The most unbelievable death rituals, and what they teach us about life

The most unbelievable death rituals, and what they teach us about life

CultureJune 05, 2017 By Reilly Capps

Stephanie Gaines of Crestone, Colorado lives in a town hours away from any city with over a hundred residents, but still, she gets a lot of media inquiries.

She's the co-founder of Crestone End of Life Project, which operates the country's only open-air funeral pyre. At her facility in the middle of a field, corpses wrapped in cloth are placed atop a pile of wood and sticks and set ablaze, sort of the way Indians and Vikings did it.

The media is fascinated with the pyre. Since its debut in 2008, it's been covered by NBC News and the New Yorker. She says the New York Times expressed interest in doing a story, too. But people often get it wrong, Gaines adds. Too many misunderstanding what it's about or why people do it. They think it's about glorifying death; but in fact, it's a personal journey.

But, she understands why people are fascinated. Americans are trying all kinds of death rituals these days — from being buried in flesh-eating mushrooms suits to using death coaches. People look for meaning in death as a way to help find meaning in life.

It's not new. History teaches us that finding new strange rituals to use on corpses is about our oldest trick. Across time and place — from eating them to harming ourselves — we do shocking things with corpses. The shock of death is so overwhelming, we cope in surprising ways. These rituals relieve the pain and replace sadness with catharsis and release. "The meaning of life is that it stops," two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten quoted Franz Kafka as saying.

Here are a handful of the most unexpected, who did them and why, and an attempt to draw some meaning from these unusual rites.

Burn the wife

If burning a dead body on a pyre like in Crestone is strange, then a living person jumping on that pyre is stranger. In South Asia, widows jumped on their husband's funeral pyres and ashed themselves out. It's called Sati, and it showed that the woman was so overcome with grief she couldn't live without her man. A sign of respect. When a Sikh king named Kharak Singh died in 1840, a half-dozen wives and concubines leapt into the flames.

It was common in India until Europeans showed up and couldn't believe what they saw. The Europeans discouraged it, and in 1987 the Indian government passed the Sati Prevention Act; you can now get sent to prison for life for glorifying the practice.

This practice, sick as it was, showed how important marriage is, how losing a spouse can feel like death itself, and why it's so important and terrifying to pick a person and say "Till death do us part."

Eat the corpse

You are what you eat. Until recently, tribes in Africa, Oceania and South America devoured their dead kin. They were hoping their positive qualities would slither down their gullets, right along with their bones and skin. Death eating among the Wari tribe in Brazil has been called "compassionate" and helps the mourning "accept their loss and go on with their lives."

There've been problems. For the Fore people of New Guinea, in the 1950s and '60s, Westerners noted the men ate dead flesh while the women ate brains. This was all well and good and practically praiseworthy — only problem being that eating brains isn't healthy for anybody but zombies: brain-based diets cause a neurological disease that ruins balance and slurs speech.

Few — if any — of these tribes still eat dead people today. But the practice — disease-ridden as it was — shows how much we want to be infused with our loved ones, how much we want to be affected by those we surround ourselves with. We are the company we keep.

Hang the corpses

In Asia, especially among a Chinese tribe called the Bo, people hoisted coffins hundreds of feet up on the sides of cliffs, like the world's darkest chandeliers, tucked under rocks in remote areas. Keeping the corpses off the ground was meant to let the souls stay blessed eternally. Some of these suspended coffins in China stayed unseen until the government built a big dam. The reservoir flooded some of those coffins.

In the Pacific Northwest, there was a similar practice. Hollowed-out totem poles housed the remains of the dead. When Westerners showed up to the Haida clan, they reportedly said the stink was awful, and skulls sometimes fell out of rotting poles. But the Haida, like the Bo, thought lofting their dead would keep their spirits alive.

These strange practices show human engineering at its finest, and the (somewhat) true belief that the things we build can beat out nature. After all, if we can build dams to hold back water, build moats to hold off invaders, why couldn't we build towers that hold back oblivion?

Dance with the dead

In Madagascar, every five or seven years, the Malagasy people do an unusual thing: they un-bury their dead and give them a little party. They unwrap their old burial shrouds, give them fresh threads, offer them food and drink, talk to the dead about school and work, and dance around with them, treating the corpses as if they were the life of the party. Sadness is not allowed. Smiles are where it's at. If you can ignore the sour, earthy smell of decay, the party is said to be pretty good.

This proves work isn't the only good and partying isn't frivolous: throwing down with someone shows them how much we love them. 

Cut off a finger

In Papua, among the Dani, when someone dies, relatives of the dead, usually the females, lop off the top part of a finger with an axe as a sign of respect and grieving. In pictures, older Dani women hold spoons and cigarettes with three or four fingers missing the part above the top knuckle. The older you get, the less likely you are to have a full complement of fingers. This weirdness still goes on today.

This is a lesson in friendship. If you ask people whether they'd rather lose an arm or lose their best friend, an old survey says, people choose to lose their best friend. That might actually be the wrong choice. Amputees are reasonably happy, but friendless people are miserable. The Dani's ritual — self-defeating as it is — supports that idea.

Sex with the slave

A visitor to the Vikings a thousand years ago told the craziest funeral story ever. Before death, a powerful Viking designated a "thrall" (a female slave) to be raped and strangled and stabbed by six of his friends. Then her body was thrown onto a ship with the Viking's, pushed out to sea and set on fire. All this sexing and killing transmitted the friends' life force to the woman, who then brought it to Valhalla to give it to the Viking. It's a crazy story.

This is a gender lesson. Over and over again in these rituals, it's women, not men, who get the short end of the scythe; it's the widows, not the widowers, who suffer and mutilate themselves and are harmed when someone they're close to die. It rarely, if ever, goes the other way. In death, as in life, women are treated as lower-class.

America's weirdness

"Death is nothing to us," said the Greek philosopher Epicurus. And he's right: the dead don't care what happens after they die. But the living do. In the face of overwhelming grief, humans cope how they can. If it takes a little superstition and a few dark deeds to scare away the death demons, who among us can condemn it? The most useful thing is to see what we can learn from the odd ways humans say goodbye.

The last lesson is about self-centeredness. Just for perspective, here's what we usually do in America: we pump formaldehyde into their body so they turn rubbery and yellow and don't decay. Then we paint their faces and keep them in a fridge for a couple days so relatives can kiss them in church. Then, we stick them in walls called mausoleums where they never again touch the dirt they came from.

Isn't that strange? And isn't it strange that many of the stranger practices mentioned above were banned by Christian missionaries who thought of themselves as morally superior? While, note, Catholics "eat the body of Jesus" every Sunday, trying to swallow some of his good ju-ju (or so they believe)?

Exotic cultures' death practices aren't inherently weirder than ours — they're just unfamiliar. Which just shows how blind we can be to our own strangeness. The folks in Crestone aren't stranger than us. We're all roughly equally strange.

[Photo by Kok Leng, Maurice Yeo. Hanging Coffins, Sagada, Philippines.]