Jazz Funerals, Sky Burials and Other Unique Traditions

A funeral is typically thought of as a solemn occasion, but that doesn’t mean it can’t reflect the personality and traditions of the person it honors. Across the globe, there are unique funeral traditions that may seem strange to those unfamiliar with them. Yet these customs serve to create a sense of belonging and leave the bereaved feeling supported by the community while also memorializing a person’s life.

Here are just a few unique traditions:

  • Jazz funerals are popular in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans. A brass band leads the parade, plays mournful music at first, then switches to more jubilant tunes after the burial. Following the band is a group made up of friends and family members of the person who died. They march to the cemetery to the band’s hymns and somber songs and, after the body has been “cut loose,” revel in the more raucous music as they dance away from the cemetery. The “second line”, made up of people who have come simply to celebrate and enjoy the music, then follows the mourners in the parade. This tradition blends European, African and Mardi Gras and Indian influences, along with the Haitian concept of celebrating death to please the spirits in charge of protecting the dead.
  • In Tibet, sky burial is a form of excarnation. Also known as celestial burial, it’s a way to eliminate the physical body while honoring nature by feeding the deity-like “bearded vultures.” These vultures are known as “Dakinis,” or sky dancers, the Tibetan equivalent of angels. It is believed that the person’s spirit leaves the body soon after death, and it’s considered an honor to know that the body will return to nature and nourish some of nature’s creatures in a final act of charity. When a person dies, the body is wrapped in white cloth and stays in a corner of the house for three to five days, during which time scriptures are read aloud by monks or lamas in order to release the soul. Family members cease all other activities in order to create a peaceful environment that will allow the soul to ascend smoothly to the heavens. After this time of prayer is over, the body is taken to the sky burial site, high on a mountaintop, and left for the birds to consume. Although this practice was banned by the Chinese for many years, today about 80 percent of Tibetans choose celestial burial.
  • Turning of the bones, or Famadihana, is a ritual of the Malagasy people of Madagascar. Every five to seven years, deceased relatives are exhumed from ancestral crypts, and living family members peel off the burial garments, spraying them with wine or perfume and wrapping them in fresh shrouds made of silk. It’s an expensive and festive occasion, and the host family entertains lavishly with live music, dancing and a huge feast. As the band plays, family members dance with the bodies, and as night falls, they return their ancestors’ bodies to the crypt. They are buried beside gifts of money and alcohol and the tomb is ritually cleaned and sealed. This ceremony is an expression of honor and love, a way to celebrate loved ones and commune with them, because the Malagasy believe that the spirits of the dead linger until the body has completely decomposed.
  • “Fantasy coffins” are popular in Ghana. These elaborate caskets are made by highly skilled craftsmen and represent the work or passions of the people buried in them. The idea is that in the afterlife, the deceased will continue doing the things he or she did in this life and should be buried in something that is a reminder of what was left behind. For example, fisherman might be buried in a casket shaped like a giant fish. A taxi driver might be buried in a car-shaped coffin. Sometimes, the shapes of animals such as lions are used to indicate that the person inside was very powerful. Fantasy coffins are also known as “Abebuu Adekai” or “boxes with proverbs,” and can cost as much as an entire year’s salary.

At Greenwood Memorial, we understand the importance of creating a memorial service that celebrates the unique life that was lived. That’s why we encourage you to plan your end-of-life service in advance to ensure that your wishes are well known and that your family is relieved of the stress of making important decisions during a difficult time. Call us today at (619) 450-1479 to learn more about preplanning.

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