When looking at the topic of death and rituals through a global lens, cultures and traditions around the world can differ from the popular westernised funeral traditions you see on TV or in films. In fact, ideas about death and its rituals can give us insight into a culture’s values and beliefs. As the world becomes more multicultural, it is important to be aware of the unique funeral traditions and customs we may take part in at some point in our lives. Particular floral arrangements, funeral attire and etiquette, music and rituals are just some of the many aspects that make certain cultures stand out from funerals in the western world. The following countries are just some of the many examples of interesting global funeral traditions we can learn about.
What are some of the examples in Africa?
In South Africa, some funeral rituals are also a way to venerate ancestors. For instance, mourners tend to remove furniture from the deceased person’s room to pay respects to their ancestors by sacrificing an animal. If a burial took place, funeral attendees must ensure they are clean before entering the deceased person’s house to avoid bad luck.
Another interesting ritual is known as an After-Tears party, where funeral attendees remember their loved one by cherishing the memories they had, sharing stories, playing music and drinking.
In Rwanda, before the burial mourners usually start a remembrance fire to sit around and share stories about their loved one. In contrast to other funeral traditions, there is no music during the funeral service and instead, people mourn in silence.
Depending on the family’s religion, they read scriptures during the service or the burial. Similar to South African rituals, after the burial takes place everyone takes part in ceremonial handwashing.
Jazz Funeral, New Orleans
Although New Orleans is a city in a westernised country, New Orleans jazz funerals fuse European and African beats to celebrate the life of prominent members of the African American community. A marching band after the funeral service plays sombre dirges while leading mourners to the gravesite. After the burial takes place, the band begins to play more joyful music, changing the whole feeling of the ceremony.
What are some of the examples in Asia?
It’s traditional for Chinese families to bring flowers and white envelopes containing money to a funeral, as white symbolises mourning and helps the grieving family with the cost of the funeral. Funeral attendees must remove their shoes if the funeral is held at a temple. Monks typically pray over the casket reciting Buddhist or Taoist scriptures. Chinese families also include musicians in the funeral procession, as they believe music will scare away any bad spirits.
When the Han Dynasty ruled China from 206 BC to 220 AD, deceased royal members were buried in jade. The body was armoured in jade by cutting the jewel in shapes like squares and rectangles. These pieces of jade were then threaded on with wire, creating a suit.
The people of Sagada in the Philippines are famous for their 2000-year-old unique burial ritual, where the deceased are placed in coffins and the coffins are then placed inside caves or on the face of cliffs next to their ancestors. They believe that the closer the dead are to the sky, the greater the chance their spirits will reach into the afterlife.
In contrast, other parts of the Philippines follow more westernised funeral traditions as the majority of the people are Catholic. For example, their funerals consist of a Catholic mass with hymns and prayers, followed by a novena after the burial. The Philippines also celebrate All Souls Day, a day observed by Latin Catholics and other Christian denominations annually to commemorate the souls of all who have passed away.
Death is a universal experience. But it is also an experience that each culture approaches in a distinct way.
In some cultures, participation in the grieving process is an important ritual; others choose to grieve in private. An annual celebration of a loved one’s passing is a feature in some cultures, while others believe even the mention of the deceased’s name brings bad luck. Holding a wake is a significant feature of the funeral service in many cultures.
We all bring something different from our cultural background to a funeral service based on where we have come from.
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