Ten things you didn’t know about death rituals

Blog / Tom Chivers

We may not like to talk about death, but that doesn’t stop us homo sapiens performing some of the most elaborate (and in some cases downright bizarre) death rituals of any species.

To celebrate our new theatre production about death The Shroud (London, 9-11 May; Norwich, 17 May), we give you the lowdown on ten very unusual funerary practices from around the world.

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Hindu cremation

In Hindu funeral rites or antyesti, the chief mourner (usually the eldest son) walks around the body of the dead person three times before lighting a small fire inside their mouth. The official mourning period lasts for thirteen days after the cremation, during which time the mourner must not shave or eat meat.

The late-morning light is in sharp focus. Through another window… I see crows, cawing. They gather around the corpse of a dog. I look at my father. I feel as if I’m moving through a dream. And now, he halts… the priest stops in front of me… and without uttering a word… he hands me a shiny, green shroud… which shimmers in the clear light, like a river…
(Siddhartha Bose, The Shroud)

Sin-eating

In Britain, during the medieval and early modern periods, the deceased would often have a piece of bread placed on its chest for a period of time (often a night). A “sin-eater” would then consume the bread, often along with a bowl of ale that had been passed across the corpse, thereby consuming the sins of the dead person. Typically the sin-eater would be a beggar or vagrant, but in places that maintained a permanent sin-eater, they would be considered somewhat of a social pariah.

Islamic burial

In Islam, the body is buried with the head aligned to Mecca. Orthodox practice is to wash the body an odd number of times (at least once) with a cloth hiding its awrah (parts of the body that should be hidden according to Sharia).

Victorian mourning

After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria went into a period of mourning that lasted for the remaining forty years of her life. She wore only black clothes and was rarely seen in public; the Prince’s rooms were maintained exactly as he had them when he was alive; and her servants were instructed to bring hot water into his dressing room every day as they had formerly done for his morning shave. (Source)

Dancing in Madagascar

In an effort to hasten decomposition — what’s seen as an crucial step in the ongoing process of getting the spirits of the dead into the afterlife — the Malagasy people of Madgascar dig up the remains of their relatives and rewrap them in fresh cloth. Afterward, the Malagasy then dance with the corpses around the tomb to live music. Called Famadihana, or “Turning of the Bones,” the ritual has been around for three centuries — one that the local Christian churches are doing their best to stamp out. (Source)

Jewish stones

Even when visiting Jewish graves of someone that the visitor never knew, the custom is to place a small stone on the grave using the left hand. This shows that someone visited the gravesite, and is also a way of participating in the mitzvah of burial. Leaving flowers is not a traditional Jewish practice. Another reason for leaving stones is to tend the grave. In Biblical times, gravestones were not used; graves were marked with mounds of stones (a kind of cairn, so by placing (or replacing) them, one perpetuated the existence of the site. (Source)

Catafalque

A catafalque is a raised box or platform that supports a coffin during a Christian funeral. In some cemeteries – for instance at West Norwood in south London – a hydraulic catafalque or “coffin lift” could be used to lower the deceased into the catacombs as the funeral party watched on from above.

Huron burial

During the 16th and 17th centuries in the Great Lakes region, many Huron communities would inter the dead in temporary graves (sometimes in the ground, and sometimes on platforms) with modest grave goods. After a period of time (often several years) the component communities of a larger polity would disinter the bodies and bring them to a central location. Over several weeks of ceremonies and feasting, the bodies would be stripped of remaining flesh and re-buried in a large communal grave.

Biodegradable coffins

Interest in eco-friendly funerals and green burials has been increasing in recent years, and today there are many different biodegradable coffins on the market. These final resting places are made from a variety of materials, including paper, formaldehyde-free plywood, fair trade-certified bamboo and hand-woven willow. Ecoffins offers several woven and fair trade coffins, and Ecopod is known for its innovative designs, which are made from recycled newspapers and come in a variety of colours and designs. (Source)

Viking ship burials

The Vikings would place dead warriors in their ship and then burn the ship on a giant pyre. The ashes would then be covered with earth to create a mound. These ship burials have been found throughout the Viking world, from Scandinavia to the British Isles. In the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, the body of the eponymous hero is burned on a funeral pyre before being buried in a barrow that was ‘ heah ond brad’ (‘high and broad’) so that it was visible to seafarers. (Source)

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The Shroud: a two-man miniature epic about loss, time and the things that connect us. Rich Mix, London, 9-11 May (book here). Norfolk & Norwich Festival, 17 May (book here).

PICTURE CREDITS: Hindu ritual, Islamic burial, Sin-eating, biodegradable coffin, Huron, Madagascar, Jewish stones, Viking ship, catafalque.

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