Humanist or religious, Christian or Muslim, formal or relaxed – there’s plenty of different types of funerals out there. Whilst most goodbyes end up with you buried six feet under or as a pile of ashes, there are some interesting variants.
We’re going to look at some of the more bespoke funeral options around the world. You might not find direct inspiration for your funeral arrangements here. At the same time, it can be useful to understand different attitudes towards death when thinking about how you want your send-off to be.
1. The long funerals of Tana Toraja
Up in the barely accessible highlands of Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, the Torajan people live and die, and something in between. In Torajan culture, what we’d think of as death is seen as a sleep – the demise of your physical being isn’t linked to the end of your spirit.
It takes time for a Torajan’s spirit to head over to the afterlife. While the family prepares for an extravagant funeral, the deceased's body will stay in the house; sit at the dining table; have their clothes changed regularly.
Once there is enough money for a befitting funeral, the celebrations begin. The higher the person’s status in life, the more elaborate and expensive the funeral will be. Animals will be sacrificed to feed funeral attendees – the more goats and chickens that go around, the more important the person was in life.
For years after death, Torajans will take the dead bodies out of coffins stored high in mountain caves and bring them back into the house to attend dinners. This close connection with death means the culture doesn’t fear dying in the same way other cultures do.
2. The Caviteño tree funerals
Outside of Manila in the Philippines lives the Caviteño people. They live close to the forests, and when a person becomes old and infirm, they need to start planning their funeral. There’s no trip to the local director and choosing between brass or chrome coffin handles, though.
A tribe member will go out into the forest and choose a tree. Their family will then construct a cabin at the tree's base for the sick person to spend their last days in. It might seem heartless to abandon an elder at such a time, but that's not what's going on here.
The family will visit daily and spend their time carving out the trunk of the chosen tree. Once death comes to the old guy or gal, their body gets placed, standing up, in the tree trunk.
3. Air funerals in Tibet
Another culture that expedites the return of their dead to nature is Tibetan Buddhists. Three to five days of prayers by monks in your front room will follow your death as a Tibetan. These prayers are said as part of their interpretation of Buddhism to release your spirit from purgatory.
After consulting with a spiritual leader, the day to take your body up to the mountains is chosen. You get bundled into a foetal position – forehead to knees – and taken to the local high point. Here, the monks pray, and your flesh is fed to condors and vultures.
Tibetans believe the birds eat you only if your body was pure during life. This means that the air funeral is a way to be sure that you'll make it to Nirvana. However, your family will only know from the monks, as no one else can be present during the rites.
4. Vietnamese bone washing
Rather than the finality of burial that you'll be familiar with in European culture, your funeral is only the first step in Vietnam. The tradition of bone exhumation and washing in Northern Vietnam is believed to date to the Le Dynasty, 1428-1788 AD.
Around three years after the first burial, the family consults a geomancer to choose the right time to dig up the bones. Waiting this long gives nature enough chance to decompose everything but the skeleton. Late at night, the body will be dug up, bones washed and then laid out in a new, smaller coffin.
Once the skeleton is in the new box, it’s moved to a new burial site, usually closer to the dead's ancestral home. It's believed this is cleaner; to have the remains spend forever in a different place to where they rotted.
5. Malagasay Famadihana in Madagascar
Literally translated as “turning of the ancestors”, Famadihana is a regular ritual for Malagasy families in Madagascar. It's a chance for new family members to meet their dead ancestors and learn their stories and heritage.
Famadihana is a two-day ceremony, organised by the whole family with dancing and feasts. The family bones are taken from the tomb, wrapped in new, white shrouds, and given offerings like cigarettes, perfume, or sweets – whatever they liked in their life.
It’s a way for people to stay connected to their family and heritage, with emphasis on people who have married into the families meeting those who came before them.
6. Zoroastrian vulture funerals
The oldest surviving monotheistic religion globally has a lot in common with the three main Abrahamic religions. Still, funerary rites are a point of divergence. Zoroastrianism began in what is now Iran more than 2700 years ago, worshipping a single god that has elements of light and dark.
In this religion, a dead body is seen as being a pollutant. So a corpse can’t be put into the ground or burnt up into the atmosphere. In centuries gone by, the answer was to put dead bodies on the top of the temple for birds of prey to deal with.
The tradition has died out in Iran thanks to a mix of modernising lifestyles and the Islamic revolution. Today, a Zoroastrian internment involves closing the dead person's eyes and crossing their hands over their body and placing the corpse on steel or stone slab, covered in a white shroud. This slab then gets put into the family tomb, so the body still doesn't pollute the air or the land around.