Death Around The World

In America, death has become a big business since the start of the 20th century.  Before this, families were in charge of the body, the funeral and what happened after that.  It would have been seen as odd if you weren’t involved in preparing your loved one for the afterlife.  Today, we are very detached from death and the rituals we have around death echo this.

Whilst this might be the case in America and the UK, other parts of the world do things very differently.  This is the topic of From Here To Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and I would highly recommend giving it a read.  See what takes your fancy for your own death, and have a think about what really grates on you and why.  And most importantly, have a conversation, or multiple, about death.

A few themes weave their way through the different cultures that are covered in the book, including that of an intimate goodbye and a much more natural seeming option for what happens after death.  For example, a 30 year old man from Belize, told Doughty that when he dies, he’d like to “be buried in a simple hole, shrouded with an animal skin, with leaves lining the walls of the grave.  He plans on designing the animal shroud himself.”

Religion and culture are often the forces that define when death occurs.  And that seems an odd thing to say from a Western perspective but death is more ambiguous that we give it credit for.  Even within Western cultures, we find a physical and a social death.

Physical death: the point after which the body begins to break down

Social death: The point at which a person is no longer a socially active member of a group – you can persist as a social entity long after physical death through memories, mementos etc.

“The way that the corpse is understood effects the way we look at its disposal”
– Olson, 2014 (I forgot to note a first name, I think it was Phil, sorry if it wasn’t!)

In Indonesia, the people of Toraja have a different defined point of death.  Whilst a person may have stopped breathing, they are considered to be in a state more like illness.  This illness will last until an animal – buffalo or pig – has been sacrificed, then the person will be able to die.  During the illness phase, the body is kept in the home, and this can last several years.  Whilst in the home, the family cares for their family member, making sure they have food, changing their clothing, speaking to them and even sharing a bed with them.

This can seem, to eyes from another culture, to be disgusting or disrespectful but that is far from the truth.  The acts are seen as a way of showing love and respect and a way of caring for a loved one that recognises the strength of that bond.  It is an intimate process and a meaningful way to stay connected to a loved one.

After death, most of us think that of burial and cremation, with the latter occurring within the context of a professionalised crematory.  But we have been dealing with death since humanity first began and thus our versions of these rituals are just a touch of the ice burg.

Possibly the earliest example of cremation is found in Australia and refers to the bones of a woman who lived about 42,000 years ago.  She is known as the Mungo Lady and was cremated, then the remaining bones were crushed, and in a second cremation were burned.  We also know that other parts of the world, such as the Ancient Greeks and ancient Romans, and Hindus have practised cremation as a way to cleanse and liberate the soul.

In Italy, in 1869, burial was announced to be unhygienic and thus cremation was touted as the best option for your corpse.  It was presented as being a way to save yourself from being eaten by worms.  The machines used in cremation today, closely resemble those from the 1800s and have a heavy impact on the environment.  To burn quickly, it’s recommended that you have a wooden coffin as cardboard – which intuitively feels more environmentally friendly – burns too quickly so more fuel has to be used to burn the body.  Additionally, there are various byproducts which aren’t that great…

Most cremation in the western world goes on behind closed doors, away from the family, away from view.  Then the ashes are turned into something unrecognisable from the human that the family knew and loved.  As an aside, these are not like on films, they will not scatter into the breeze.  One friend described them as more like cat litter…

One thing I found very interesting is that in the UK, any metal that is left after the body has been cremated gets collected by a company from the Netherlands which then turns it into cars and bikes and taxis.

Japan has the highest rate of cremation, with 99.9% of dead people being cremated.  They also have some fantastically innovative options for the cremated remains, which are normally devoid of individuality.  With an ageing population, the dead may not have someone to tend to their grave or the site of their ashes and so technology has stepped up.  Large buildings store multiple sets of remains and thus the care and tending is carried out by monks.  If you are a relative who cannot get there, you can check in on your relative online, even experience a virtual gravestone with virtual incense and flowers and offerings.

Traditionally, after a Japanese cremation, the family will pick bones from the ashes.

“The family are handed pairs of chopsticks, one made of bamboo, one made of metal.  The chief mourner begins with the feet, picking up bones with the chopsticks and placing them in the urn.  Other family members join in and continue up the skeleton.  The skull will not fit into the urn intact, so the cremator might intervene to break it up into smaller bone fragments using a metal chopstick.  The final bone, the hyoid (the horseshoe-shaped bone underneath the jaw) is placed in the urn last.”
– Doughty

There is an aspect of caring going on here, as well as following reassuring rituals at a time when nothing seems to make sense.  It provides the opportunity for you to carry out something meaningful, something that you can do when there is very little you can do.

Another obvious model for death, dying and grief comes from Mexico where traditions, including the Day of the Dead, embraces and exists alongside death.

“For the families, this night is not just a one-way acceptance of offerings for their dead; it is an exchange with the community.”
– Doughty

There are so many amazing, fascinating death rituals that can be found all round the world and of course I will only be touching on a few.  With this in mind, I really suggest reading up about sky burials.  Many of us have heard of them but know little about the actualities of the ceremony.  In part of India, cremation and burial are considered off limits as post-death options because unclean dead bodies are thought to defile the sacred elements of earth, fire and water.  Hence the body must go to the sky.  In Tibet, wood (for cremation) is scarce, and the ground is too hard and cold for burial, so again, we have turned to the sky.  This is where the vultures come in.  These sky dancers carry the body, in pieces, up into the sky and your body is returned to nature.

Where America and the UK avoid death, formalise death and deny death, Mexico embraces it and in bringing death out of the shadows, they create space for grief, and thus for healing.  My own experience of non western death comes from Togo.  In a remote, mountainous area, I found myself at a funeral and there was a visceral, almost violent outpouring of grief.  To my 18 year old eyes and ears, it seemed intense and felt uncomfortable.  But even then, it felt more authentic than what I imagined a western funeral to be like (my own granma had asked that children weren’t at the funeral when she died).  There was something in the chanting and singing and wailing that felt powerful, and healing.

Whilst I have been hard on the west, things are starting to change.  Just a few weeks ago, I went to a few talks about death as part of York’s Dead Good Festival.  This included a talk about the cremation process, about natural burials and about what happens if you donate your body to medical education.

In the UK, traditional burial is waning in popularity, with 77% of people choosing cremation by fire and with natural burials becoming increasingly popular since 1994.

“The poet Walt Whitman spoke of soil and earth as the great transformers, accepting “the leavings” of men and producing “such divine materials.”  Whitman marvelled at the ability of the earth to reabsorb the corrupt, the vile, the diseased, and produce new, pristine life.”
– Doughty

And what could be more inspiring that that?!  As one person Doughty met said, it takes nine months to grow a baby, perhaps it should take the same time for the body to disintegrate, rather than the few hours that cremation takes.

Natural burials can be more personalised, more intimate and have more family involvement.  You can say goodbye to your loved ones in a way that reflects who you were in life and, in giving your body back to nature, you feed the very landscape you will spend eternity in.  And that’s a really important point – very often, if you choose traditional burial, you are only guaranteed that site for a set number of years, after that, you may find yourself getting rehomed.

Another way to die as you lived, is to donate yourself to medical education.  As a clarification, many people seem to muddle whole body donation with organ donation.  The first is where your body is used by medical students and the second is where your organs are given to a living person who needs them.

In the UK, you can tick a box on your drivers license to agree to organ donation and as of some point in 2020, it will become an opt out system instead of opt in.  This means your organs will be up for grabs, unless you have specified otherwise.  For whole body donation, you need to contact an anatomy unit.  If you visit the Human Tissue Authority you can get more information about body donation as well as find out where your nearest unit is.

If your body is accepted for organ donation, it is unlikely to be used for medical education – they need whole bodies, preferably ‘normal’ bodies for the students to learn from.  If you are accepted for whole body donation, you may be used for either up to three years, or indefinitely depending on what you choose.  After you’ve been used, there will be a funeral and a thanksgiving ceremony.  Family can be involved as much or as little as they want but the funeral is free and provides a way of memorialising the death.  The thanksgiving ceremony is an opportunity for the medical school to acknowledge this ultimate gift.

In the UK, you donate directly to medical schools but in the US, there are body brokers and some of these seem to be profit driven so do your research. Other uses for bodies include researching specific conditions, for military weapons testing, for car safety and even in body farms.

Further reading:

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