Even if you have never been to a funeral before, you probably have some idea of what to expect depending on where you’ve grown up. In the UK, a traditional funeral will generally involve a hearse, a coffin, some sort of service (be it religious or otherwise) followed by a burial or cremation and later a reception.
While this will be a recognisable scene for anyone having grown up in Western Europe, funerals can look and feel entirely different across the globe. Even the act of mourning – something that’s usually so personal and raw – can be impacted by the culture in which you grew up.
Death is Not the End: Connecting With Your Loved Ones
Traditionally, funerals in this part of the world have always been gloomy, sombre affairs that are shrouded by a sense of loss and sadness. And while there are many families who actively go against this sort of mood by organising funerals with fancy dress or with lively music, this is still far from the norm. In fact, it is only in the last few decades that mourners have stopped wearing black clothing in the period following a loved one’s passing.
Of course, sadness is a perfectly natural response when someone we love is no longer physically with us. However, there are many other cultures (Mexico perhaps being the most well-known) where death is treated as a natural part of life; the next step to something else, rather than an ending.
Death is treated as a natural occurrence and grief is encouraged and embraced, even by small children, who have a good understanding of these concepts at a very early age. During the funeral process, the loved one’s body is kept in the home for up to 48 hours after death, rather than being immediately ushered away and shielded from view. Family members spend time with their loved one – praying, eating, drinking and generally reminiscing together with the rest of their friends and family.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the Mexican relationship with death is their annual celebration, The Day of the Dead. This three-day holiday (taking place between October 31st and November 2nd) is entirely dedicated to celebrating those who have passed on.
Complete with painted faces, decorative death masks, music and feasting, The Day of the Dead invites the souls of adults and children alike for a fiesta amongst the living. Though death is a permanent state, these traditions allow for a joyous experience revolving around remembrance, and an ongoing shared experience of grief that is not shied away from.
Of course, Mexican traditions revolving around death – like so many other countries – rely heavily on the beliefs and rituals enshrined in Catholicism. This includes the concept of an afterlife, which can aid some people in their grief with the knowledge that they will see their loved ones again. However, this open acceptance of death and the concepts of shared remembrance and grieving are very different to the way in which we approach funerals in this part of the world.
A Musical Goodbye: Celebrating Life
Music is a part of funeral services all over the world, and is certainly a recognisable funeral tradition in the UK. For some cultures, however, music is an integral part of the funeral experience rather than a collection of hymns sung during a religious service.
New Orleans, a city that has music in its very veins, has become famous for its “jazz funerals” that promise to give both musicians and non-musicians alike a truly memorable send off with the help of live music.
Much like the concept behind the Mexican Day of the Dead, a jazz funeral aims to place an emphasis on the celebration of life, as opposed to the sadness of death. Before and after the funeral service, jazz musicians lead a marching band procession through the city streets. The musicians tend to opt for bittersweet songs and melodies before the funeral, switching to more uplifting choices once the person has been laid to rest. The band is said to “cut loose” once the body has been buried or cremated, segueing from a sombre tone to one of joy and vibrance.
It is interesting that jazz funerals have developed such a cultural significance, considering that they are unique to the New Orleans area. Though the importance of music has deep roots in the African American community (and especially in funeral proceedings), jazz funerals are born purely from the city itself. It signifies the strong bonds between the city and the people who used to live in it, a permanent reminder of the relationship that still exists between the living and the dead that does not cease even when they are not physically present.
Rest in Style: A Coffin Fit for the Occasion
Luckily for the average person’s budget, we no longer build sarcophagi and fill them with priceless treasures when a loved one dies. But just because those Ancient Egyptian traditions are long behind us, that doesn’t mean that every culture sticks to a simple wooden coffin when planning a funeral.
One example is “fantasy coffins”, which are an extremely popular and common burial custom in Ghana. These coffins can take any shape and style as they are “made to order” by a special artist and craftsman. Whether it’s a Coca-Cola bottle or an airplane, loved ones can be buried in whatever shape or item they felt connected to in life, an idea that signifies the onward journey between life and death.
For other cultures, coffins may look very familiar to the traditional wooden style we are used to in the UK, but don’t expect to find them buried in a churchyard. Hanging coffins can be found in many countries, including China, Indonesia and the Philippines, and are extremely symbolic.
The coffin is usually hung off the side of a cliff, an act which signifies that the person is well-respected and held in high regard. Perhaps more importantly, putting someone to rest at the highest elevation possible is believed to bring their spirit closer to heaven. Rather than the emphasis being placed upon the person’s body being returned to the earth, the way we perhaps view it in our own culture, the resting place of the coffin focuses far more on the onward journey of the spirit.
Funerals are an experience that is universal to every culture in the world, regardless of how you worship or what traditions you partake in. And while it is true that many cultures draw upon their religious beliefs when it comes to funerals, the variety of rituals, superstitions and approaches shows just how subjective our views on death really are.
To see the way in which someone says goodbye and mourns the loss of a loved one is to have an insight into the way they view the cycle of life, what happens to us after we are gone, and how death is viewed within society even before a funeral has taken place.
We are a family-led business offering funeral services in Essex since 1958.