Funerals in East Asia
In most East Asian, South Asian and many Southeast Asian cultures, the wearing of white is symbolic of death. In these societies, white or off-white robes are traditionally worn to symbolize that someone has died and can be seen worn among relatives of the deceased during a funeral ceremony. In Chinese culture, red is strictly forbidden as it is a traditionally symbolic color of happiness. Contemporary Western influence however has meant that dark-colored or black attire is now often also acceptable for mourners to wear (particularly for those outside the family). In such cases, mourners wearing dark colors at times may also wear a white or off-white armband or white robe. When a coffin is lowered into the ground the mourners will bow their heads and must not watch the coffin being lowered into the ground. Sometimes, some members of the procession are required to turn their backs and not look at the coffin as it is sealed, entering the carriage, removed from the carriage and entering the ground. They may also be required to wipe their faces with a white cloth. Paper money and commodities constructed out of paper and bamboo are often burnt for the deceased for use in the afterlife.
A traditional Chinese gift to the attendees upon entering is a white envelope, usually enclosing a small sum of money (in odd numbers, usually one dollar), a sweet and a handkerchief, each with symbolic meaning. Chinese custom also dictates that the said sum of money should not be brought home. The sweet should be consumed the day of and anything given during the funeral must not be brought home. The repetition of 3 is common where people at the funeral may brush their hair three times or spit three times before leaving the funeral to ward off bad luck. This custom is also found in other East Asian and Southeast Asian cultures.
Most Japanese funerals are conducted with Buddhist rites. Many feature a ritual that bestows a new name on the deceased; funerary names typically use obsolete or archaic kanji and words, to avoid the likelihood of the name being used in ordinary speech or writing. The new names are typically chosen by a Buddhist priest, after consulting the family of the deceased. Most Japanese are cremated.
The custom of burying the dead in the floor of dwelling-houses has been to some degree prevalent on the Gold Coast of Africa. The ceremony is purely animist, and apparently without any set ritual. The main exception is that the females of the family of the deceased and their friends may undergo mournful lamentations. In some instances they work their feelings up to an ostentatious, frenzy-like degree of sorrow. The revelry may be heightened by the use of alcohol, of which drummers, flute-players, bards, and singing men may partake. The funeral may last for as much as a week. Another custom, a kind of memorial, frequently takes place seven years after the person’s death. These funerals and especially the memorials may be extremely expensive for the family in question. Cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, may be offered in remembrance and then consumed in festivities.
Some funerals in Ghana are held with the deceased put in elaborate “fantasy coffins” colored and shaped after a certain object, such as a fish, crab, boat, and even an airplane.
Funerals in Scotland
An old funeral rite from the Scottish Highlands is to bury the deceased with a wooden plate resting on his chest. In the plate were placed a small amount of earth and salt, to represent the future of the deceased. The earth hinted that the body would decay and become one with the earth, while the salt represented the soul, which does not decay. This rite was known as “earth laid upon a corpse”.
Mutes and professional mourners
From about 1600 to 1914, there were two professions in Europe now almost totally forgotten. The mute is depicted in art quite frequently but in literature is probably best known from Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”. Oliver is working for Sowerberry’s when this conversation takes place: “There’s an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear … which is very interesting. He would make a delightful mute, my love”. The main purpose of a funeral mute was to stand around at funerals with a sad, pathetic face. The professional mourner, generally a woman, would shriek and wail (often while clawing her face and tearing at her clothing), to encourage others to weep. These people are mentioned in ancient Greek plays, and were employed throughout Europe, but the practice largely died out in the nineteenth century. They continue to exist in Africa and the Middle East.
The 2003 award-winning Philippine comedy Crying Ladies revolves around the lives of three women who are part-time professional mourners for the Chinese-Filipino community in Manila’s Chinatown. According to the film, the Chinese use professional mourners to help expedite the entry of a deceased loved one’s soul into heaven by giving the impression that he or she was a good and loving person, well-loved by many.
Funerals for heroes
Viking chieftains were placed in ships after their death, together with tools and weapons. The ships were then set on a course out to sea and set ablaze. This is still re-enacted as part of festivals in the north of Europe, particularly at Up Helly-Aa and the Delamont Viking Festival. Military heroes such as Nelson, Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill had their coffins paraded through the city of London, placed on gun carriages. The guns were originally pulled by horses, but are now pulled by sailors. This is called a State Funeral.
Final disposition of the dead
Some cultures place the dead in tombs of various sorts, either individually, or in specially designated tracts of land that house tombs. Burial in a graveyard is one common form of tomb. In some places, burials are impractical because the ground water is too high; therefore tombs are placed above ground, as was the case in New Orleans, Louisiana. Elsewhere, a separate building for a tomb is usually reserved for the socially prominent and wealthy. Especially grand above-ground tombs are called mausoleums. Other buildings used as tombs include the crypts in churches; burial in these places is again usually a privilege given to the socially prominent dead. In more recent times, however, hygiene laws have often forbid this.
Burial was not always permanent. In some areas, burial grounds needed to be re-used because of limited space. In these areas, once the dead have decomposed to skeletons, the bones are removed; after their removal they can be placed in an ossuary.
“Burial at sea” means the deliberate disposal of a corpse into the ocean, wrapped and tied with weights to make sure it sinks. It is a common practice in navies and sea-faring nations; in the Church of England, special forms of funeral service were added to the Book of Common Prayer to cover it. Science fiction writers have frequently analogized with “Burial in space”.