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Death Customs

August 3, 2017

The treatment and disposal of a dead body is a sacred ritual in every culture, but each one does it a little bit differently. (This article first appeared in Uncle John’s Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader.)

Burial Traditions

In India…

custom calls for a body to be burned on a funeral pyre near a riverbank and a temple; the ashes are thrown into the river. Some adherents to Zoroastrianism place bodies atop towers; after the flesh is eaten by vultures, the bones are thrown into a pit at the center of the tower.

In the Solomon Islands…

of the South Pacific, a body was traditionally placed on a reef where it would be eaten by sharks.

Inuit People…

constructed small igloos around a corpse (like an “ice tomb”). The cold protected and preserved the body (unless a polar bear found its way in).

The Navajo…

feared being haunted by the dead, so the body was burned and the deceased’s house was destroyed. On the way back from the funeral, relatives took a long, circuitous route to confuse the spirit into not following them.

A Viking Funeral…

At sunset, the dead man was placed on a small boat. As it drifted out to sea, it was lit on fire. If the color of the sunset was the same as that of the fire, it meant the deceased was bound for Valhalla (Viking heaven).


do not use caskets (unless required by law). The body is washed three times, wrapped in a white shroud, and placed directly in the ground with the head pointed toward Mecca.

The Iroquois…

buried corpses in shallow graves, but exhumed them after a few months. Relatives then placed the bones in a community burial plot.

In Modern Japan…

bodies are washed in a Buddhist temple, dressed (men in suits, women in kimonos), and put in a casket with a white kimono, sandals, and six coins, all for the spirit’s crossing into the afterlife. After a funeral, the body is cremated. Relatives pick bones out of the ash, put them in an urn, and bury it.
Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader

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