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Home | Meaning | Myths | Fear | Necromancy | Common Rituals | Sacrificies | Around the World | Celebrations of Death | Burial Grounds

Death rituals have varied greatly with time and place, and have often varied directly with religious perception. They provide critical insight into cultures and their relations with the other world, as well as their ideas about life after death.

Common Rituals

It is true that death is universal and that there are many common traits among death rituals. Furthermore, when examining death rituals cross-culturally it is easy to attribute the same symbolic significance to similar rituals. Nevertheless, after looking at the rituals, used in the context of the culture they were created in, the symbolic meaning can be quite different.  Crying, for instance, is common at funerals. In our western countries it is a spontaneous expression of feeling whereas in other cultures crying is mandatory on certain occasions, including funerals, to symbolize the attachment between persons . Thus, it is important  to emphasize the situational aspects of death rituals when interpreting these rituals crossculturally and to take into account  the cultural context where the rituals that surround death take place.






Omens - i. e. symbolic interpretation of certain signs.

In most ancient cultures, death was considered as a sign which can be interpreted in many ways. It seems that people have been very willing to observe anything that might have served as a death omen in their everyday life.

The foreteller of death can be a bird or some other natural object. An instance of death in the neighbourhood can be foretold by a raven's croaking, a bird flying on the window or into the house, a death tick ticking on the wall, a dog's howling, the cackling of a hen. The number of years one expected to live was counted by the cuckoo's calls. Other omens include noises in house at nights, itching of the nose, stalks of straw crossed in a peculiar way during threshing the grain,. In spring one could foretell poor crops and also death Even at childbirth people tried to foretell by looking out, what kind of death the baby would die.

Dreaming of a dead person, a priest, or a gift given by a dead person predicted the dreamer's death. The symbolic language is the most interesting feature in the interpretation of dreams.

Omens were also observed during funerals.


At the moment of death

The dead person is a primary guest at the funeral because the person who is dying is experiencing a variety of things, which a death ritual needs to address - the dissolution of personality, the loss of contact with the body, the loss of the family and friends, the fear, the wonder and the awe of this transformation.

And those who are with him, family and friends, also experience the coming of Death with terror and confusion, grief, fear at their own mortality. Some pretend that the spirit will sometimes remain partly tied to the corpse, in a state of greater or lesser awareness and confusion and pain for a period of time unless assisted to journey on. And so because she may very well need to be there.

Most rituals include preparation of the dying person to the great journey. It can be spiritual but also physical. Family, friends and relatives also assist the the future bereaved.


Preparation of the corpse

In Judeo/Christian countries like America and most of Europe, the body is embalmed and often dressed in fancy clothes to be buried. It has been suggested that this ritual is preformed because the "sacred quality of man exists in the soul and spirit, and that the body, as a temple or chamber for the spirit during life, deserves decent and respectful treatment" (Haberstein, 1960). In some parts of Africa the corpse is bathed and dresses as well. Some Africans believe that there is a long journey between this world and the next and that death is a continuation of life and not an ending. Thus, the body is bathed and dressed in a manner to represent these beliefs of travel for a difficult journey. Therefore, although the ritual of 'grooming' of the deceased for burial may look similar for both Americans and Africans the symbolic aignificance of the rituals are quite different.


The distinct reality of death

A number of beliefs seem to distinguish the two realities. The concept of two realities is also supported by a custom not to take anything along from cemeteries, even the berries growing there belonged either to the dead or to the «God's birds».
One could burn or bury the clothes that had been in direct contact with the corpse. In Britanny, when the dead body was carried out of the house a nail was hammered in the threshold as a magical metal object or simply as a sign to prevent the appearance of the deceased person in any dangerous form. The straw on which the dead body had been lying was burnt on a field where people jumped over the fire singing fear (go) that way; love (come) this way - another example of how bonds with the other side could be broken.

At the same time, it was also worthwhile to manipulate the physical body of the deceased for selfish reasons (just as it is worthwhile to walk the paths of the dead in fairy-tales for selfish reasons). Anyone who had a ganglion on the arm or leg had to touch the same spot on a dead body, after which he or she could hope to recover. Anyone who feared the dead had to touch the feet of the dead body with his/her hand to get rid of the fear. While trying to break the habit of drinking, a helpful method was said to be putting a coin which had been kept in the mouth of a dead person into the water, and then giving the water to the drunkard to drink without his being aware of - although in the mentioned case the trick had no effect. The water used for washing the body, was commonly used for the purposes of magic.


The 3 days

According to the general belief the soul of the deceased person remained at home for three more days after the death. Canonically this can be explained with the fact that the Resurrection of Christ took place on the third day after his death, according to the apocryphal tradition on the third day he went to the Hell to put Satan in chains and redeem the patriarchs. For three days the deceased was not talked or gossiped about because during this time he could hear everything. During that time nothing was lent to others for this would have disturbed the dead person. During the three days people spoke in a low voice and did not work much.


Money and death

In many cases coins were placed on the victim to help him buy a place in the other world. They were either put on the eyes of the deceased into the coffin. In the Roman death ritual, the coin was placed in the mouth of the dead for Charon in the underworld.
The continuation of body in Christian afterlife is apparent from the custom to put a handkerchief in the left hand of the dead, so that he can make the cross sign with the right hand at his arrival.
In Russia, a copper coin was thrown in the grave to help the dead person redeem a better place in the other world. For the same purpose, a bottle of vodka could be used. The idea of this life continuing in the other world is also conveyed by the belief that if, after the death of the farmer or his wife, a horse or a cow died on the farm, it meant that the deceased took his/her share with him/her to the other world (usually an egg was put in the armpit of the body so that he/she would symbolically have «his/her share.



Disposal of the corpse

The body can be inhumated, cremated or embalmed then either burried, stored in mausoleum, scattered or destroyed.



A funeral rite in which the human body is burnt leaving fragmentary charred or completely combusted remains. Generally found buried, occasionally in a container associated with grave goods.

The identity of the deceased is immediately evident in the corpse and can readily evoke emotion. Ashes tend to be a more distanced, less personal representation of the deceased. Issues relating to the body itself are reasons people give for opposing as well as for favoring cremation. Those who oppose cremation voice concerns over cremation's destruction of the body. Since most religious ideologies no longer express a belief in physical resurrection, or do not view cremation as incompatible with resurrection uneasiness with incinerating the corpse results, in part, from the value placed on human dignity and respect for the dead. In Western cultures, fire is associated with predominately negative, even punitive, images (witch burning, Holocaust cremations, obliterating enemies), rather than the positive associations of purification and freedom which predominate in Eastern cultures. In this Western cultural milieu, those who strongly identify the corpse with the living person perceive cremation as cruel, destructive, and disrespectful. Some people who support cremation do not want the body decomposing in the earth. Their disgust with the mental images of decay, and literal images when exhumation is necessary or inadvertent, are associated with a lack of dignity and respect. Other people in western countries, most often highly educated, perceive the rapid disposal of the corpse by fire as liberating the self rather than destroying the self.. They are more likely than the less educated to identify their self with their mind than with their body .

     "The most sickening aspect of death is the socially created
    ritual surrounding it. My body is no beauty but my companion and my servant. I therefore loathe the thought of its purposeless destruction by autopsy, or worse still, at the hands of the ghouls known as morticians. I strongly endorse immediate cremation. Funerals are the height of hypocrisy. I believe it cruel to put  one's survivors through such a ritual"
    (Shneidman 1971).



An interment of unburnt, articulated human remains.


Excarnation consists of exhumating the remnants to give them to animals. It was probably part of the bronze age death rites. Dogs and other scavengers gnawed on human corpses, reducing most of the bones to small fragments in the process.

Since ancient times, Zoroastrians have disposed of their dead by leaving the corpses in the open air, to be devoured by carnivorous birds and beasts. The Towers of Silence (Doongerwadi) have existed in Bombay since 1673. In modern Bombay there can be no beasts, but the vultures remain, ready to swoop down at the appointed times for their daily meals.


Secondary death rituals

In these rites, the body is treated one way and additional remains are treated another. For example, in modern, rural, south China, the corpse is buried with ceremony. After enough time has passed for the flesh to decompose, the bones are exhumed, cleansed, ritualized again then reburied.

It is suggested that dual rituals serve dual purposes with the specific purposes varying among cultures. When considering the dual rituals of contemporary Western cremations, it may be that one ritual addresses "community or family problems of social reintegration and the other resolves personal problems of bereavement.



Cult of the dead

In most cultures, the identity of the dead is kept intact and the relationship is maintained through methods such as tending the grave, talking to the deceased and prayer. In performing this duty, the connection with the dead is maintained in the minds of the living and in tangible memorializations. In this view, continuity between the living and the dead and the natural and supernatural worlds are maintained. The living can assist the dead into an afterlife where the dead will await reunification with those still alive. For those who don’t believe  in any afterlife reunion with the deceased and just pay a tribute, the separation between the living and the dead is permanent.

copyright @ 2006 by AF