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Growing up I attending my fair share of funerals, nothing inordinate. A relative here, a family friend there. They happened. It’s life (and death). But remember wondering about the ceremony as a youth. People around me were grieving and I was simply confused by why the deceased was in a box. Why was it so fancy and why was he in a suit or she in a dress? My family simply assured me that that was how things were, but even at a young age it seemed peculiar.
As I grew older I saw more funerals. They were often depicted in films and TV shows. And as my friends contemplated the meaning of life and permanence of death whenever the funerals sparked a discussion, I was still stuck in the question: Why do we do it this way? Once I began poking around, I learned that the funerals I witnessed were certainly standard in my slice of the world, but across the rest of the world, different traditions and land availability presented vastly different methods of dealing with the deceased.
In South Korea, families are required to remove graves after 60 years due to dwindling land space. Ostensibly, the 60 year rule is to give survivors adequate time to venerate their lost loved ones.
In Mongolia and Tibet there is a practice of sky burial. Within these cultures they hold beliefs that the soul transmigrates upon death, where the soul ascends but the body returns to the earth. To aid in the body’s return, they chop up the corps and place it on a mountain top.
In Madagascar they have a practice of turning the bones. This ritual has family members dance with the deceased’s bones every five years or so. The bodies are wrapped in cloth, then doused with wine or perfume. At this ceremony, the surviving family convey news, family updates dance and receive the blessings of the deceased.
In Japan, the deceased receive a wake followed by cremation and then a burial, usually in a family site. After cremation, the family picks out the bones with chopsticks and when family members simultaneously grab the same bone piece this is considered the only time it is allowable to hold the same object with separate chopsticks.
Even in the US there are more varied ways to honor and release the deceased than conventional funerals. Because we have such a land-rich country, funerals have become the main method following the European traditions. But our traditions are being influenced by those mentioned above as well as modern interpretations of how to serve this delicate event.
Near Miami, Florida in Key Biscayne you can visit Neptune’s Burial Reef. This is an underwater mausoleum of sorts where, among other things, those believed to have died in the sinking of Atlantis are honored.
In Alabama, there is a company that will add a twist to end of life services by putting cremated remains into a shotgun shell so that loved ones can shoot them, perhaps into a favorite place. While other companies have created Bios Urns, which are trees that grow from the cremated remains. This creates a circle of life, where survivors can plant the tree that grows from the deceased remains that they can interact with for the life of the tree.
What I’ve learned from my lifelong curiosity is that people need to venerate their lost loved. This veneration varies from culture to culture and the possible methods are evolving as does our world, but ultimately, when we experience loss, we want to honor those lost and allow the grieving process to fully unfold.