Given that it’s the Witching Month, our series of articles concerning the ghastly and macabre continues. See the first article on Chinese ghosts and goblins here.
Grief hits hard, we all know this, but it also hits in many ways. One person’s anger might be another’s sorrow. Some bereaved choose to celebrate the life of their lost loved one, rather than focus on their death. And we all tend to get shitfaced sooner rather than later.
No matter our reaction to death, however, there is one thing we can all agree on: the below shit is really fucking weird.
Tibetan sky burials make an all-you-can-eat buffet of the dead
As a (presumed) Westerner, you’re probably used to the dead going one of two ways: either into the ground or the flames. Not everyone agrees that this is the optimal use of a cadaver, however; in Tibet, it was generally agreed that a sky burial, and exposure to the elements, was the best way to see someone off.
Now, our delicate Western sensibilities may be offended by the notion of Auntie Nelly’s corpse having chunks of flesh torn off by vultures, but there’s some good solid Buddhist reasoning behind the sky burial.
The particular branch of Buddhism practised in Tibet, Vajrayana Buddhism, teaches that the body is an empty shell after death, owing to the transmigration of the soul. Given this, there is no reason to accord particular respect to a dead body. Furthermore, the body is given some use in death by literally becoming a part of the Circle of Life.
Sky burials are, in fact, more common than you might think; the Comanches practised a similar custom, and Zoroastrians have their own version of a sky burial where they leave bodies atop a structure creepily dubbed the Tower of Silence. Though similar in method, the Zoroastrians have differing reasons; they (probably quite reasonably) believe a dead body to be unclean and refuse to pollute the earth with it, instead opting to let carrion birds take care of it.
Native Americans bludgeoned skeletons and put them in a totem pole
The above title is obviously quite reductive; Native Americans encompassed thousands of tribes across an entire continent, all with quite different beliefs. This particular custom related to the Pacific North-West people known as the Haida.
Important people amongst the Haida, such as chiefs or great warriors, were singled out for special funerary treatment in the form of a mortuary pole. Such poles, reaching 50-60 feet in height in some cases, contained the remains of the deceased. It wasn’t so straightforward, however; before the dearly departed could be interred, they were first left for a year in a ‘mortuary box’ to decompose. Following the year-long putrefaction period, the skeleton was removed and pounded into dust with cudgels before being placed in the hollow totem pole.
This was accompanied by a party known as the ‘potlatch’. The party was a celebration of the deceased’s life, and their property was either ceremonially destroyed or, in the case of choice possessions, distributed to the worthy.
The practice obviously wasn’t uniform across the whole of North America, however; some tribes destroyed all of the deceased possessions post-mortem, believing that keeping any would incur the wrath of the dead, and others declared a year-long moratorium on uttering the name of the dead person.
A Vodou funeral is equal parts exorcism, pact and celebration
Vodou (Voodoo, believe it or not) is, as religions go, a fairly infamous one. Once described as “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant and 100% Vodou (which is 200% if anything — check your maths, Voodoo)”, it is an eclectic mix of beliefs and traditions practised chiefly in Haiti but with its roots in West Africa.
Central to the tenets of Vodou is a belief in animistic spirits called loa. Initiates of Vodou invite loa into their body in a sort of symbiotic possession.
The catch here is that when the initiate shuffles off his mortal coil, the loa finds itself trapping in a cell of rotting meat, which understandably pisses it off. Hence the rites of a Vodou funeral.
The first step of a Vodou funeral is for a houngan (holy man) or mambo (holy woman) to separate loa from host, effectively exorcising the corpse. This is accomplished by the priest(ess) getting under the corpse’s shroud, whispering arcane secrets in its ear, and then screaming the name of the deceased. This causes the corpse to sit bolt upright as the loa flees the body . The loa will then possess the deceased’s spiritual heir.
The houngan/mambo then transfers the person’s soul into a specially prepared pot, the better to assist in the soul’s later transformation into a new loa.
That achieved, the corpse can be washed. But the cleansing of the body is not only a chance to make sure Papa Rémy goes into the afterlife clean as a whistle – it’s also an opportunity for family members to use him as a psychic email. Family members whisper messages to other loved ones in the corpse’s ear, the idea being that he/she will pass the message on when he gets to the other side. Some take it even further, washing afflicted parts of their body in the water before applying it to the corpse. Why suffer from rheumatism when Papa Rémy can drop it off for you in Vodou Heaven?
That achieved, everyone can finally get down at the death watch. The death watch is a funerary party, and the more people attend, the better for the deceased. Folk at a death watch drink ginger tea, discuss the life of the dear departed and occasionally break out into impromptu wailing before returning to business as usual.
The Philippines has a whole bunch of weird funeral rites
As a predominantly Christian nation, you might expect the Philippines to have, at least from a Western perspective, relatively ‘normal’ funerals. Guess again.
The Tinguian people of northern Luzon engage in the practice of propping a corpse up, dressing it in its best clothes and placing a lit cigarette between its lips. During the funeral, the body is treated as if it is still alive – relatives will talk to it, offer it food and drink, and generally give it the party of a lifetime.
Elsewhere, on the same island of Luzon, the Benguet people practise a not dissimilar ritual, but they blindfold the corpse before laying it to rest near the front door of the family home. The Apayao people always bury the body under the kitchen, for reasons one can only assume have nothing to do with health and safety.
But it’s perhaps the Sagada people who are responsible for the most striking image of Filipino funeral customs – the hanging coffins of the eponymous region. Rather than bury their corpses, the Sagada instead suspend them from cliff sides in order to ensure that the deceased has a better shot at Heaven.
Makes Latin mumbling and censers look positively normal in comparison, doesn’t it?