02 Jun 2023

12 funeral traditions from around the world

What music should be played? What should people wear? What poem should be read? We don’t discuss it much in the UK, but in other countries and cultures there are lots of different attitudes to celebrating life. Beyond the traditional burials and cremations, we look at some inspiration from funeral customs around the world.

Image for funeral traditions video

1. Go green – USA

In our modern eco-friendly society, many Americans are opting for burial methods that are kinder to Mother Nature. These methods include biodegradable woven-willow caskets that decompose into the ground or having ashes turned into concrete reef balls that will support the marine environment for generations to come. 

Eco coffin

2. Reach for the sky ­– Tibet

In Buddhist religions in Tibet, it is believed that the soul moves on and the body becomes an empty vessel that must be sacrificed back to the earth. A common practice to facilitate this is placing the body high on a mountain to let animals decompose the body naturally. Once only bones remain, they’re ground up and fed to cows, completing the cycle. 

3. Be on display – South Korea

Due to a law in South Korea dictating that buried bodies must be removed after 60 years, cremation is much more common. But as an alternative to scattering or using urns, an increasingly popular trend takes ashes and turns them into shiny blue-green, pink or black beads to be displayed in the home. 

South Korea funeral

4. Go rock climbing – Sagada, Philippines

Up in the Mountain Province of the Northern Philippines, the Igorot Tribe have their own unique tradition which dates back thousands of years. A popular tourist attraction, coffins are placed on stilts high up cliffs in the belief that the higher up the body is resting, then the easier their passage to heaven will be. 

5. A box that rocks – Ghana

In Ghana, funerals are treated as a celebration for a loved one who’s passing to the afterlife. One way that this is done is through ‘Abebuu adekai’, specially designed fantasy coffins that are unique to each person and their life. From giant pens to mini planes, cameras to cannons, any design that can be dreamt up can be made. 

6. Catch up with the dead – Madagascar

The Malagasy people of Madagascar have a funerary tradition called ‘Famadihana’, or ‘the turning of the bones’, which they perform every five to seven years. In this ritual, people bring the bodies of loved ones from their crypts, wrap them in fresh cloth, spray them with perfume and dance with them. They see it as an chance to share stories with deceased loved ones and ask for their blessings. 

Madagascar funeral

7. The Smoking Dead – Philippines

Another entry from the Philippines here. The Tinguian people dress bodies in their finest clothes, rest them in chairs and place lit cigarettes in their mouths. The bodies remain in these positions for several weeks.

8. Releasing the Spirit – Aboriginal Australia

In Aboriginal societies, it’s believed that when someone dies their spirit goes back to the land before being reborn. To start the spirit on its journey, a smoking ceremony is held in the home of the deceased to drive the spirit away. The body is then placed on a tall platform covered with leaves and left for months to decompose.

9. Go out in tune – New Orleans, USA

New Orleans is a city known for its music, food and culture, so it’s no surprise they like their funerals to be filled with entertainment. A jazz band leads the precession of the coffin followed by their family and friends to the cemetery, playing somber dirges and hymns. Once buried, the music becomes much more lively and a party is started to celebrate the life of the deceased – New Orleans start

10. Come back once a year – Mexico

One of the most globally famous customs has had even more coverage recently thanks to its featuring in the latest James Bond film. A tradition that dates back to Aztec times, it is believed that mourning the dead is disrespectful, and once a year they return to earth. To celebrate this, altars are set up in the home or graveyard and loaded with offerings of marigolds, food, drink, photos and candles.

Mexico funeral

11. Escape the rebirth cycle – India

The Ganges is the most sacred river to the Hindu faith and is even worshipped as the goddess Ganga. In a concept called ‘Moksha’, they believe that if the ashes of the deceased are scattered in a holy place (Varanasi being the most holy), they will escape the cycle of rebirth and go straight to heaven.

12. Wait in a special place – Sweden

Although Sweden is largely a secular country, it has its own set of unique funeral traditions. The most notable is the fact that the deceased are left for 1-3 weeks in a special place before being buried. And, although in other cultures more guests are preferred at a funeral, in Sweden they are very private affairs with just the most intimate family members attending. At the event, local flowers are placed on the coffin, songs are sung and the closest family members will wear a white tie.

So, whether it’s a New Orleans style jazz parade or an eco-friendly green burial, there’s many ways in which you can go out in style. If you find it difficult to talk about funeral plans with loved ones, then take a look at our expert’s tips on talking about death.

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