Customs around death are one of the most ritualized aspects of human existence. However, the traditions and rituals undertaken by those grieving the loss of a loved one vary wildly; one culture’s “strange” is another culture’s way of remembering Nana. Below are 10 mourning traditions that may seem strange to those who don’t follow them…
10. Avoiding the name of the deceased
In some Australian Aboriginal cultures, when a person dies, the name of the deceased may not be uttered (the family and community elders determine the length of time for this “naming taboo,” which can range from months to years, depending on the status of the deceased). It is believed that after death, a person’s spirit makes a journey to the next world. However, when the deceased’s name is spoken, their spirit may be called back into this world, where it will create trouble for the family.
To avoid disrupting the passage to the afterlife, community members avoid using the deceased’s name (verbally, and sometimes in print) and sometimes their likeness (removing photos of the deceased for example). Instead, they will substitute a placeholder name. The Arrernte community uses Kumantjayi, which means “without name” when they reference the deceased or need to use the deceased’s name (or words that are deemed too close to the deceased’s name) for any reason. This tradition can create some logistical challenges. For example, in one community, when an Alice died, one of the region’s major population centers, Alice Springs, needed to be referred to as Kamantjayi Springs. Community members who share a name with the deceased will also need to use an alternate name, often their middle name. When prominent Aboriginal community members have died, there has been tension in how to report the death, given some communities’ belief in the need to avoid using the name or image of the deceased.
9. Making jewelry from the hair of the deceased
As anyone who has ever cleaned out a shower drain knows, human hair is surprisingly resistant to breaking down over time. Mummies from thousands of years ago have been discovered with hair that looks almost undisturbed. So if you are looking to keep a vestige of your loved one after death, hair is a personal and durable memento. While one expert notes that, “Humans have been saving hair for as long as we’ve been burying our dead,” the custom became particularly popular during the Victoria era, when “mourning jewelry” (also known as “hairwork”) that featured the hair of the deceased became fashionable.
Queen Victoria made mourning trendy with her public displays of grief over the loss of her husband, Prince Albert. Victoria often wore a locket that contained some of Albert’s hair. However, not all hairwork was so discrete. Brooches, bracelets, wreaths and even dioramas made of hair were displayed to honor the dead (and sometimes, the living) and weaving these objects became a respectable hobby amongst middle-class women in Britain and the US. While the enthusiasm for hairwork faded after the Victorian era, the craft has gotten some new adherents in recent years, as one of the many vestiges of the past revived by hipsters. Workshops in Brooklyn (of course!) give modern-day crafters the chance to create their own hair jewelry in the Victorian style.
8. Hiring strippers
In most places, the atmosphere at a funeral could not be more different than that at a strip club. However, in some parts of Taiwan and China, the two converge in unexpected ways. In a practice that emerged largely during the 1980s, when it reached its peak in popularity, strippers perform for the deceased and the bereaved at funerals. The strippers generally arrive in an “Electric Flower Car,” a pickup truck that has been converted to a stage, and the strippers can either perform as part of the funeral procession or at the venue (or both). This custom is more common in less well-off, rural areas than in urban areas, and China has sought to eliminate the practice entirely.
The reasons behind this tradition are somewhat unclear. Some suggest that a raucous and well-attended funeral ensures a better afterlife for the deceased, while others hypothesize that the strippers suggest fertility, or provide a way for the deceased’s family to display their wealth. When one Taiwanese politician died, his funeral featured 50 pole dancers, in an effort to honor the deceased’s wishes that his funeral be “hilarious.” One observer joked, in the aftermath of the over-the-top funeral celebration, that “The city’s residents are asking: please die one more time!”
7. Cutting off a finger
When a loved one dies, it can be like losing a part of yourself. For some members of the Dani tribe of Papua New Guinea, the sense of loss is more than figurative, as grieving family members (usually female) amputate part of one of their fingers as a way of remembering their late relative. The purpose of the amputation is to show dedication to the deceased, placate the spirits of the dead by offering them a piece of the living, and to serve “as a symbolic sharing of the misery of death and pain amongst kinfolk.”
You may want to avoid this next bit if you are squeamish. As part of the funeral ceremony, close female relatives will tie off the tip of the finger that will be amputated, to somewhat deaden sensation. The tip of the finger will then be cut off by a relative, using a traditional blade. The remaining stump will be treated with herbs, while the amputated finger will either be burnt to ashes (along with the deceased) or stored in a place of honor in the home. This practice has been outlawed by the government, though the hands of older members of the community still serve as a visual record of the practice.
6. Posing for pictures with the dead
In the mid-1800s, photography first became widely available. This timing coincided with deadly epidemics of diseases like cholera in Britain and the US as well as a focus on memorializing the dead, popularized in part by Queen Victoria’s public displays of mourning for her late husband. This confluence of factors meant that one of the primary subjects for early photographers were the recently deceased (along with their grieving families). Historians estimate that during the 1840s, postmortem photographs were three times more common than wedding photographs.
In some of these photos, surviving relatives pose alongside the deceased, commemorating not only the lost loved one (in what would likely be the first and only photograph they appeared in), but also the grief of their remaining family. There has been controversy over the nature of Victorian-era postmortem photography, and widespread reporting that the deceased were propped up to appear to be standing and alert appear to be incorrect. Likewise, many of the photos from the era labeled as post-mortem may not actually be; the long exposure required for the photographs meant that many living subjects (especially children), may have needed to be propped up to hold their poses and may have had unnatural or vacant expressions because of the strain of remaining still. What is clear is that, as a new technology, photography quickly became a medium for preserving a likeness of the deceased, and a way for grieving families to retain and share their memories.
5. Covering the mirrors
In Judaism, the 7 days after the death of a family member are reserved for a mourning period, where close family members gather at the same house and receive visitors, a ritual known as “sitting shiva.” In many communities, shiva customs include covering all the mirrors in the household.
There are a variety of reasons for why the mirrors are covered during shiva. Some suggest that it is done as a reminder that this should be a time of inner reflection, without the distractions of vanity. Kabbalists believe that during the week after death, the spirit, unaware of its death, hovers around the living and seeks to return to its body. Glimpsing itself in a mirror might fool the spirit into thinking it was still alive. A more practical explanation is that worship services are customarily held at the household during shiva, and Jewish law forbids the presence of an image (including the one reflected by a mirror) during worship. Traditionally, the mirrors are covered with sheets or turned around, though the surface can also be covered with wax or fogging spray. One enterprising company even offers adhesive “shiva shades” for conveniently covering large mirrored surfaces.
4. Dancing with the dead
In some ethnic groups in Madagascar, even death isn’t a valid excuse to miss the family reunion. Millions of Malagasy engage in a ritual called famadihana, meaning “the turning of the bones,” in which the corpses of dead ancestors are removed from their crypts, dressed up in new shrouds, and brought to share a celebration with their living relatives, which includes feasting, dancing, catching up on family gossp, and, in some cases, attending Mass, before returning to the tomb. Famadihana is a time of joy, and expressions of sorrow are discouraged. This ceremony occurs every 5-to-7 years (perhaps at longer intervals, as it is expensive for the family), generally after an ancestor appears to an elder in a dream, suggesting that he would like some new clothes.
Famadihana can be a chance to honor ancestors, but in many cases, it is also linked to the belief that, until their bodies are completely decomposed, ancestors retain the ability to move between the realms of the living and the dead, and can serve as intermediaries to God. Madagascar isn’t the only place where the dead are exhumed for celebrations. Indonesia’s Torajan people practice a similar ritual, known as Ma’nene (The Ceremony of the Corpses), where every three years, the remains of late relatives are dug up, dressed in new clothes, paraded before loved ones, and posed for photos.
3. Picking up the deceased’s bones with chopsticks
Cremation rates vary by country, but are on the rise in many places, including the US. In many places, including the US, after the cremation, the remaining bones are ground down and turned into fine ash. In Japan, which has one of the world’s highest rates of cremation, things often work a little differently, incorporating kotsuage, a bone-picking ceremony. The deceased’s body is cremated, and then laid out as a full skeleton. Then as one researcher explains, “the family comes in and—starting at the feet then moving up to the head, using chopsticks—they pluck out the bones and put them in an urn. The idea is that the person is walking upright into the urn.”
While extra-long chopsticks are used for the ritual, larger bones may require more than one loved one to assist, holding one bone between two sets of chopsticks or passing it back and forth quickly to move it into the urn. In any other context, sharing one item between two sets of chopsticks is a major faux pas in Japan, as it has the sad connotation of death.
2. Holding weddings for the deceased
Long-held beliefs amongst some Chinese suggest that the spirit of a man who dies unmarried will be lonely, and cause problems for his surviving family. For more than 3,000 years, ghost marriages, in which two unmarried dead individuals are joined in a wedding ceremony, have provided a way to calm these restless bachelors’ spirits.
Ghost weddings bear some similarities to weddings amongst the living. Matchmakers may be employed, the bride’s family may receive a dowry, and after the wedding, the bride moves in with the groom (in a sense; her bones are moved into her groom’s grave). The Communist Party of China has outlawed ghost marriage, which it classifies as a backward superstition, for decades, but the practice continues, spurring corpse thefts and even, possibly, murder, as desperate families seek brides for their unmarried sons and brothers.
1. Eating the deceased
Many mourning traditions include the element of sharing a meal to honor the deceased. In Brazil’s Wari tribe, up until the 1960s, the deceased was the meal, as the body was dismembered, roasted, and eaten by family members. While the Wari also practiced cannibalism as a practice of warfare, this type of funerary cannibalism was distinct. As one anthropologist explains, “it was done out of affection and respect for the dead person and as a way to help the survivors cope with their grief.”
The Wari also removed reminders of the dead person, burning the deceased’s possessions and avoiding their name. The corpse was considered the strongest vestige of the deceased and the transformation that occurred through the process of cutting and cooking and the body was supposed to help the survivors move on. Wari elders who remember the practice do provide support for the idea that this funerary cannibalism provided some emotional peace.