Approaching Death: Grief Rituals across Cultures

DailyDose2Welcome back to the Daily Dose, the medical humanities companion to the Fiction Reboot!

Death: regardless of where we live or who we are, we must make preparations for the end that awaits us all. Historically, this was a problem of space and health as well as grief and loss. While our ancestors had to bear the burden of sorrow for a missing friend just as we, they also had to deal with pressing practical concerns–such as, what do we do with the body? To leave it lying would attract animal life and pestilence; to burn it would use fuel, to bury it would require workable soil. And so, in each culture, burial differs markedly due to climate and geography as well as spiritual practice and cultural assimilation.

In some ways, this is still a point we return to today. When a loved one passes, we have channels that we work through. Call the physician, call the funeral director–call those for whom this is business and not tragedy. But it wasn’t always so… and it still isn’t so for many who must approach death intimately. Today’s segment will be the first of several looking at grief rituals across cultures–in part to re-illuminate our own.


Tibetan Buddhists practice “Sky Burials” — the tradition of dissecting (ritually) the dead into small pieces and giving the remains to birds. This may seem undignified to us–but it is far from it. The body is washed by loving relatives, and then wrapped in a colorful cloth. A procession takes the body to a specific place, and dissection is carried out by a member of the community trained in the practice. Ritual prayers are spoken or sung from afar–the family often stays through the sky burial, though not so near as to witness exactitudes. This is both spiritually and environmentally important; Buddhists believe in life cycles and in this manner, their deaths enrich the lives that remains. It is also geographically specific, as Tibet is in the cold north and often the ground is too hard for interment–and there are too few trees for pyre burial.

The Tibetan Buddhists’ practice only looks unusual to a Western perspective because it is unfamiliar. But the very unfamiliarity should cause us to reflect on our own “normative: practices. In what ways are we, too, carrying out grief rituals that bear the fingerprint of our cultural roots, our geographical or geopolitical loci, our spiritual and human need for closure in light of life’s final event? Death rituals are sacred, are part of our lived experience and deeply meaningful. We should seek to encounter and validate grief rituals–ritual itself–particularly when it is least familiar to us. Death, when kept so near, ceases to threaten us, ceases to be alien. Ritual, when embraced, can be the means to healing and to progressing through grief for the living, who remain.

Join me as I continue to explore grief rituals over the next few months.

[Note: this series is part of research for a book project called Death’s Summer Coat, by Brandy Schillace]

2 Replies to “Approaching Death: Grief Rituals across Cultures”

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