Rites and rituals have been part of human life for centuries, especially those connected with birth, coming of age, and death. Here, we examine death rituals of different cultures, from the dawn of humanity to the present, and see how they have offered ways to deal with death
I think of other ages that floated upon the stream of life and love and death and are forgotten, and I feel the freedom of passing away.
—Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Stray Birds’
In the course of a vivid early morning dream, I see the flowing expanse of the Ganga, somewhere in the plains of Bihar. The dark shadow of an old wooden ferryboat looms on the edge of sepia sands. I am an old bodyless boatman, seeing my own funeral pyre blazing against the dull sky. There is nobody in sight, just the stillness. I turn away from the shore to see my little lonely grass hut a distance away, bare on the inside and outside… The dream occurred many years ago, but whenever I remember it, a sense of deep calm settles in my heart.
Then, another time, I see a shadowy series of cold funeral pyres on a craggy mountainside, silhouetted against the sky on ledge after ledge, like in Japanese calligraphy. A little breeze arises, stirring into the ashes, until the swirling grey flakes are dispersed and nothing remains. Deep stillness suffuses my being, lined by the sad thought that lifetimes of connections, yearnings, joys and heartache had dissipated into nothingness. “Was this all there was to it,” I silently ask myself, humbled. This profound insight becomes a part of my consciousness, forever transforming my attitude towards life and death. The vision is now a sanctuary to return to, for renewal of faith in the most difficult of times. The stillness expands to hold eternity in its embrace.
Quest for meaning
People have sought the meaning of death through eons, unwilling to resign themselves to the apparent senselessness of corporeal death and decay that follows the harsh cessation of breath. Hard to reconcile to is the finite stop to communication and sharing with near and dear ones. Earliest Neanderthal graves, nearly at the beginning of human evolutionary history, reveal the presence of pollen among funeral artefacts, indicating that the dead were buried with flowers in sorrowful parting.
Close-knit tribal communities struggled to coalesce following the departure of a significant member. Gaps had to be filled in the community’s struggle for survival; psychic, emotional wounds had to be healed. At times, whole neighbourhoods were wiped out because of war or pestilence, with little to show in history and culture that this void once contained evolving, sentient human beings full of hope and aspiration.
What life has divided, across regions, continents, race and culture, death seems to bind together, as we seek to assuage fears of annihilation through elaborate scripts governing life and death. Our systems of belief in divinity, immortality of the soul, reincarnation and an afterlife leave an imprint upon our customs, rituals and rites of passage. Though there exist many commonalities across cultures in defining death and afterlife, there are significant points of divergence.
The theme of rivers is common to many cultures of antiquity. The Ganga symbolises freedom from cycles of death and rebirth for Hindus, especially at Kashi with its haunting imagery of the eternally burning ghats. This was brought home to me most vividly during a visit to the city. I was witness to an almost unceasing procession of white-clad mourners every few minutes, chanting: “Ram naam satya hai,” (Ram’s name is the only truth), as they bore biers of the dead towards the ghats for cremation. The funeral rites, spread over a year, are supposed to ensure the departed soul’s smooth journey to its appropriate destination according to karmic merit. As in most cultures around the world, these rites are performed out of concern for the dead person, to ensure that it is not left in limbo, and also out of fear of its becoming a ghost.
Blessings of ancestors have been seen as mandatory for fertility and continuation of the lineage among the Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Japanese and Hindus. Hindu funeral rites are accompanied with a reading of the Garuda Purana with its detailed discourse on stages and levels of afterlife attained by souls of the dead. For instance, those destined to go to heaven are supposed to grab the tail of a cow that appears on the banks of the river Vaitarna to be led safely across to the ethereal shores of Vaikuntha.
The Aztec death journey
The Aztec of ancient Mexico believed that it was the manner and cause of death that was relevant to one’s afterlife, and not the behavioural pattern followed in the lifetime. Those who died of natural causes went to Mictlan—the ninth and deepest stratum of the underworld.
To reach there, the soul had to pass through two clashing mountains, face a great snake and a huge lizard, eight deserts and eight hills, and a wind full of stone knives. Finally, after four years, it reached a river to be crossed with the aid of a red dog. Thus a red dog was reared and slain at the funeral, and its body placed by the side of the deceased.
The deceased would be put in a foetal position and wrapped in a shroud called the ‘mortuary bundle’, which would either be cremated or buried according to the person’s nature of death. Slaves were sacrificed so they could serve their master in afterlife; wives were buried alive along with corn, grinding stones, chocolates, as also the possessions of the deceased.
The Greeks and Romans
In ancient Greece, the ‘psyche’ was the life force that combined with the body to make a person human. In Homeric thought, the psyche became a shadow after death, a mere after-image of the person it once occupied. It could not communicate with the living, nor was it immortal.
The shadow, after leaving the body through the mouth or death wound, descended into Hades, which was beneath the earth. It passed Kerberos, the three-headed guard dog, which let the souls in but never back out. The soul then approached Charon, the ferryman of the dead and after paying his fee, rode his boat across the River Styx to Erebos or Tartaros—a dark, dismal land. It drank from Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, thereby erasing its memory and what was left of its humanity.
There was, however, one hope for immortality, through initiation into the Elusinian Mysteries. The fortunate ones had a wonderful afterlife, retained memory of who they were, and lived in the paradise-like Elysian plains forever.
Cremation was thought necessary to allow the psyche to leave the body. The ashes were then placed in an urn and buried. Later, burials became more common, and coins were fixed between the teeth to pay Charon. The funeral rites continued for several days following the death. The body was buried on the third day, amidst violent exhibition of grief by women to please the dead spirit, and they sang a funeral dirge.
The mourners purified themselves at the end of the burial and sat down to a funeral feast, at times by the graveside itself. This was supposed to be attended by the deceased, so, naturally, the diners spoke only praises to the dead person. The ninth day marked the end of funeral rites, although worship of the dead and commemoration of death anniversaries was a lifelong duty.
Most ancient Romans held modified Greek views of the underworld. Funerals were treated with seriousness, since it was believed that unless these were properly performed, the soul would be left in limbo. Funeral processions were marked with ceremony and pomp, often involving professional mourners. Like ancient Egyptians, food and furniture or likeness thereof was buried, or burnt at the time of cremation. Tombs and mausoleums were decorated with scenes from underworld mythology, particularly those that dealt with vanquishing death.
Egypt’s death cult
The death cult in ancient Egypt assumed awe-inspiring proportions, culminating in masterpieces of cultural artefact, architecture and mythology—the pyramids, which were tombs of the Pharaohs. It is estimated that in the roughly 3000 years until the advent of Christian era in Egypt, more than 70 million dead were mummified.
The Egyptian belief in rebirth became the driving force for their funeral practices. Death was seen as a temporary interruption of life, and eternal life could be ensured through piety, preservation of the physical form, and provision of proper funerary materials. The human being was thought to comprise the physical body, the vital force or ka, the personality or ba, and the akh. One’s name and shadow were also living entities. All these elements had to be sustained if the afterlife was to be enjoyable for the deceased. Hence the emphasis on mummification.
A wealth of information on funerary practices is available in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, also known as the The Chapter of Coming Forth By Day. It is a collection of magic spells and formulae to guide the deceased through the underworld. It was read at the time of the funeral, and also used to decorate the insides of tombs.
After death, the deceased was believed to appear before a panel of 14 judges to account for his deeds. The judges possessed the ankh—the key of life. The jackal-headed god of the underworld and mummification, Anubis, weighed the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma’at, goddess of truth and justice. Should the heart outweigh the feather, it was thought to have become heavy with evil deeds, in which case Ammit, the god with a crocodile head and hippopotamus legs, would devour the heart, condemning the deceased to oblivion. But if the feather outweighed the heart, the deceased was proven to have led a righteous life and presented before Osiris, lord of the underworld, to be able to join the afterlife. The afterlife was a continuation of earthly life including all its corporeal enjoyments, but without its pain and sorrow.
Horus, the god with the falcon head, led the deceased to the court of Osiris, who along with his wife Isis and her sister Nephthys, welcomed the latter to the underworld. The deceased would continue the occupations of his life even after his death, and so everything he required was packed in the tomb. Writing materials were often supplied along with clothing, wigs, hairdressing supplies and assorted occupational tools. It was believed that food depicted on the tomb’s walls could be magically transformed to provide for the needs of the dead. Restorative beautification processes were undertaken at the end of mummification. Masks were used to provide the dead with a face in afterlife and to enable the spirit to recognise its body.
It is not commonly known that before the Egyptians or the Aztec, a sophisticated fishing tribe called the Chincoros, who lived on the South American coast of what is now Chile, were known to embalm their dead as early as 5,000 BCE. The Andean tradition of preserving the dead was still intact in the Inca period, about 1100 to 1500 CE and it is thought that the Inca mummified all their dead, and not just the elite like the Egyptians and other ancient cultures of South America.
The custom of exhibiting excessive grief, chanting or singing laments for the dead, at times by professional mourners, has been a tradition in almost all parts of the world. The custom of lamenting the dead has been traced back to the older religions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Israel, Greece and Rome. The laments of modern day female moirologistres in the Mani region of the Greek Peloponnesus exhibit stylistic and structural features of ancient Greek laments, which survive in the literary traditions of Homeric poems and classical Greek tragedy.
The purpose of lamenting is not only to honour the dead, but also to enable emotional catharsis, to heal the community of mourners, and help them openly voice their sorrow. In the instance of ‘keening’ at traditional Irish wakes (nightly vigils over corpses before the funeral), poetry and genealogy recitations and praise of the deceased are punctuated by loud, piercing, yet beautiful, wails. The special sounds, tones and structures of keening lead many among the Irish to consider it to be a ‘spiritual language’, a special form of communication with the dead, rather than pure lamentation.
Days of the dead
Most cultures around the world have a day of remembrance of the dead, like the All Souls Day, or a yearly death anniversary as in the Jewish Yarzheit and the fortnight of shraadh among Hindus. The Mexican day of the dead, called Dia des los Muertos, is celebrated on November 2 each year. The dead are commemorated using folk art to create altars of skeletal figurines of the dead, including men, women, children and animals. The whole country is filled with skeletons ranging from puppets and masks to candy. Considerable humour is generated on the subject of death, both celebrities and obscure persons being lampooned during the festivities. It is used as a special device to demystify death, in unabashed acceptance of what is an inescapable corollary to life itself.
In Taiwan, the Ching Ming (tomb sweeping) festival is the day when families visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects, and make sacrificial offerings of paper money. Specially produced ‘spirit money’ is also burned in the belief that the smoke will carry the essence of money to ancestors in spirit world. According to ancient Chinese belief, spirits require money in the afterlife too. Sometimes, the spirit money is printed with pictures of clothes, toiletry articles and so on that the ancestors are thought to require. Pictures of servants, cars, homes and other symbols of good fortune are burned as well. It is believed that the deceased who do not regularly receive offerings of spirit money may turn into malevolent ghosts.
While some of these practices appear bizarre in our staid present day reality, they invoke a subtle sense of recognition, as though one has walked these paths at other times, in other places. Snatches of pastlife recall in meditation suggests that this may be true. Who knows, inscribed within our DNA imprints may be indelible strands from older civilisations in the never-ending spirals of death and rebirth for humanity as a collective, all the way to eternity.
Once we dreamt that we were strangers. We wake up to find that we were dear to each other.
—Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Stray Birds’
Former social worker, feminist author and PhD from University of California, Berkeley, USA, Amodini is a solitary, light traveller under the guidance of wise, silent Gurus, with the occasional spiritual fix from the world wide web; she is currently trying to understand the tyranny of mental concept and conditioning as a part of spiritual work.
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