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Strange funeral customs from around the world
December 3, 2008 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Funerary rites differ widely across cultural time and space, and customs that seem normal to their practitioners can seem bizarre and macabre to outsiders. Certain Zoroastrian sects—such as the Parsis of India—famously place their dead atop dokhmas, or "towers of silence", to be devoured by vultures. In recent years, the decimation of India's vulture population due to diclofenac poisoning (previously), and the construction of modern high-rise buildings which provide an unintended view of the process, make the future of this custom uncertain. (If you're feeling morbid, you can get a vulture's-eye view from this video.) The Tibetans sometimes practice a similar custom known as "sky burial" (warning: graphic photos).

In southern China, the ancient Bo people hung the coffins of their dead on the sides of cliffs, where they can still be seen today. Similar customs have been practiced in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Cultures from around the world have practiced endocannibalism, or eating of the dead. The Aghori of India retrieve decaying, incompletely cremated bodies from the Ganges and eat them. Several cultures—the Yanomamo of the Amazon, the Amahuaca of Peru, and some African tribes—grind up the bones of their dead, and cook the bonemeal into foods which are then consumed by members of the tribe.

I'm sure this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unusual and interesting funeral practices—post your own links!
posted by greenie2600 (32 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Mrs. Beese and I were watching Alien last night - in which the first victim's coffin is jettisoned into space. [After 29 years, the statute of limitations on spoilers has probably elapsed - but better safe than sorry.] I wouldn't mind that.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:44 PM on December 3, 2008


When I die. I'm going to be made into a blinged-out grill for my wife to wear. Romantic, I know.
posted by Bageena at 1:46 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


This post earwormed me with Algebra Suicide's Little Dead Bodies.
posted by ktrey at 1:47 PM on December 3, 2008


I'm certain that I once read a profile of William Hurt in which he was described as having wished to have his corpse sucked into a jet turbine - in the expectation that it would be instantly vaporized or something.

YMMV.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:57 PM on December 3, 2008


Diclofenac poisoning? Say what?
posted by Class Goat at 1:57 PM on December 3, 2008


In the spirit of "post your own," these links might provide some additional information about interesting funeral practices:
Introduction to the Study of Mortuary Customs Among the North American Indians
Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle
Old Cemeteries, Arsenic, and Health Safety
posted by ktrey at 1:59 PM on December 3, 2008


Class Goat, that's what Wikipedia says—1, 2—with reasonable-looking and various citations.
posted by greenie2600 at 2:03 PM on December 3, 2008


Some cultures in Papau New Guinea believe that if they don't place their dead into a special room to decay for years at a time that they will come back as invisible zombies. When told of how we treat our dead in the a huge swath of the rest of the world we appear very, very stupid.
posted by ZaneJ. at 2:07 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is all on the Litharge Apprenticeship first year final.
posted by benzenedream at 2:08 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Me, I'd like a sea-cremation. Build a nice metal dingy, grated casket on big-arse piles of wood (to mimic a real cremation oven), send it out on a rope set ablaze and have all my friends stand around on the beach drinking themselves silly in the light of my last party. When it's done, pull the boat in and bury the ashes next to dad. Like an updated viking ship burial.
posted by dabitch at 2:15 PM on December 3, 2008


Your sex toy broke open — what the hell are all these ashes doing in there? I promise I'm not really creepy in real life.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:25 PM on December 3, 2008


Peter Beagle wrote a short story about a group of giants that eat their dead. It was pretty interesting. Should've realized there'd be real examples of the bone-grinding out there.
posted by Tehanu at 2:56 PM on December 3, 2008


In recent years, the decimation of India's vulture population due to diclofenac poisoning (previously), and the construction of modern high-rise buildings which provide an unintended view of the process, make the future of this custom uncertain.

That's why some Parsis are experimenting with solar panels to dispose of their dead.
posted by homunculus at 3:00 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Remember, these are only "strange" and "unusual" if they're not your own culture. I imagine many cultures would find it odd that some in the West read poetry at rituals for the dead.
posted by knile at 3:11 PM on December 3, 2008


I always thought that the towers of silence were a lovely way of expressing the unity of all creation.

I think locking nutrients that could contribute to more life in a big cement box for all eternity is a deeply disgusting practice, so it's not just people in other cultures who find our funerary practices incomprehensible.
posted by winna at 6:49 PM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


I always thought that the towers of silence were a lovely way of expressing the unity of all creation.

Even moreso the Tibetan version. For those scared off by the warning about graphic photos, what they do is take the corpse to a secluded place & hack it up into itsy-bitsy pieces for the carrion birds & animals to feast on.

That far, it's similar to what the Parsees do, but the Tibetans don't consider their work done until they've smashed open all the bones, to make the marrow inside accessible.

It sounds very grisly, but the principle is that the person's death is an opportunity to do a good deed for other creatures. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is very often repeated that every single creature has been your precious mother in a past life (due to reincarnation & the age of the cosmos, it's a mathematical inevitability) so this is seen as one of many opportunities to repay all your mothers for their kindness.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:58 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Melanau of Sarawak used to practice above ground burial, since they were wetland dwellers, by encasing the corpse in a log and hanging it above the high water line.
posted by BinGregory at 7:38 PM on December 3, 2008


Things your body can do after you die
posted by ColdChef at 7:44 PM on December 3, 2008


I love the idea of any sort of sky burial, and was seriously considering converting to Zoroastrianism so that I could be disposed of in such a wonderful way. Then I found out that (1) the Parsis don't particularly like outsiders, and they (2) don't allow converts, and that furthermore (3) very few of them, themselves are actually sky buried, these days.

The Irani Zoroastrians use thick concrete tombs to avoid the corpse defiling the Earth, last I read. The Islamic Revolution tore down the last of their towers.

I would just donate myself to a zoo, but I don't think they would actually follow through with it…
posted by paisley henosis at 9:08 PM on December 3, 2008


knile, I presume you're talking to me, since you used quote marks, and I'm the only one who has used the words "strange" and "unusual".

1. I said exactly that in my first sentence, and

2. sorry, but endocannibalism, hanging coffins, and feeding the dead to vultures are unusual customs, by any definition of the word "unusual" with which I am familiar.
posted by greenie2600 at 10:08 PM on December 3, 2008


The Irani Zoroastrians use thick concrete tombs to avoid the corpse defiling the Earth, last I read. The Islamic Revolution tore down the last of their towers.

not true. i visited the towers of silence just outside of Yazd in Iran, and found myself thinking "man, what a weird usage of the word 'tower' - it's just a circle of bricks, a couple of metres high and about 30 across..." - as far as I can tell, they never were actually towers, just these circular walled areas. Zoroastrians still practice their religion & customs in Iran, though I found it hard to get a clear answer as to whether they were tolerated or oppressed.

you can see some photos of the towers for context here. this one on flickr sets the scene nicely.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:30 AM on December 4, 2008


Uburoivas - from what I heard, they're tolerated as long as they don't get in anyone's way.

Apparently, there were two Watchers Over The Dead (capital letters required for dramatic effect) whose job it was to lay out the corpses, and they basically volunteered to spend the rest of their lives arranging corpses, until they died. Eight guys from Yazd's Zoroastrian community would cart over the bodies, lay them out in the ceremonial halls at the base of the hill on which the Towers stand, and then it would be up to them to do the rest. I was told that dokhma meant "terrible place", due to the top of the hill being liberally scattered with rotting meat half-carried by a lazy carrion-bird, but my Farsi doesn't stretch far enough to verify it. Whenever I get pissed at my job, I think of these poor buggers lugging corpses around for the rest of their natural without much by way of human contact, and feel slightly happier.

What I find truly amazing is that they only stopped the practice about 30 years ago.The last Watcher over the Towers in Yazd still lives in the Zoroastrian cemetary, an old guy who looked at me in a moderately disinterested manner before sloping off in disgust to rearrange an irrigation channel with a shovel.
posted by YouRebelScum at 4:02 AM on December 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


@knile:
Who the hell reads poetry at funerals??
posted by mrzer0 at 5:22 AM on December 4, 2008


The Islamic Revolution tore down the last of their towers.

No. The Islamic Republic may be powerful, but it does not have the power to take the Iranian out of Iranians.

The towers stopped being used and were finally declared unsanitary during the Shah's era.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:34 AM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Uburoivas - from what I heard, they're tolerated as long as they don't get in anyone's way.

It's more of the other way around. The Iranians tolerate the Islamic Republic so long as it doesn't interfere in their Iranianism. Zoroastrian and pre-zoroastrian practices are a huge part of Iranian culture and are what maintains the distinct character from the other peoples of the region. For example no ruz is not an Islamic holiday, but it is one of the biggest days of the Iranian calendar.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:38 AM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pollomacho - I've heard (other?) Iranians say similar things. My impression that this may be the case in the macro/long-term, but it still wouldn't do to follow the Zoroastrian's traditional pastime and go boozing and dancing too publicly or they'll get a kicking from the police, whether protesting their Iranianism or not.
posted by YouRebelScum at 6:41 AM on December 4, 2008


Whenever I get pissed at my job, I think of these poor buggers lugging corpses around for the rest of their natural without much by way of human contact, and feel slightly happier.

Eh, it's a living.
posted by ColdChef at 6:44 AM on December 4, 2008 [4 favorites]


some friends and i were going to form the North Woods Burial Society, buy a big-enough piece of forest, and have our bodies laid out for various woodland creature sustenance (hopefully wolves!). with our luck, however, all the pharmaceuticals would cause horrible consequences.
posted by RedEmma at 8:42 AM on December 4, 2008


I imagine many cultures would find it odd that some in the West read poetry at rituals for the dead.

I can attest that many in the West find it odd awkward and embarrassing when some people read poetry at rituals for the dead.

PS - My own funerary aspirations are to be consumed by my closest friends and family at a seriously inebriated and raucous wake. Sure, some might balk at the cannibalism at first, but once they hit that drunk-hungry stage where they'll eat a sack full of Krystal's, some Panjandrum Stew will seem like manna from heaven.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:21 AM on December 4, 2008


Air Burial! I'm a huge Tennessee Williams fan and I've always wanted to be torn apart by ravenous birds.

Following that; I'd like to be a tree, please.
posted by The Whelk at 4:04 PM on December 4, 2008


Sorry, all. I stand corrected.
posted by paisley henosis at 6:55 AM on December 7, 2008


A bit late to the party, but here's an interesting video I wish I'd found before I posted this FPP: the practice of "Second Burial" in Taiwan.
posted by greenie2600 at 7:29 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


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