If death is universal, our ways of dealing with it are certainly not. Some mourn a death, some celebrate a life, yet all are related to how a culture relates itself to its ancestors.
Many of us though will try to keep death and grief as short as possible – almost as something to tick off and move on. It’s perfectly understandable why someone would want grief to be short, but perhaps an understanding of how dealing with death is so varied across cultures and countries will help those grieving.
Death and ancestry
In Western Europe and North America, we largely view our ancestors as gone when they pass. After all, religious teachings have, for thousands of years, taught us that a person’s soul will go to heaven after they die. This goes a long way to explaining why we feel such an immediate sense of loss when a loved one dies. They may be in a better place, but they’re not with us any more.
Other cultures view death as less of a loss and more of a change of state. They often see their ancestors continuing to guide them throughout their lives – the more ancestors who join those ranks, the better the counsel.
Others yet view life and death as a cycle of birth and rebirth, with death tending to emphasise the greatness of one’s life – especially in the hope of being reborn So, for them, death tends to emphasise the positives of a life – especially in the hope of being reborn positively.
How people view the process of a death – in terms of how a soul leaves, where it goes to, or whether there’s a soul at all – often informs what rituals those people will do in order to help the deceased and/or themselves deal with the loss.
The purpose of certain rituals, such as a Catholic Wake, is to help come to terms with a loss. The idea is that by giving the deceased the correct set of processes you then free them to the afterlife. At the same time, you create a structure in which to process your loss and grief.
In terms of burial customs, history has shown us vast numbers of different one’s exist across a variety of different cultures.
Tibetan ‘Sky Funerals’, for example, leave the deceased on a platform for vultures to eat – with the belief that the soul is then freed from the body. The Igbo of Western Africa have lavish, celebratory funerals that last days, they even have what’s often termed a ‘second funeral’.
There are no right or wrong ways to deal with death, just the ways that work for you and your loved ones. And you’ll often find that it’s never as simple as mourning or celebration – a loss always combines the two.