kept any hair from being ripped off.

Next, on the face are layered plaster bandages mixed with water. Wrinkles and other details are captured by the first layer and reinforced by the other layers. It takes a few minutes for the plaster bandages to dry. Once it is dry, the hardened mold is removed from the face. To make the final three-dimensional death mask, a substance is poured into the mold.

A Versatile Art Form

Nankoo is even able to make death masks without the physical body. From photos, sculptural work can be carried out, or post or pre-death, a mold can be taken. Pets can also be rendered through this process. Nankoo set up his business about six years ago after lecturing in restorative plastering and working as a building surveyor and learning his craft while restoring a church. He has created stonework for royal events and counts Boy George and Andrew Lloyd Webber among his happy customers.

Since his clients’ needs and the life history of their loved ones are central to the design process, he works one on one with them during the creative process to ensure their needs are met. Although, he offers his services both directly to the buyer as well as through funeral directors. Nankoo said, “During the process of designing and carving of a memorial we make a point to invite the client to view the process from start to finish making them feel part of the process.

“There’s also more freedom in design and quality control when working with small independent suppliers, thereby you save money.”

Nankoo explained, “Death masks date back to the Ancient Egyptians and are still widely seen across Europe for heads of state.”

As is evidenced by the work of the Ancient Egyptians, death masks can last for centuries even millennia. It all depends on the nature of the substance the mask is cast from. It will last as long as the substance typically lasts. Bronze can last for quite a long time, while wax is pretty much never used in the making of modern death mask headstones, since it does not last long.

“My aim is to bring them to the masses. This is a generation that wants alternatives. These give people a chance to think from their heart and transfer to stone.”

Nankoo does a fine job of doing just that. 

The Wari’ of the Amazon: Funerary Cannibalism

Cannibalism remains one of the biggest and last true taboos of our modern world, and can inspire anything from revulsion to pure fascination.  Yet while any form of cannibalism is widely regarded as a barbaric, desecrating act, The Wari’ people of the Amazon Rainforest show two distinct rituals of the consumption of human flesh: funerary and warfare.

While the warfare cannibalism on their enemies was an act of aggression, disdain, and anger, funerary cannibalism proved to be entirely different.   In the Wari’ tribe, the consumption of naturally-deceased members of the group was a way of showing respect to dead and helping the living loved ones cope with grief and loss. 

Following the death of a family member, kin of the deceased would plan and organise a funeral, an event that would not take place for another few days, until all members of the deceased’s close kin arrived.  At this point the departed, now beginning to rot, was carved and barbequed by the dead’s closest kin, to be consumed by the outer ring of more distant kin.  

The Wari’ believed the meat of the deceased should not be consumed with joy, in the same way one would enjoy game meat.  The amount of decay that had taken place over the prolonged wake period makes the meat even more unpleasant to eat.   In the case the meat is completely inedible, only a small bit will be consumed along with the heart and liver, and the rest burned with the hair and other internal organs.

After consumption of the flesh, the close kin to the deceased would either grind the bones to a fine powder and allow the children to eat it with honey, or bury them along with the fire pit used in cooking.  Incidentally, the children often were also offered the brains, roasted of course.

Following the funerary rites, the deceased’s possessions are burnt and kin enter a period of prolonged mourning, sometimes lasting months or even years.   Eventually, each of the deceased’s kin will decide when the mourning period is over for them, and they will return to normal festivities.  A final closure of mourning rite is preformed, involving a large feast among kin of various game animals, singing, and dancing to honour the soul’s passage into the sub-aquatic world of the dead.

Today, cannibalism is no longer practiced by the Wari’.   Following the devastating introduction of measles and other diseases by the pacification teams in the 1960s, the Wari’ began burying their dead (after resisting the change introduced several times by pacification teams) to avoid further spread of illness.