One of the criteria of a civilized society is how its members treat their dead. Technological advancements such as the invention of the wheel, pottery and masonry, engineering, gunpowder, and so on, are important, but it is culture and spiritual conceptions that distinguish civilization from barbarism. Why? Mostly because death—as a phenomenon that scared and mystified humanity throughout its entire history—is something unknown, uncharted territory, and in order to make this territory less hostile and mysterious, ancient people inhabited it with spirits, gods, and demons, and imbued it with certain rules; in other words, ancients paved the road that starts beyond the borders of death with the bricks of their ideas about how things are on the other side of life. Where there are gods and rules, there are commandments and rituals; ancient people believed that individuals who left the world of the living should be prepared for the afterlife properly and thoroughly—otherwise there could be terrible consequences. With these concepts, a number of burial traditions gradually developed.
Every nation has their own burial rituals, and each of them has a significant background—reasons why people bury their dead one way or another. Christians put them into the soil; Buddhists burn them; Hindus let the dead bodies float in the sacred waters of the Ganges river. Educated people of the West have become accustomed to these rituals; cremations or burials do not scare people in general, so these rituals are seen as normal and acceptable. However, there are other ways to treat the dead—and many of them may seem shocking or even disgusting to a westerner. When facing such rituals, it is important to remember that every nation and culture has its own reasons to bury the dead in a certain way, so instead of claiming a tradition to be barbaric or inhumane, it is better to tolerate it as something natural for this particular culture; or, even better would be to learn the reasons causing the representatives of a culture to treat their dead in the ways they do, and try to not judge them based on more “acceptable” ideas of burial. This would be true tolerance and open-mindedness.
Now, after such a long but necessary introduction, let us take a look at some of the creepiest (for a western person) burial rituals different nations from around the world.
One of them is the Buddhist sky burial. If you are unfamiliar with this tradition, you might picture something romantic, almost celestial—for example, the burial is on the top of a mountain, or immersing a dead body into the water of a placid lake in which the night sky reflects its stars. However, in terms of aesthetics, the sky burial is the opposite. It is called this because dead bodies are given to predatory birds, who peck all the flesh from the carcass incredibly fast. This ritual is mostly practiced in Tibet and the kingdom of Mustang, and comes from the idea that a human being must be useful to the world at every stage of his or her existence—even in death. Buddhists treat physical bodies as mere vessels for the soul; after a person dies, his or her soul “flies away,” and awaits reincarnation; as for the body, its most obvious use for the world is to become food for other living beings—birds, in the case of the sky burial. Besides, there is little to no timber in the region, so the regular Buddhist cremation is unavailable for poor people living in Tibet and Mustang. Now starts the creepiest part of the ritual. When a person dies, they must be prepared for the burial; since birds cannot eat the chunks of flesh that are too big, a special worker must dismember the body, cutting it into tiny pieces using a sharp knife. The bodies are usually dissected nearby a river: a monk reads prayers for the deceased, while the dissector cuts off limbs, scalps the body, and does all other work necessary to grind the body in the way most comfortable for the birds. After the work is done, a flock of predatory birds finishes the body off in no time, leaving just plain white bones. However, this is not all; the bones are usually ground down to dust with a maul. Then, this dust is mixed with grain, and fed to smaller birds. This way, there is nothing left from a body after the sky burial is finished. This tradition is extremely old—according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, people of the region started practicing it since the 12th century, or perhaps even earlier (Cracked). Even though the tradition looks extremely morbid, for Tibetans, it is rather mundane, and the procedure with the body is made with all due respect—it is a ritual, and rituals are sacred.
The next burial ritual comes from India—the country which, as we know, is the birthplace of everything exotic, alien, mysterious, spiritual, and at the same time shocking. The ritual is called Sati, and to put a long story short, it is a tradition of self-immolation. Why would anyone even want to burn themselves, might you ask? Sati is a ritual practiced mostly by grieving widows; the Hindu religion prescribes to burn bodies after death (or at least put them in Ganges), and in some cases, a wife of a deceased man, instead of having to live in grief, prefers to lie with her dead husband on the burial pyre. Sati is not something a widow is obliged to do, but the ritual is so popular and widespread that it had to be banned multiple times (io9). It was first banned by the British occupational forces in 1829, then in 1956, and later in 1981. However, there are reasons to believe that Sati is still being practiced somewhere in the distant corners of India. Even though the ritual is mostly voluntary, there are cases when women were thrown into pyres against their will; also, since burning alive is agonizing, not all widows can stand the pain and try to jump off the pyre. This, however, is considered to be highly dishonorable, so it is the duty of the witnesses of the ritual to push a woman back into the fire if she tries to escape (Cracked).
Probably less peculiar, but still creepy, is the tradition that is still occasionally practiced by the tribes in the jungles of Brazil and Papua New Guinea: endocannibalism. Among primitive tribes, cannibalism was a way to consume the strength of an enemy killed during war; endocannibalism, in its turn, is consuming the flesh of a person belonging to the same group, not to the group of enemies. When a member of a tribe dies, his or her body is not buried or burned, but eaten by the family members of the deceased. In order to make the body eatable, tribes use fire and other regular methods of cooking food; although this does not make the ritual less horrible. It is believed that the ritual emerged as a way for malnourished tribes to sustain themselves during the most difficult times of hunger, and although there are few cases of endocannibalism nowadays, one cannot be sure that it has gone into oblivion (Wonderslist.com).
These are just some of the bizarre death rituals practiced around the world; considering how many cultures exist on our planet, it is likely that the amount of such morbid rituals exceeds all possible estimates. It is important to remember that these rituals do not come from cruelty or inhumanity; each nation has reasons to bury its dead one way or another. For such nations, our “regular” traditions might seem terrifying as well; for example, a Tibetan villager could be shocked with the idea to put a dead body six feet under damp ground in a narrow box, and to be left decaying and eaten by maggots for years after death. Death is a delicate matter, and the rituals surrounding death are a matter of perspective: acceptable and normal for one culture, a certain ritual may seem wild and barbaric to another culture. Therefore, it is better to treat such rituals with respect—or at least tolerate them, recognizing each nation’s right to bury dead in its own way.
Bondeson, Kyle, Jacopo Della Quercia, Chris Fox, Sergei Korolev, and Robert Brockway. “The 5 Creepiest Death Rituals from Around the World.” Cracked.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 June 2017.
Dvorsky, George. “10 Bizarre Death Rituals from Around the World.” Io9. Io9.gizmodo.com, 14 Nov. 2012. Web. 27 June 2017.
Bridglal, Brandon. “10 Most Bizarre Funeral Traditions in the World.” WondersList. N.p., 18 June 2014. Web. 27 June 2017.