Almost every culture on earth has had a tradition for honoring their dead relatives and helping them pass into the afterlife or assuage their spirit. With so many cultures, there are bound to be dozens of practices that you have never heard of and may find unusual. Without further delay, here are six burial traditions from different cultures around the world you probably haven’t heard of.
Sky Burial (Tibet)
Practiced mainly in Tibet, sky burials are when the deceased’s body is left high in the mountains to decompose and become nutrients for animals, often vultures. The body is brought to the mountaintop, where friends and family can observe the ceremony.
The people practicing this belief believe this is an act of generosity on behalf of the deceased. They believe the body is merely a vessel. Once someone has passed into the afterlife, their body is an empty vessel ready to provide nutrients to animals in the living world.
This ceremony only happens at specific locations, and there is a lengthy process where monks chant mantras, prepare the body, disassemble it, and give the remains to the vultures. If too few vultures come or the body isn’t entirely consumed, it’s a bad omen.
The fleshless bones are ground into a powder to finish the ceremony and mixed with other products. This mixture is given to other animals to complete the sky burial fully.
From Ash to Bead (South Korea)
South Korea passed a law requiring anyone buried after 2000 to have their grave removed after 60 years. Like most countries with dense population centers, they were running out of space for traditional burials. Some people saw this as a way to create a new means to honor the dead and maybe make a little money at the same time.
Instead of burying your deceased relative, some South Koreans prefer having their relatives cremated and turned into tiny decorative beads by different cremation businesses. I know what you’re thinking; no, they aren’t worn like jewelry. Instead, they keep them in decorative boxes in their home or even bury them in certain locations.
This is similar to a Western cremation practice where the deceased’s ashes are kept in a decorative urn or spread at a memorable location. While it may seem unusual to actually see beads made from your deceased relative, some South Koreans appreciate the beauty in the beads and find that they’re a nice way to remember their relatives.
In Madagascar, the Malagasy people have their own unique way of celebrating and remembering the dead. While it has declined in popularity in recent years due to decades of religious missionaries and the spread of Christianity in Madagascar, some still keep the tradition of Famadihana, or the Turning of the Bones, alive.
Every five to seven years, family members will open their ancestral tombs and remove the wrapped bodies of their past relatives. The bodies are removed and placed outside the tombs. They are rewrapped in new, expensive silk. The deceased’s name is rewritten on the cloth, so they are not forgotten and laid to rest again. However, not before a bit of celebration and remembrance.
This is supposed to be a happy, joyous celebration. There’s often a crowd from the community, food being prepared, music being played, and people dancing around the tomb with the deceased. The Famadihana burial practice has the added benefit of turning loss and grief into remembrance and happiness.
The Ultimate Sacrifice (Hindu)
The burial tradition of Sati is rarely done anymore and has been made illegal by the Indian government since 1987. Sati is based on a religious story of a goddess by the same name. Sati committed self-immolation because she couldn’t deal with her father’s humiliation of her marriage to the god Shiva.
The act of Sati is somewhat similar in that a woman will throw herself onto her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. The act of self-immolation shows that the widow is a dutiful wife and will follow her husband into the afterlife. It was considered the single most significant sign of devotion a wife could show her husband.
Unfortunately, it’s almost as if the women had no choice. Widows that didn’t follow their husbands into the afterlife were given a “cold” form of Sati. Widows were subject to neglect and cast out of society in ancient times. Thankfully, the act has been outlawed, and while there still are occasional cases of sati, it’s nowhere near as prevalent as before.
Secret Cave Burials (Hawaii)
In ancient times, Hawaiians had their own burial ceremonies that differed significantly from the traditional ground burial now common in the United States. The ancient burial practice sometimes involved separating the flesh from the bones and interring the remains in secret caves.
When the relative passed away, the body would be cleaned with salt water. The family would be careful not to make noises to avoid disturbing the spirit. Once the body was prepared, the relatives could begin to mourn as a sign to others that the person had passed. The body was kept inside for two to three days to ensure that the person had indeed died.
Once the body was ready for burial, men would carry the corpse at night to its burial site, often a cave. Songs would be chanted, and sandalwood would be burned to purify the cavern. It should be noted that this was for regular Hawaiians. High chiefs underwent another ceremony.
High chiefs would be placed in a pit covered with leaves and a shallow layer of dirt. A large bonfire would be built on top and kept burning for half a day. Once cool, the body was dug up, and the flesh was easily removed from the bones. The flesh and bones were placed in separate bowls and brought to secret caves. How was the cave kept secret? The man that brought the remains to the cave was often killed, albeit voluntarily.
Jade Burial Suits (China)
While we’ve all seen the sarcophagi that ancient Egyptians were laid to rest in, many of us have not seen the jade burial suits in which the royal members of the Han dynasty were buried. These suits were made from square, or rectangular pieces of jade joined together by string. The type of string used showed just how important the person in the suit was.
Gold thread was reserved for the emperors, while silver thread was used for princes, princesses, dukes, and marquises. Their children were allowed to use copper thread. Regular silk thread was deemed acceptable for lower aristocrats. Every other person was forbidden from being buried in a jade suit as they weren’t deemed worthy enough for such a practice.
Most people couldn’t afford to be buried in a jade suit even if they wanted to. These suits were extremely expensive and often took years to craft leaving this burial tradition to the extremely wealthy only.
It’s important to remember that these practices are not unusual for the cultures they came from. In fact, the common practice of burial or cremation would probably seem unusual to the cultures on the list. It’s crucial to keep an open mind and understand that these traditions may have existed for hundreds of years, longer than some modern countries.
With that being said, there are definitely a few burial traditions from history that are now outlawed – and for a good reason. Widows shouldn’t be forced by societal pressures to commit suicide when their husbands die.
Hopefully, this list opened your eyes to a few new burial traditions from ancient or recent history. If we missed that’s your personal favorite, let us know below.