Fascinating Funeral Traditions Across the World

19 Dec 2016

Here in the UK, funerals are traditionally held at a church or crematorium, and the usual attire is black clothing. Many assume that funerals all over the world are like this, when in fact, different countries have their own unique ways of both mourning loss and celebrating someone’s memory.

Different cultures and beliefs are often a big part of what makes these funerals so fascinating, with certain customs dating back thousands of years. Here at Asda Money, we’ve picked some of the most interesting burial traditions across the world.


Jazz Funerals in New Orleans

The city of New Orleans in Louisiana is well known for its strong association with jazz music, so much so that it’s often considered to be the birthplace of the genre. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many funerals in the city are led by a jazz procession, and are commonly known as “jazz funerals”.

Jazz funerals are extremely loud, and have an emphasis on both grief and celebration. Traditionally, at the beginning of the procession, a marching band will play slow, mournful music, followed by the hearse holding the coffin. Friends and family then walk behind, and once the loved one has been buried or cremated, the music will change to become much more upbeat and joyful, as everybody celebrates the person’s life.

The most prominent part of a jazz funeral is the switch of music, from sad and mournful to happy and celebratory. Attendees usually follow the band whilst dancing to the upbeat music, and sometimes strangers will join them on the streets to celebrate the life of whoever has passed away.

The music and dancing is thought to represent the escape from the bounds of life, and in the past, was also linked with being released from slavery. The jazz funeral became one of New Orleans’ most privileged type of ceremonies, with horse-drawn hearses and huge parades held for famous musicians and important members of the community. One of the most famous jazz funerals was for the rapper Soulja Slim in 2003, which was attended by thousands of people.

A marching brass band

The Fantasy Coffins of Ghana

Coffins are a primary focus when it comes to funeral traditions in the African nation of Ghana. The “fantasy coffins” are extremely extravagant compared to a regular coffin, and are specially made into different shapes before being painted in bright colours. The idea is for the coffins to represent the person’s profession, or something that they were passionate about during their life. 

Especially popular in the southern regions of Ghana, the coffins are supposed to make a statement, and send the person off in style. Some styles in the past have included coffins in the shape of giant fish for fishermen, and even a large hen-shaped coffin. They must be made by specialist carpenters and are considered to be works of art, so much so that some have had their coffins displayed in art galleries and museums all over the world.

Funeral processions in Ghana can last across three days and nights, and are seen as a celebration. Far from being morbid, the coffins reflect their attitudes to death, which highlights the religious belief that when someone dies they’ll go into the afterlife. The creative coffins are supposed to show how the person is going to go on and continue to do great things.

The local cost of a fantasy coffin for conventional use is usually the equivalent of around £1,500. However, those which are created for exhibitions can fetch up to £8,000. One of the most well-known Ghanaian craftsmen, Paa Joe, has had his work exhibited in various museum collections, including the British Museum. Some of the most fascinating designs include golden eagles, lions, aeroplanes, and even coca cola bottles, so they’re worth checking out.

fantasy coffins in a workshop

The Hanging Coffins of Sagada, Philippines

Members of the Igorot tribe, of Mountain Province in the northern Philippines, have practised the unique tradition of hanging coffins to the sides of cliff faces for thousands of years, and this incredible sight can still be seen today. 

This ancient tradition requires the coffins to be nailed or tied to the cliff face, and the bodies placed in a foetal position due to the belief that people should leave the world in the same way they entered it. There are several tenets behind this tradition, one of which is that by moving the bodies high above the ground, they’d be closer to heaven and could easily watch over their friends and family. Others believe that it’s due to the elderly fearing getting buried in the ground, because water would eventually seep in, causing them to rot quickly.

When it comes to the funeral itself, the coffins are carved by the elderly before their death. If they were too weak to do this, their relatives or close friends would do it for them. After being wrapped in blankets and rattan leaves, the body is carried to the cliffs in a procession, where mourners attempt to touch it for good luck. Once it reaches the cliffs, the coffin is raised onto the cliffs, but how the ancient tribe managed do this is still unknown.

If you’re interested in seeing the hanging coffins of Sagada for yourself, the remote location makes it a challenging, yet spectacular place to visit. The nearest airport is Baguio, and from there it’s easiest to take a bus. Because the hanging coffins are so famous, plenty of tours include them in their trips, along with visits to fascinating caves and waterfalls in the surrounding area. Although this would be a trip to remember, it’s worth knowing that you’ll need a certain degree of fitness due to the nature of the terrain.

hanging coffins on a rockface

Although funerals can be quite a solemn topic of conversation, it’s always best to get the planning done sooner rather than later. If you’re heading towards retirement, now could be the perfect time to start thinking about inheritance, writing your will, and funeral planning.

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