Death is unfortunate enough as an event in human lives. Yet some practices that either commemorate or even bring about death for some purpose really serve to make it more disturbing. All perspectives aside, today we objectively discover some of the most startling death-related or death-causing rituals of the world. From sky burial to self-mummification, let’s take a look at the truly remarkable and macabre.
10. Suspended Burial
Bo people in ancient China were found buried in coffins that were suspended, hanging from mysterious caves where paintings were completed in cinnabar, an ore of mercury. The Bo people established a civilization of ancient complexity but vanished from the Earth 400 years ago. Due to limited record keeping, the saga of the Bo remains mysterious, eluding clear answers, yet their abandoned artifacts offer concrete evidence of the peculiar nature of the way in which they lived and died. China’s Hubei province contains Zigui county, near the Three Gorges Dam where the discovery of hundreds of coffins wedged, suspended, or cached in precarious spots baffled researchers.
Some of the coffins were found stashed in cracks in cliffs, others suspended, and yet more placed in hillside caves. Others were laid to rest on cliff faces, perched atop boards extending from the rocky heights. The difficulty in getting the coffins to these near inaccessible spots would have been great. The reasons behind these actions range from the fascinating to the macabre. Were the coffins being hidden from grave robbers? Protected from enemies who might ransack the graves? Or was there a religious significance to being buried close to the spirit world rather than in the ground, farther from gods the people worshiped?
Too awful to even think about for long, Sati is the ritual of bride burning, where the wife of a deceased man is burned on a funeral pyre. Starting in ancient times, some incidents have occurred in the modern era despite being banned. The practice occurred in parts of India, where it formed part of certain Hindu rituals named in honor of the goddess Sati. After the death of her husband, a woman performing Sati would immolate herself to death on the funeral pyre, being cremated alive with her dead husband. Sati did not always involve fire, however, with alternative versions seeing the victim drowned or buried alive.
Sati is illegal in India, yet the disturbing ritual has still been known to happen clandestinely, sometimes against the wishes of the victim, and sometimes voluntarily as a suicidal act of post-mortem devotion. Sati was not just about honoring the husband, however. The self-sacrifice was thought by some to be a way to literally escape from bad Karma and receive freedom from sinful conduct. Participants were not viewed as committing suicide — which is viewed negatively across Hinduism — but were thought to be engaged in a righteous act.
8. Viking Death Rituals
Vikings were famous for raids, but some of their death rituals were something else. Egregious practices of “honor” upon death of a Viking Chieftain would see his followers engage in drinking and orgies, followed by human sacrifice. The esteemed Muslim scholar, man of faith, and legal expert Ahmad Ibn Fadlan was shocked by the behavior he observed in Viking culture and described the horrors of death rituals conducted by tribe members in full detail. Vikings had been in Bulgaria, where their rituals were conducted and witnessed by Fadlan.
Viking men who were poor were described as being placed in boats, which were set loose and also set on fire, while the rich got preferential treatment that involved no less than the aforementioned human sacrifice. The rich man’s worth was divided three ways: one third going to family, one for funeral clothes, and the remaining third to purchase enough alcoholic beverage to get the funeral crew roaring drunk. What was celebrated was not just the memory of the deceased, but also the death of the slave girl who was stabbed by the matriarchal village leader to have her body burned alongside the Viking master.
7. Finger Amputation in New Guinea
While not exactly fatal for the participants unless an infection were to set in, a means of remembering the dead that got established in New Guinea consisted of nothing less than removing digits in recognition of persons passed. First contacted in the earlier portions of the 20th century, the Dani tribe became known to the world largely through tourism. Living in the Baliem valley of Papua New Guinea, close to the center of the island, Dani females purposefully removed a finger to acknowledge the passing of family.
Female relatives would cut off the finger portion using a sharp tool, burn the finger, and then set the ashes aside in a place of remembrance. Thankfully the disturbing tradition of amputation followed by body part cremation is now banned in New Guinea. Horribly, even female children were made to cut off their fingers in honor of the dead. This was because the tradition required all of the female relatives of the deceased to amputate in remembrance. While little known compared to many customs, the amputation practice has begun to gain notoriety in anthropological works worldwide.
6. Mortuary Totem Poles
First Nation tribes native to the North American continent are known for a rich diversity of cultural traditions. Among these traditions are means of preserving or honoring the dead. While totem poles are well known for their commemorative functions, it is less well known that the Haida people of the Pacific Northwest used specialized totem poles for a more macabre purpose. Coffins might be thought of as storage containers to preserve bodies, but the Haida version of a coffin was not only set up on a totem pole for people of importance, but was built in a way that required a body to be destroyed before being stored.
Instead of being tossed into a mass grave, chiefs, shamans, and warriors had their remains crushed to a pulpy mass with a wooden club before being put into a relatively tiny wooden box no larger than the average suitcase. Then, the cases would be put on a mortuary totem in front of the cedar longhouse where the departed had lived. The designs of the totems were intended to provide afterlife protection. Due to being kept above ground, remains were known to create a smell to which visitors were not well accustomed.
5. Aboriginal Australian Death Rites
Aboriginal Australians do not form a single homogenous group, but rather constitute a variety of cultures, each with distinct death and remembrance customs that may be novel or even shocking to westerners. The Maranoa people do something that is chemically opposite to cremation, and most exotic. Instead of collecting ashes, those in remembrance effectively cook dead bodies and then collect body fluids. The body fluids are then rubbed onto the skin of the tribe’s young men for the chance to gain strength.
Other Aboriginal Australian tribe members were known for immortalizing the memory of a close kinsman by taking their skull and using it long-term as a drink container, each sip offering a chance to remember the departed. Other Aboriginal groups have engaged in intricate ornament placement on the bodies of the deceased. Locations including Miriam Vale have seen rituals where bodies are desiccated, being left to dry in the sun and then placed into a gap in a wild tree for remembrance and reconnection with the spiritual world through nature.
4. Anga Body Smoking Ritual
Smoked ham or salmon might be appetizing meals, but the Anga people from the region Menyama in Papua New Guinea’s Aseki District smoke human bodies in a manner more often associated with cuisine. The body smoking ritual of the Aseki stops short of typical cremation and serves to preserve the human remains of deceased villagers so that they can be preserved and displayed in situ. The bodies were smeared with a red clay after being smoked for months in what is known as a “spirit haus” and then hoisted up on sheer cliffs, anchored in place with bamboo.
The corpses enjoy a high degree of preservation thanks to the thoroughness of the preparations. The disturbing appearance of the remains is heightened, however, by their prominent display, together with the red coloration, stiffness, and lifelike way in which the dead bodies are arranged. But the smoked bodies are not just being honored. Traditional beliefs suggest that protection is offered to the village under the watchful “eyes” of the smoked mummies.
3. Día De Los Muertos
Mexico is known for an enormous diversity of traditions and superstitions arising from the blending of traditional beliefs with Roman Catholicism. In keeping with a society known for its interesting festivities, death is not shunned or avoided, as it is in some cultures that handle the realities of life in a somber manner. Instead, the departed are heralded and acknowledged in raucous and colorful celebrations associated with the event Día De Los Muertos — literally “Day of the Dead.”
First of all, the garish yet macabre costumes worn by celebrants make Halloween look like an Easter party. Furthermore, the tradition is distinguished by the showcasing of countless skull and skeleton-themed ornaments, masks, and displays in all manner. Indigenous cultures of Mexico including the Aztecs and Toltecs saw mourning as a disrespectful behavior, instead believing that celebrating the departed was not only a way to honor them but also temporarily return the deceased to the Earth. Death was seen traditionally as a step in a long journey, not the end of the soul’s existence. Following colonization of Mexico, Catholic traditions including feasts were combined with the original celebrations to create a most unique festival.
2. Caviteño Tree Memorial Rites
The Philippines is a culturally diverse place, and with that diversity comes some rather outlandish death rituals and memorial customs. The Caviteño people integrate aging, a sort of partial exile, and finally death and burial into a forest-based custom that sees people buried, standing in a hollow tree. While forest burial has gained ground among the eco-conscious with a mind for the alternative, the Caviteño have a head start on forest burial and take it a lot further.
As someone reaches the point close to death, either by age or illness, a tree is selected by the dying. Next, their family constructs a small hut beside the tree, in which they will live up to the point of death. Upon death, the person is not just buried in the forest, which would nourish a tree. Instead, the body is placed inside a tree, which is still standing but has been hollowed out by the family of the dead. Living beside the tree in their final days and finally being placed in the tree shows respect for how trees give life, providing timber and fruit, by becoming part of the tree.
1. Aghori Rituals
In alternative forms of Hinduism and in stark contrast to Orthodox Hinduism, which does not approve of Aghori practices, Shaiva sadhus, known as Aghoris are holy men who make close contact with the remains of the deceased. The holy men live in charnel grounds, which are above ground disposal areas for bodies of the deceased, full of decomposing and degrading remains. The Aghori do not just live near human remains, but go about finding a variety of uses for the components of corpses. Human skulls are fashioned into fluid-holding instruments called kapalas, which are used as drinking cups. Bones are made into specialized jewelry.
Aghori holy men also rub the ashes of the cremated over their bodies, further increasing their connection and remembrance of the dead. While Aghori brave the specter of death, they are not dissuaded by opposition from Orthodox Hindus. Instead, they believe that their actions bring them healing capabilities. Some resort to consuming corpses and cutting of the heads of dead bodies. Gurus of the Aghori are heroes in many segments of traditional culture, admired by members of the public for their actions and supposed abilities.