June 16, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Some of the More Interesting Funeral Traditions throughout History

5 min read

Funeral of Pope John Paul II

Funeral of Pope John Paul II

You probably think you know the funeral procedure by now, a somber day filled with mourners dressed in black, a funeral procession and either a burial or a cremation. That’s not how it has always been though. Delve back into history and take a trip around the world and you’ll see things were much different.

Funeral customs vary greatly according to culture and religion, some are straightforward with a service and a committal, and others are as far removed from what we know as possible. Here we revisit the past and take a look at a few of the more unusual funeral traditions from around the world:


Cremation – According to ancient Hindu belief, bodies should be cremated. In accordance with this belief is the practice of the cremation of believers and the scattering of their ashes into the River Ganges, a Holy river in Varanasi, India.

As part of this practice, live cremations take place and tourists can even go by on boats and watch them.

Usually this tradition sees the eldest son of the family light fire to the body that is laid inside what is almost a long coffin constructed from logs of wood. The skull is eventually cracked in order to release the soul.

While cremations still take place today, this tradition is on the decline as more believers now choose to have their bodies cremated elsewhere and then scattered into the Ganges, or scattered somewhere entirely different.


Burning the widow – This is known at ‘Sati’ and is still practiced today by some Hindus. It is believed that when a man dies, the widow should set herself on fire in order to spend eternity with her husband. It is perceived as the ultimate sacrifice for marriage. The widow generally sets herself on fire on her husband’s funeral pyre, which had been used to burn his body.

Exposing dead to vultures – This tradition is carried out by people of the Zoroastrian religion in Mumbai. They cleanse and bathe the dead, and then set the body on the towers of their temples. The bodies are then free for the vultures to eat. The principle behind this is that the dead must be rid of their physical forms because they must only survive in one being.


Hanging coffins – This is an ancient ritual that was practiced by the old Chinese Dynasties over 3,000 years ago. They believed that coffins needed to be close to the sky in order for the dead to be closer to heaven. This demonstrates that their dead were respected and hanging the coffins meant that their ghosts were able to roam around freely.

Self-mummification – This was practiced by a group of Buddhist monks between the 11th and 19th century. They used self-mummification as a means of demonstrating their spirituality and dedication. It was essentially a form of committing suicide. The process began with ingesting nuts and seeds over a period of 1,000 days. This was done to rid the body of any fat. That was followed by eating bark and drinking poisonous, in order to ensure that their bodies were so poisoned that it would not be infested by maggots. The monk would then be sealed inside a tomb with an air tube, and a bell that they would ring each day to notify others that they were still alive. When the bell would eventually stop ringing, the monk would then be put on display.

The South Pacific

Cannibalism – In Papua New Guinea, a community would actually feed on a corpse. The family of the deceased would gather around the corpse, using fire and other tools to make it edible. This is said to have stemmed from the malnourished nations who were constantly seeking new ways to feed themselves. It also meant that they did not need to dispose of the body. This is still being practiced by a minority.


The turning of the bones – This is known as ‘famadihana’ which is a tradition in Madagascar, and is still practiced today. After five to seven years of bodies having been buried, they are exhumed as part of a celebration. They are sprayed with perfume and wine and family members are seen dancing with the bodies. This is done for two reasons, to remember the dead and for the family members to ask for their blessings.


The Philippines

Manunggul Jars – The remains of the deceased in areas of the Philippines were once put into pots called Manuggl Jars, which were designed to bear resemblance to humans. The jars were made to look like people sitting on a boat, which resembled souls being sent off into the afterlife. This was an extremely significant form of symbolism to the Philippine people. They believed that spirits would go on a kind of journey to the afterlife.

North America

Totem Poles of Haida
Totem Poles of Haida

The Totem Poles of Haida – In the tribes of Haida, located in British Columbia, the burial rituals were quite different to what we would perhaps deem normal today. The way that they would dispose of their dead, would be to put their honored dead atop high totem poles. Why, you may ask? The totem poles were significant as they resembled supposed spiritual guardians, who would see that the deceased person’s spirit would be safe as it passed on its journey into the next world. This method was not bestowed on just anyone however. The honor to have this burial was only given to chiefs, shamans and warriors. When the person died, they would be clubbed with wooden clubs to an extent where they would be able to fit into a small box. Following this, they were set on the top of a tall totem pole to decompose.

This method was also outlawed as a method of burial, as the stench that came with the decomposing bodies on top of poles being unbearable in some cases.

These practices and funeral rituals show different examples of dedication to the deceased and resemble the spiritual beliefs of each culture individually – should you wish to arrange a funeral tailored to your exact requirements, consider visiting Laurel Funerals, providers of bespoke funeral plans.


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