In some parts of the world, people honor the dead by burying or cremating their bodies, and afterwards visiting them sparsely during the year on important dates, such as anniversaries. However, in other traditions, the dead are respected with very different rituals instead. Let us find out more about how people in other cultures lay their fallen to rest.
Turning of the Bones
In Madagascar, it is considered good if a loved one turns in their grave. The Malagasy people have a tradition where, around the dry winter months, they hold famadihana ceremonies – meaning “the turning of the bones”. These ceremonies take place once every two to seven years. During the ceremony, each family will exhume the remains of their loved ones from the ancestral crypt, wrap them in fine silk, spray them with wine or perfume and bring them out to celebrate and dance amongst the living.
The festival of famadihana is a huge celebration where family members will travel from all over, sometimes even for a few days on foot, to gather at the ancestral home. Once everyone has gathered, the bodies of the deceased are taken out of the crypt and placed on straw mats on the ground. The family then undresses the old burial garments and replaces them with fresh silk. It is also believed that if a woman is having fertility issues, she can induce pregnancy by placing fragments of the old burial garments under her mattress – or even eat the fragments.
After the bodies have been dressed, the people will hold a great party with lively music where they feast and dance with the bodies, carrying them over their heads. Some will tell the deceased about the goings-on since they have passed, while others remember stories about the dead, and yet others ask for blessings from their ancestors. At the end of the festival around evening, the bodies are returned to the crypt together with monetary gifts, alcohol and other valuables. They are cleaned up, placed upside down to symbolize the cycle of life and death, and the tomb is closed.
The practice of famadihana stems from the Malagasy people’s belief that the spirits of the dead do not go to the afterlife until the body has decomposed completely. While they are still around, the spirits are able to communicate with the living. As such, until the spirits of the deceased are gone forever, the festival of famadihana is a way to show one’s love and affection for the dead. This ritual is believed to be a vital practice in maintaining links with one’s ancestors. It is a family reunion of sorts, allowing the dead to celebrate with their family once again. However, although famadihana is still in practice today, it is slowly dying out partly due to the risk of plague spreading by exhuming the remains of the dead.
Towers of Silence
In Zoroastrian culture, the bodies of the dead are not placed in tombs or interred in walls, but instead exposed to vultures on a tower of silence, also known as a dakhma. This practice is not new, and in fact dates back to perhaps the fifth century in Persia. Today, it is practiced by some Parsi communities in a select number of places, such as Mumbai in India. Towers of silence can also be found in Iran, where the tradition was practiced until it was banned by the government in the 1970s.
The Zoroastrians believed that the four elements – fire, air, water and earth – are sacred and should not be polluted by the disposal of the dead. As such, they found that the practice which resulted in the least damage to the four elements was leaving the bodies to the elements of nature. Raised platforms, called towers of silence, were constructed as a place to lay the deceased. These towers featured three tiers of circles within. The bodies of men would be placed on the outer circle, the bodies of women in the middle circle, and the bodies of children in the inner circle. On these platforms, the dead would be left exposed to the sun and the vultures. A sufficient number of vultures could possibly devour the flesh of an entire body in just half an hour. The remaining bones would then be left to be dried and bleached in the sun, believed to be a purification process. Some time later, the bones would be collected and placed either in an ossuary or in a central well. If the climate was dry enough, the remains would eventually disintegrate into powder.
Unlike the Malagasy people, the Zoroastrians believed that the spirits of the dead no longer linger in their bodies after death. Thus, there was no need to commemorate the bodies of the deceased and the families could instead dispose of them in a way that would cause the least damage to nature.
In certain tribal areas of China and the Philippines, bodies are placed in coffins which are then nailed to the sides of cliffs high above the ground. This tradition dates back to about two millennia or possibly earlier.
The people believed that by placing the bodies high above the ground, the dead can be brought closer to their ancestral spirits. There may also be other reasons for this practice. For instance, some of those people did not want to be buried in the ground, for fear of rotting quickly, being eaten by dogs or having their heads taken by savages from opposing tribes as trophies. As such, the coffins are placed along the walls of steep cliffs, either tied or nailed down. The deceased are typically placed in the fetal position due to the belief that a person should depart the world in the same way they entered it. Holes are chipped in the sides of cliff walls for the support to be placed in.
On the way to the burial site, the people following the funeral procession would grab and carry the body, trying to smear themselves with blood from the body, as it was believed that the fluids of the deceased’s body would bring good fortune, success and pass on the skills of the dead person to those who came in contact with them.
In the past, the bones of the body would be cracked to fit them into the small one-meter coffins on cliff walls. However, in more recent times, people try not to break the bones of their loved ones, resulting in longer coffins to fit full-length bodies.
Today, the tradition of hanging coffins is practiced much less often, probably only once every few years. Once interred safely on cliff walls, the bodies would remain there undisturbed. However, this also did not allow families to visit the graves of their loved ones. With the developments of modern culture coming to these tribal areas, people have looked more toward contemporary cremation or burial and visiting the burial sites to pay their respects.