A study of our death rituals

 photo: Mona Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Australia
Dark Mofo exhibition

As well as celebrating and remembering the departed, funerals are typically steeped in tradition, symbolism and the sense that there is a “proper” way of doing things. In Britain, a sombre mood, sober clothing and a predictable series of events are all signifiers of dignity largely inherited from our Victorian forebears.

This makes perfect sense of course; at a difficult and often tumultuous time, there is comfort in reaching for the certainty of ritual, of a shared experience that unites us.

Death rites are as old as humanity itself, with archaeological evidence of flowers and antlers being laid on corpses in Neanderthal burial sites dating back to 60,000 BC. By 3,400 BC, the ancient Egyptians had devised some of the most complex, lavish and ritualised death rites in history, reflecting a trend (which continues of this day in many cultures) of the funeral as a reflection of the deceased’s status in life, as well as a helping hand into the afterlife.

So, while fact of death is universal, the cultural lens through which we experience it is anything but – a fact reflected in the dizzying range of funeral rituals we now see across the world.

One of the best-known (and possibly most understandable, to our British sensibilities) is the New Orleans jazz funeral, in which a marching band playing dirges leads mourners to the burial site, before switching to a celebratory ragtime jazz after the body is interred. In this latter part, mourners are encouraged to dance.

Many cultures send off their dead in a way which is much less familiar. In Buddhism, the soul is thought to ‘transmigrate’ on the moment of death, leaving the body an empty vessel quite disassociated from the person. Many Vajrayana Buddhists in Mongolia and Tibet choose to return their bodies to the earth by being left on a mountaintop, exposed to the elements and carrion – a practice known as “sky burial”.

In Madagascar, there is a ritual called “famadihana,” or “the turning of the bones.” Once every few years, families will congregate at the family crypt to exhume the bodies, spray them with wine or perfume and replace them. The ritual is typically a celebratory affair, with music, dancing and the sharing of stories about the dead.

Even seemingly familiar coffin burials are given an unexpected twist in some parts of the world. In Ghana, it is common for people to be buried in elaborate coffins which reflect their interests in life. These “fantasy coffins” can take any form, from Mercedes cars and giant cola bottles to fish and bibles.

Closer to home (culturally speaking), a growing number of people are choosing to mark death in their own distinctive fashion, whether by having their ashes launched into space or, in the case of writer Hunter S Thomson, fired from a canon, perched atop a 47-metre tower in the shape of a double-thumbed fist.

While many will view this as a little ostentatious, there is variety in our own funeral tradition and people are increasingly open to looking beyond the Victorian model. For example, SAIF member GreenAcres Woodland Burials is at the forefront of this change, offering ‘natural burial grounds’ in carefully selected woodland settings across the UK. Its emphasis is firmly on delivering bespoke packages which reflect the life of the deceased, and meeting unusual requests.

While we are unlikely to see sky burials in Milton Keynes in the near future, the presumption toward heavily prescribed Victorian-style funerals is quickly becoming a thing of the past, as a growing number of people look to other traditions – or create their own – to reflect and celebrate the life of a loved one.

Welcome to the Dark Mofo festival

Funerals are always evolving and changing with the times. From the traditional Victorian rites to today’s growing trend for eco-friendly funerals, there is never a defined norm.

Around the world, different cultures remember their loved ones in varying styles. Today, there is emphasis on celebrating life and death.

In June, Tasmania held a two-week Dark Mofo festival, exploring the ancient and contemporary mythologies around death.

Hosted in conjunction with Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), this year’s Dark Mofo featured a packed programme of art, theatre, music, film and food. Key events included the ‘Funeral Party’, a gothic ball held in a funeral parlour, and ‘Hymns to the Dead’, a concert featuring some of the world’s heaviest black and death metal bands.

And the festival’s finale was an early morning dip in Loch Beach at Sandy Bay to celebrate the winter solstice with more than 700 people plunging into the icy water as the sun started to rise.

Now in its fourth year, Dark Mofo festival has become one of Tasmania’s most popular annual events, last year attracting about 280,000 people to Hobart.

The festival has captured popular and critical acclaim, winning prestigious performing arts awards and government funding.

Uncovering practices and beliefs

Not all cultures see black as the colour of death and mourning. In East Asia, white is used, because it is seen to represent the purity and perfection of the deceased person’s spirit.

And some of our funeral traditions have their roots in much older beliefs.

Closing eyes: It’s obviously necessary to close the eyes before rigor mortis sets in. But, practicalities aside, it was once believed that the gaze of a corpse could bring bad luck.

Direction of burial: Although the practice of burying bodies is often linked to Christianity, it was already in use long before the religion reached these shores. One theory is that pagan sun cults buried their dead to face the rising sun, and the custom was appropriated by early Christians.

Pennies: We are all familiar with the custom of using pennies to keep the eyes of the deceased closed. In ancient Greece and Rome though, a coin was placed inside the mouth, for the deceased to pay the ferryman, named Charon, to take them across the river Styx into the afterlife.

Wakes: While modern wakes typically take place after a burial or cremation, they traditionally involved family members keeping a vigil over the deceased in the days leading up to the funeral. Staying awake during this time (which is where the word originates) was a mark of devotion.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,