Dios de los muertos

Anthropology: Different Cultures and Perspectives Surrounding Death

Death is inevitable. Much like a full stop to a sentence, you know it’s coming you just don’t know when. So why is it that in a progressive modern culture we are still so reluctant to be open and honest about our feelings surrounding death?

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Author Caitlin Doughty With Book "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" Novel analysing death rituals.
Book Shop Santa Cruiz

Our society has engrained in us the tradition that once our loved ones pass we must pay thousands for a funeral, have them embalmed, and then be taxed on inheritance. Up until I read the book “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”  by Caitlin Doughty,  I saw no problem with the modern funeral business capitalizing so much off of death. It is just normal, once a person dies you get a funeral. I had no idea of what goes on behind closed doors to get a body funeral ready. Doughty tells her true story about being a young woman working in a crematorium exploring the reality of the deceased face to face, and why we shouldn’t be scared but should embrace death.

Western Culture Surrounding Death 

Studying anthropology and how different cultures view death is important. We think we should be frightened of the skeletons of our loved ones. Once they are gone, their body is untouchable. Whisked away from the bereaved relative, only to be seen again at a funeral. The intimacy is lost and the right to grieve with the body is never an opportunity. A common term for this is “death denial”, we don’t want to acknowledge that death can happen and is closer than we’d imagine. A body is a harsh reminder of this, so we dispose of it quickly.

We deny the fact that death is around the corner; taking any medicine to keep us breathing without thinking about the quality of life we are actually getting. I’m not saying death should be sunshine and rainbows, it is a tragic and hard thing to go through. But is a death-denying culture just making it even harder to properly grieve?

Our mentality is that towards the end of our life we should keep fighting instead of embracing our final days in comfort and peace. From a young age, we are shielded from our reality. We are fascinated about death when involved in news articles and films – but when it is personalised – we silence ourselves.

Capitalism Culture

During Thatchers’ reign in the

Margaret Thatcher saying famous quote.
Google Images

80’s, she kickstarted the British capitalist culture off with the famous quote “there is no such thing as a society”.

Focusing on individualism, feelings of community diminished and self-interest soared. With this new lease on life, death rituals also shifted. Previously the death of a person was a huge loss to social networks and communities as a whole; not just the intimate family circle. Church bells would ring in mourning for the deceased and whole communities would gather to comfort each other and pay respects.

Even before the pandemic, death had become more privatised with funerals consisting of usually around 30 or so friends and family members. Young children are encouraged not to go unless necessary.  When discussing funerals, we discuss money. ‘How much did the funeral cost?’ ‘What did they leave you in the will?’.

The funeral now does not consist of a symbol of life been and gone, but of a cover-up story. A picture-perfect ending, but that is not what death really is. Nobody enjoys going to funerals because death is taught to be a fearful topic, one in which we should ignore. A celebration of life should not be centered around making the corpse pretty enough to be viewed for a final time and then charging for it.

Weaponizing Death

Inforgraphic Showing Funeral Prices Have Risen.
National Funeral Directors Association (https://nfda.org/news/statistics)

In a report conducted by the National Funeral Director Association in 2019 findings shown that funeral costs in America have risen by 227% over the past 30 years.

Having control is what keeps the heart beating of a capitalist country. It is vital to get the newest technology, the biggest army, and the most successful economy. This may sound like a bad thing but in reality, this has allowed the accessibility of education, housing, and job opportunity.

With priorities placed on money for most people in a capitalist society, community values have taken a back seat. Cultural identity is no longer on what interests you share or what religion you are: but how much money you make and what class you are.

This thinking is what has impacted the rituals surrounding a deceased person in the west. Now we want to spend more money out of a sign of respect. It is where our values are.

Spending a lot of money on a funeral is not guaranteed to make the experience any better. Sometimes we have to take our own control, and for some people, that means a more hands-on approach to life after death.

Anthropology: What We Can Learn From Other Cultures Death Rituals

Elizabeth Postle - Grief Expert

Grief Expert Elizabeth Postle said,  “In Western societies, we have changed our ways of dealing with death over the years so that nowadays it is very private and hidden. In my view, this is not such a good thing.  So-called sophisticated societies today try to hide death.  They make it very private and out of sight.  It used to be that the loved one would be in the home.  There would be a wake and neighbours would come in to say their goodbyes.  They would weep with the family and help with the grief.”

New Orleans Jazz Funeral

A mix of West African, French, and African American cultures, New Orleans celebrates the life of a loved one with the jazz festival. A public burial takes place for the deceased consisting of prominent community members. Funeral mourners are then led on a march by a brass jazz band.

Jazz Funeral In New Orleans celebrating life and death.

The music starts somber with hymns, then proceeds to become more joyous when the body has been buried and stories of the deceased are told. When the mourners have said their final goodbyes the body is said to be “cut loose” and participants begin to dance, publically celebrating the life of the loved one.

Intimate family, the musicians, and funeral directors are what is known as the ‘main line’ and second-line members are community members. This parade celebrates life in the moments of death, creating a strong community bond.

Bali Cremation – Ngaben

This is one of the most significant ceremonies in Balinese culture. Ngaben means “turning into ash”, which is quite literally, what the ceremony is. A colourful and elaborate experience, Ngaben is the cremation of a corpse, performed to release the soul so the person can be reborn again.

Ngaben has an underlying philosophy as to why it is so sacred. Balinese Hindus believe that the human body is made up of the spiritual as well as the physical. When someone dies, their physical body is no more, but the spiritual part of the human lives on. When the fire incinerates the body, the spirit is finally released.

This experience is a joyous occasion for families of the loved one – they are hopeful that their loved ones can have a better life when they are reincarnated. Whilst the ceremony takes placed they are advised not to even shed so much as a single tear; it may hinder the soul’s path to reincarnation.

Ngban Ceremony of Life and Death

The Process

The ceremony can take place a week after the death, or 2 years after. It is all up to families and their preferences. They may wish to save to have a grander celebration, in the meantime, the body will be temporarily buried.

Ngaben begins with rituals; starting with calling out of the soul. The body is then cleansed and given symbolic amenities to make sure it is perfect for the next life.

Elders and priests then pray the body gets to the other side safely. The family of the loved one shows their acceptance of the loved one leaving this life. 

The corpse is set on fire and the bones are crushed separately. Ash of the loved one is then set sail along the river or sea.

Personally, I think this is a beautiful way to go. Grief Expert Elizabeth Postle described her experience of Ngaban saying “More recently, we saw a cremation being held right next to the beach, meters away from tourists sunbathing.  It was a very serious affair with a priest chanting and lots of food laid out, and the gamelan orchestra playing.  But at the same time, it had a sense of normal life.  People sitting on the street watching and chatting.  Perhaps dealing with death in this way helps to bring acceptance.”

Dia De Muertos

Mexicans Celebrating Dia De Los Muertos: day of the dead.

Dia De Muertos is a Mexican holiday where they celebrate the dead on the second of November (also known as all souls day). Family and friends get together to pray and respect those who have passed, supporting their spiritual journey in the afterlife. Altars are built in private homes and cemeteries to welcome spirits back into the realm of the living. They usually contain food and water, photos of the family, and a candle.

Ancient Egyptian Death Culture


Perhaps the most well-known death culture is that of Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt and the Pharaohs that resided there for three thousand years were the start of a modern and literate world. Most death cultures stem from ancient Egyptian history

Their death culture was heavily influenced by their view surrounding immortality. Similar to Hinduism, the Egyptians believed there is life after death.

Pharaohs were both the heads of states of Egypt, but also the Egyptian religious leaders. The name Pharaoh means “great house” which is a reference to them residing in a tomb after they die. 

They were considered the middle man between God and the Egyptians and were treated with the utmost respect. 

To ensure life after death, homage was paid to the gods daily. Egyptians believed it was up to the god Osiris to decide if the soul would move on to the afterlife. The Field Of Reeds was the name of where souls could live and be eternally happy if Osiris let them enter. 

Egyptian Emballing; better known as “mummifying” 

Similar to the modern culture of preserving a body, the Egyptians wanted their deceased to look as well kept as possible. 

Although, we have managed to speed up the process. It took Egyptians 70 days to mummify a body! Only special priests could embalm the body, they needed to have a strong knowledge of human anatomy as well as knowing the correct rituals and prayers. 

First, organs were removed from the body, leaving only the heart in the body as it was the center of intelligence. The removed organs were preserved and buried with the mummy. 

Using a fine salt, the embalmer removed all moisture from the body, to create a recognizable body that would stay like that for years to come. 

The final step was to carefully wrap the body in linen, whilst craftsmen got to work making a tomb for the body to go in.

Pharaohs Tombs; the equivalent to our caskets?

Ancient Egyptian Tomb Still In Tact

Tombs held everything that a pharaoh would need for the afterlife.

Prayers that would be recited to the god Osiris were painted on the wall, furniture for the afterlife, food if the deceased became hungry in the afterlife. Anything they needed, was in the tomb. 

Priests performed rituals at the entrance of the tomb. The most significant was the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual. The priest touched parts of the mummy with an instrument, that would need to be unlocked for access to it in the afterlife. For example, the mouth was touched, so the mummy could speak and eat in the afterlife. 

The entrance was then sealed and the mummy was ready for its journey to the afterlife.  The preservation of the body was needed for the soul to have a home, if the body was gone then so was the soul. 

The Future of Funerals

There is a feeling of revolution when it comes to death denial. More people are realizing the closed-off approach isn’t working anymore and making moves to change it. Caitlin Doughty continues to educate people about the subject in her youtube series “Ask a Mortician”.https://www.youtube.com/user/OrderoftheGoodDeath

She has also opened up her own funeral home. Grieving family members can take control of the body of the loved one and have a more intimate and hands-on approach to funerals. She aims to break the stigma surrounding dead bodies, allowing relatives to wash and dress the corpse themselves.

Janice Thorton, a humanist celebrant based in Yorkshire has also tried a new approach to funerals. She allows mourners to have the funeral ceremony in their own homes.

The Future Ceremony is experimenting with more technological approaches like Bluetooth soundscape and augmented reality. The purpose of this is to create a memorable and intimate experience for the mourners.

2 thoughts on “Anthropology: Different Cultures and Perspectives Surrounding Death

Leave a Reply