Death In Translation: How Other Countries Treat Their Dead

The United States has its own particular way of treating dead bodies, but funerary rites vary widely around the world.
Death rituals in different cultures represented by a scene from a Parisian cemetery, where mausoleums border a cobble-stoned walkway.

Humans tend to spend a lot of their lives not thinking about death. That’s good a lot of the time, because you don’t want to be on a first date pondering your mortal existence. But shunting death to the bottom of our subconscious all the time isn’t always the best option. Pondering death rituals in different cultures, as well as our own, doesn’t have to be something we dread.

In the 1860s, the most popular tourist attraction in the United States was Niagara Falls. It’s pretty obvious why: in a world before television or really any other easy-to-access images, Niagara Falls was the most exciting thing you could imagine. The second most-popular attraction, though, is more surprising: Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

The idea of going to a graveyard for fun, even one as beautiful as Green-Wood, is seen as either morbid or disrespectful in 2017. We think of dead bodies as the vacant remains of our loved ones, or as terrifying things that haunt horror movies. The fact that we even call them “dead bodies” is telling; it separates the person they were from the body they are now.

Americans prefer a decent amount of distance from the dead. We embalm bodies more than is necessary to ensure that we don’t have to think about the decomposition of our loved ones. And if we don’t bury the bodies, we cremate them to get it all dealt with immediately.

When someone wants to do something novel for their funeral, there’s often major pushback by people who see profanity in alternative funerary customs. Take, for example, the Urban Death Project, which is attempting to find a way to naturally decompose bodies so people can return to the earth. Even when people specifically ask for this after they die, family members will often try to prevent it.

The U.S. approach to death, however, is not universal. Looking at death rituals from different cultures can call into question the perceived norms of the death industry, and might even make you reconsider your own post-mortem plans.

Japan: The High-Tech Future Of Burial

Japan is often seen as some sort of high-tech metropolis where everything looks like the future. While this may not be universally true across the entire country, it certainly is for the burial industry. Japan is running into a burial problem, in that it’s a pretty small country with a rapidly aging population. It’s impractical to bury every body there, as it would completely overwhelm the available cemeteries. Nowadays, everyone in the country is cremated, which has helped. Even the emperor and empress of Japan announced a few years ago that they would break with royal burial tradition and be cremated. This doesn’t solve everything, though. When someone in the United States is cremated, family members often take the urns home and maybe spread the ashes. Japan, however, follows the Buddhist tradition in which living family members pay for gravestone upkeep and travel to visit their dead. In order to keep doing this while also addressing the problem of space, they’ve come up with a very technological solution.

Death Traditions Around The World — Japan
As can be seen in the photo above, Japan’s population has made cemeteries extraordinarily crowded, leading the Japanese to look for other ways to put their bodies to rest. Photo by Dennis Wright/Flickr.

In 2006, Buddhist priest Taijun Yajima built a cemetery, or more properly a columbarium, in Ruriden that looks more like a scene from the future than any resting place you’ve been to before. The walls are filled with glass Buddha statues, each in a little box with LEDs. Each of these statues represents a person, whose remains are kept there. Family members are able to visit this building with a swipe card, which lights up the Buddha statue of their loved one. If you have never seen this before, it is worth looking at photos to see just how beautiful this is.

This and other methods are being tried out in Japan, and they all have their fans and their detractors. It’s worth noting that the United States has had its own ideas involving light and ashes, like the Columbia University DeathLAB’s idea to turn the underside of a bridge into a brightly lit memorial park. While these may seem fanciful to some, they work hard to be respectful to those who choose to be laid to rest there. It is a modern way to address an ageless problem.

Mexico: Celebrating A Personal Day Of The Dead

The most well-known aspect of Mexico’s relationship with the dead is Día de los Muertos. As far as death rituals in different cultures go, this day might be the most famous. And the holiday can reveal a lot about Mexican attitudes, though like many holidays, it also faces commercialization issues. To the outside world, the Day of the Dead is a raucous celebration, like if you took Mardi Gras and added skeletons. This is far from traditional, though. The Day of the Dead’s reputation has been strongly affected by tourists from the U.S. thanks to its close association with Halloween. One of the most iconic Hollywood representations of the holiday, in which James Bond walks through a massive Día de los Muertos parade in Spectre, is entirely fictional. In fact, Mexico was so worried about disappointing tourists that they started holding the parade, based on the movie, in 2016. With this in mind, you might think that Mexicans treat death almost whimsically, but to see their real attitudes, you have to look past Mexico City.

Death Traditions Around The World — Mexico
A grave in Janitzio, an island in Mexico, is decorated with offerings, flowers and candles to welcome the dead.

As the name implies, Día de los Muertos is held in honor of those who have died. It is a time for people to reconnect with dead loved ones, inviting them into their household with altars filled with their favorite foods. It is usually depicted with traditional Mexican foods and sugar skulls, but really these altars can include anything, like bagels and tequila (I want Kit Kats and coffee on mine). It is a spiritual day and a very personal one. Parents tell their children about the ancestors they may have never met, and people gather in the cemetery to listen to mariachi music all night. In doing so, they bond with loved ones who have passed on from this world.

South Sulawesi, Indonesia: Getting Close To The Dead

The last place we’ll visit is not for the squeamish, but it’s important to remember death rituals in different cultures don’t have to align with our own. And the Torajans, a group of people who live in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, see the dead very differently from us. In short, they do not see the dead bodies as separate from the person who was alive. When a person dies, they are not immediately brought to a funeral home, but instead kept in their regular home and treated so that their body mummifies. During this time, the family still talks to them, and they call the person to makula’, which means “sick person.” It will be months before their funeral — a Christian funeral, thanks to Dutch colonialism — is held. And the funerals themselves are truly incredible, bringing communities together with gifts and celebrations that draw tourists from around the world.

Death Rituals In Different Cultures — Indonesia
Families often make a wooden effigy of the person who died, called a tau tau, which is placed on the balconies outside the burial sites.

Even stranger to Westerners is the “second funeral.” This is when families visit their ancestors to bring them gifts like food and cigarettes, and take the mummified bodies out to give them fresh clothing. Like before, these bodies are treated the same as the living person.

Seeing people who make the dead such an intrinsic part of culture can seem a bit unusual. This isn’t to say one attitude is any better or worse than another, but it should call into question the sometimes impersonal way Americans deal with death. Too often, we let cultural taboos dictate what we do, and perhaps it is worth reconsidering how we treat our dead. After all, they’re people, too.

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