Nobody likes to think about how or when they might die, but it’s something every living thing on this planet will unquestionably face. When friends and loved ones pass away, it can feel impossible to try and understand how they’re suddenly just gone.
Is there a life after death?
In what was called the largest study of near-death and out-of-body experiences ever, scientists at the University of Southampton spent four years researching 2,000 people who had suffered from cardiac arrest at 15 different hospitals across the world—330 of whom survived. 140 of those who survived admitted to experiencing a sense of awareness before their hearts were restarted, during the time they were deemed clinically dead.
Scientists know that the brain relies on the heart to keep functioning, but the study’s findings suggest that some level of consciousness may continue for up to three minutes after the heart has stopped beating.
Some survivors could recall specific details they experienced, including everything from seeing a bright light to feeling like time slowed down or sped up. It’s thought that many more people have these types of vivid experiences when near death, but limited brain or memory function and drugs may be causing them to forget.
Science is still a long way from figuring out what happens to us when we die, and we’ve barely scraped the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding awareness itself. With that said, we have our oldest religious and spiritual traditions to turn to in order to fill that gap of the unknown.
Here are just a few ways that societies around the world interpret and celebrate life after death.
Mourning Through Dance
Some groups of indigenous people in Australia believe that the spirits of the deceased hang around the living unless the right ceremonies are carried out to encourage them to go back to where they came from.
During funerals, mourners will paint themselves white and cut their own bodies to express their remorse before carrying out a series of rituals.
Involving both song and dance, these rituals ensure that the deceased’s spirit is driven back to its birthplace, where it may be reborn and returned to Earth in human, animal, or plant form.
In Madagascar, however, the dancing doesn’t simply stop after the funeral is over. A ritual called Famadihana, otherwise known as the “turning of the bones,” is celebrated by the Malagasy people every seven years.
During this time, the crypts of deceased family members and ancestors who’ve been laid to rest are opened up so that their bodies can be wrapped in new layers of cloth.
Once that’s all done, the Malagasy people will then grab the newly wrapped bodies and dance with them to live music, sacrificing animals before them so their meat can be given away to family members and guests of the family.
Until the bodies of the dead are gone entirely—bones and all—the Malagasy don’t believe that they’re really, truly dead yet, which is why they continue to put on such a display of love for their dead family members even years after they’ve died.
Mourning Through (Lap)Dance
You’d think that dancing with the skeleton of a dead relative who’s been gone for seven years might be crazy, but it gets even crazier in parts of Asia. In countries like China and Taiwan, it’s very important to the families of highly respected (but deceased) businessmen that lots of people show up at their funerals to honor the reputation they once held.
To draw more people in and show off the family’s wealth, it’s become a common practice to hire exotic dancers to perform at wakes and funerals.
For a hefty price, young women in racy outfits will twirl around poles and perform stripteases for all the mourners that decide to show up for the (ironically lively) entertainment. Some may say all the festivities are to appease the “wandering” spirits (this link is a tad NSFW).
China, however, has been cracking down on hiring strippers for funerals as of late. According to the country’s Ministry of Culture, the practice is an “illegal operation that disrupts order of the cultural market in the countryside and corrupts social morals and manners.”
Offering Sustenance to the Scavengers
Everyone knows that it doesn’t take long for a body to start decomposing shortly after it’s died. Many cultures interpret this as the body being nothing but an empty vessel without the spirit, and so they recognize that there’s no real need to praise and preserve the body as much as some other cultures do.
Long before coming into contact with Caucasians, the indigenous Haida people of the Pacific Northwest didn’t believe that the bodies of the dead belonged to them—nor were they too keen on the work that had to go into preparing the body for burial or cremation. So instead, they built large open pits somewhere behind the village, where they would throw the bodies of the dead so that wild animals could feast on their flesh.
Of course, exceptions were made for chiefs, warriors, or shamans. Their bodies would be smashed up until they could compactly fit into a box the size of a suitcase, which would then be placed on top of a totem pole featuring carvings of guardians that would guide the spirit into the afterlife.
Similar rituals take place across the Chinese provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia, as well as in the country of Mongolia itself. Referred to as a “sky burial,” the bodies of the dead are chopped up into smaller pieces and spread out along mountaintops as offerings to the vultures.
This funeral ritual is rooted in Vajrayana Buddhism, where followers of the religion believe that the transmigration of the spirit takes place in death. With the spirit long gone, there is no need to do anything special with the body, and so sky burials are regarded as one of the most generous ways to dispose of human remains. It’s believed that smaller prey animals may at least be spared from the vultures that can make a meal out of the human flesh instead.
Family Members Who Sacrifice Themselves
Dealing with death is never easy for anyone, and in today’s society, people are encouraged to take their time to grieve so they may eventually move on with their lives. But in ancient Asian cultures, people were expected to do quite the opposite.
The Hindu practice of “sati,” otherwise known as “widow burning,” is as controversial as it gets. Recently widowed women would commit suicide by burning themselves to death on the pyre of their dead husbands, either voluntarily or by being forced into it.
Although sati is totally illegal in India today, it’s still sometimes carried out by a select few. Many Hindus still firmly believe that sati is the ultimate form of feminine devotion and duty to a husband—without him, a widow no longer serves a purpose here on Earth.
It was also believed that a deceased husband shouldn’t have to “go it alone” while embarking on his journey between worlds, so it just seemed to make sense that his wife should accompany him into the afterlife.
Being burned to death isn’t the only form of sati, believe it or not. Widows have also been known to be buried alive alongside their husband’s corpses or even drowned.
Variations of sati have also been practiced in surrounding areas, including the South Pacific island of Fiji. In Fiji, however, the people practiced widow-strangling, and it was most often the brother of the widow who performed the strangulation (if she had a brother).
A slightly less extreme form of sacrifice has been traditionally practiced by the Dani tribespeople of New Guinea, an island situated north of Australia. Relatives of a deceased person—even children—were expected to cut off the upper sections of their own fingers as part of the grieving process to express sorrow and suffering.
The practice was especially geared toward women and young girls. A string would be tied tightly around the finger for around 30 minutes to cut off circulation before it was cut off with an axe.
The amputated finger would then be thrown into a fire and burned until nothing but ashes were left. Meant to be a permanent representation of the person they lost, the practice is now banned in New Guinea—although the disfigured hands of many older tribespeople serve as visible reminders of the ritual that was widely practiced in the past.
Death Rituals of the Future
As we look ahead toward the future, science and technology will no doubt continue to change the way we understand and celebrate death. Perhaps one of the strangest new trends that has emerged out of our love for our smartphones and social media has to be the shockingly confusing funeral selfie.
According to a British study that surveyed 2,700 adults who had recently attended funerals, one-third of them admitted to taking a selfie and posting it online as a way to express grief and gather sympathetic messages from friends.
Unsurprisingly, the stat has a lot to do with the age group—over 48% of those who admitted to taking a funeral selfie were between the ages of 18 to 25, and one-third were between 26 and 30.
Of those who did post a funeral selfie, 36% admitted that they did it because they wanted sympathy from their friends. 17% said they did it as a way to honor the person who passed away.
While traditional funeral ceremonies are still quite the norm, much more modern and futuristic funeral ceremonies are becoming more popular. Today, there are at least two companies—Elysium Space and Celestis—that have partnered up with commercial space transformation companies to take the remains of the deceased out into space and launch their ashes into orbit for anyone who’s willing to fork out the cash (which, in comparison to the cost of a regular funeral these days, may actually turn out to be cheaper).
Celestis, which has been serving space burials since 1997, currently has four offerings to choose from on its website. An “Earth Rise” memorial will only take your ashes on a spaceflight before returning you back to earth for just $1,295. If you want your ashes to be launched into orbit, you’ll have to up your budget to at least $4,995. And for the low low price of $12,500, you can take your pick at having your ashes launched into either lunar orbit or deep space.
Space burials sure sound cool, but in the future, funerals may become few and far between—not because of changing values and beliefs, but because fewer people may be considered “really dead” thanks to cryopreservation.
This controversial new preservation technique involves freezing the organs, tissues, and cells of the body so they can withstand the decompositional effects of time. When the technology becomes available (sometime in the future, perhaps a thousand years from now or longer), they can be revived again.
In early 2015, a two-year-old girl from Bangkok who succumbed to cancer became the youngest person to ever be cryogenically frozen. She may have to wait centuries before we have the technology necessary to bring her back to life.
In Search of Absolute Truth
It seems as if the world is at a crossroads in how people think about death. Many believe that science, technology, and personal observation of our own awareness can give us more answers. But others aren’t ready (or even willing) to give up the traditional beliefs and ceremonies that stem from hundreds or even thousands of years of valued religious and cultural practices.
There’s no question that a huge “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) movement is currently taking place; more people than ever are now trying to find a happy medium between old-world religious teachings and modern spiritual realizations that help them move closer toward understanding the Absolute Truth.
In a study of 85 people who identified as being spiritual but not religious, all were found to have thought about profound subjects like death and the afterlife—although most admitted to rejecting the idea that heaven or hell exists.
Because SBNRs don’t subscribe to a particular organized religion, they’ve given rise to a new trend of less traditional funerals. Some choose to have their funerals at home, while others hold memorials that still involve music and readings specific to the memory of the deceased (without any religious affiliation).
Those who hold humanist funerals reject the idea of an afterlife altogether and instead interpret death as the end of a person’s consciousness.
At this point in time, humans can’t say anything certain about death itself other than the fact that billions of people have died before us, and we’re all headed for the same fate eventually. Regardless of that fact, the mystery of death shouldn’t be so significant that it leaves a person plagued by anxiety about when their own time might come or crippled by never-ending sorrow over the loss of someone else.
To end with a famously simple quote spoken by none other than the Buddha himself, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Be grateful for the life you’re living right now and the people you share it with today.