When we think of cultural differences, we tend to focus on aspects like language, food, lifestyle, spirituality, music, literature, architecture, passions, and pastimes — everything from movie tastes to sports obsessions. However, there is another cultural difference that should be part of the conversation and perspective: end-of-life rituals.
According to experienced funeral director and licensed embalmer Henry Vinson from Cincinnati, Ohio, here is a look at three insightful — and indeed, fascinating — funeral and burial traditions in Japan, Madagascar, and Ghana.
Traditional Japanese Buddhist Funerals
In Japan, traditional Buddhist funerals involve a wake (o-tsuya) and a funeral (kokubetsu-shiki). Mourners (who may attend the wake, the funeral, or both) dress in black, and a picture of the deceased is placed upon an altar, along with a tablet with the deceased’s new Buddhist name (kaimyo). As mourners make their way past the altar, they bow to those in attendance and offer incense. The deceased’s body is placed in a wooden casket (hitsugi), which after viewing, is nailed shut before being taken to the crematorium.
Henry Vinson says that the ceremonial act of nailing the coffin shut is a profound and powerful gesture, as it formally marks the last time that loved ones will see the deceased in this lifetime. It often triggers an enormous wave of emotion that sweeps across all mourners.
Turning of the Bones in Madagascar
One of the most unique funeral and burial traditions is performed by the Malagasy people of Madagascar. The tradition, which is called famadihana — or “turning of the bones” — takes place every five or seven years after the deceased is wrapped in cloth and entombed in their respective ancestral crypt. Family members exhume the deceased, spray the body with perfume (or in some cases wine), and dance with the body while they share news, ask for blessings, and tell stories.
Henry W. Vinson comments that this tradition is not an opportunity to cry and wail, but to reconnect with the departed in a warm and festive manner. It is truly a remarkable experience and scene.
Fantasy Coffins in Ghana
People who visit Ghana and find themselves invited to a funeral in the Ga community (located in the southern region of the country) will be surprised — if not amazed — to see some truly spectacular, unique, and creative coffins. These so-called “fantasy coffins” are designed to express something that the deceased aspired to achieve or loved during life, such as boating, flying airplanes, driving a luxury car — and the list goes on.
The central message of fantasy coffins is that death does not represent the termination of life, says Henry Vinson. Rather, it is a continuation of life that continues in the next world. Fantasy coffins are created to celebrate the dreams, goals, and achievements of the deceased, and to earn their blessings. The craftsmanship, artistry, and effort that goes into some fantasy coffins is simply spectacular, and many of the most stunning and unique creations are found in photos across the web and social media.
Final Thoughts from Henry Vinson
As a funeral director, Henry Vinson has seen many different traditions that families perform when a loved one passes away.
The bottom line is that the funeral and burial process is not the same for every individual and family. Grief is not a straight line and takes many forms. These traditions are a way to not only show love and respect for the deceased, but are also a way for family members and loved ones to express their grief.