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What Can We Learn About Grief From Other Cultures?

While people around the world react to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, we’re reminded that grief is truly a universal experience. From Dia de los Muertos in Mexico to South Korean burial beads to the elaborate preplanning of a monarch’s public mourning – funeral customs are just as unique as the cultures they’re from. Whichever end-of-life rituals are followed, they provide comfort for the family and loved ones of the deceased, ultimately creating opportunities to find purpose and healing.

We’ve put together a list of some of the most vibrant, intricate, and unique traditions and customs from around the world. These mourning and funeral practices, though they vary greatly from region to region and country to country, may surprise, inspire, or bring peace to others along their journey with grief.

Dia de los Muertos, Mexico:

The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that dates back to over 3,000 years ago when the Aztecs and other neighboring cultures believed death to be an integral, ever-present part of life. A blend of Mesoamerican, European, and Spanish beliefs and customs, the holiday is celebrated from October 31-November 2 every year. According to tradition, on Dia de los Muertos, the border between the spirit world and living world opens, and families welcome back the souls of their deceased loved ones. Colorful altars, called ofrendas, are displayed in their homes and decorated with flowers, candles, and their loved ones’ favorite foods. Family members then gather in the cemetery to “spend time” with the dead, play music, eat food, swap stories, and celebrate the lives of those who are no longer on this earth.

Burial Beads, South Korea:

Due to its limited space for cemeteries and high population, South Korea passed specific laws and restrictions on earth burials in the early 2000s. In response, cremation rates have skyrocketed over the past two decades, and South Korean families developed a creative, beautiful tradition to honor their loved ones. Instead of a decorative urn to hold their loved one’s remains, the ashes are turned into beautiful beads. Not intended to be worn, these shiny blue-green, pink, or black beads are displayed in clear glass containers in their home. This practice keeps their loved ones nearby as a reminder of the beautiful life they lived.

Jazz Funeral, New Orleans:

Stateside, different regions of our country have many different traditions surrounding death. One of the most joyful is the jazz funeral, a blend of African and European culture, music, and dance, often in celebration of a musician who has passed away. Typically, a jazz funeral begins at a church or funeral home and leads the way to the cemetery. Family and friends are joined by a brass band, who play mournful music at the start before turning celebratory. After the burial, a post-funeral party takes place with dancing, elaborate fashion and clothing, and lively music.

Operation London Bridge, United Kingdom:

Years ago, the U.K. created an elaborate 10-day plan that would be set in motion upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II. This is an intricately choreographed plan, referred to as Operation London Bridge, that not only covers the plan for the Queen’s public mourning period but also the many procedures – both new and traditional – that the palace, government, media, local authorities, and others must follow. Many of the arrangements were decided by the Queen herself. Details include everything from when and how to notify the public to the lowering of flags to the proclamation of the new sovereign’s accession to the throne. After her 70-year-reign, such an elaborate affair is more than appropriate.

Dancing with the Dead, Madagascar:

Known locally as famadihana, this death ritual in Madagascar happens between five to seven years after the initial burial. The loved one is exhumed, allowing the family to remove the previous burial clothing and redress them in fresh silk shrouds. Mourners then eat, drink, and converse with their deceased family members. A subsequent ceremony takes place to lay their loved ones to rest for the next five to seven years. Right before sunset, the body is carefully returned to its resting place and turned upside down. Also referred to as “the turning of the bones,” this ritual is considered sacred by the island’s Malagasy people and has been in practice for centuries.

Traditional Irish Wake, Ireland:

There’s no party like an Irish funeral. In their culture, a funeral or wake is anything but a somber affair. Storytelling, singing and playing music, pranking, and other light-hearted games are enjoyed by loved ones, friends, and the community in an effort to celebrate good memories and ease the pain of the grieving family. There are many niche customs and traditions that play a part in an Irish wake. Inside the home, clocks are stopped at the time of death, the mirrors in the house are turned around or covered, and all curtains are to be drawn except for the window closest to the body, which is left open. All in all, an Irish wake is a compassionate balance between celebration and mourning, humor and honor, merry music and prayerful reverence.

Blended Buddhist-Shinto Rituals, Japan:

Nine out of ten Japanese funerals are conducted as a blend of two religions, Buddhism and Shinto, a practice that both religions embrace. Most families have a Buddhist altar and a Shinto shrine in their homes. When someone has passed away, the family covers the altar and shrine and prepares a small table with simple flowers and incense next to the bed of the deceased. There are then 20 steps they follow, including specific instructions for preparing the body, purification ceremonies for the earth where the body will be buried, and the funeral service itself. The family remains in a mourning period for 49 days, with some days assigned specific tasks and moments of remembrance.

As you can imagine, this list is only a snapshot of grieving practices around the world. There are many, many traditional and nontraditional ways to honor your loved one. As long as you remain focused on creating a personal, memorable event that reflects the energy and personality of the life being celebrated, you can be at peace knowing they’ve been laid to rest with love.