For more than a century, every deceased resident of Long Son Island has been buried in the same coffin.
The residents of Long Son Commune near the Vung Tau port city in southern Vietnam follow the Tran religious teachings set out by the island’s founder, Le Van Muu, early in the 20th century.
Muu was a resistance fighter against French colonialists in the 1800s, but the war forced him to flee his hometown in the Mekong Delta.
He and a small group of people migrated to an unpopulated Ba Trao Hamlet (now Long Son Commune). Muu settled there, built permanent homes, and formed a religious practice on the basis of maintaining human virtues.
His teachings focus on living harmoniously with nature and loving people. Besides that, there are not any rules and books that adherents have to strictly follow. They can get married and have children, but maintain a simple life close to nature.
Adherents wear the ao ba ba, a baggy shirt that is popular among peasants in southern Vietnam, tie their hair in buns, walk bare feet, and keep their head bare, too.
Togetherness is a cornerstone of Muu’s philosophy. People in the community work and eat together. There is a lot of bonding, and in an unusual departure from mainstream traditions, this is carried on at death as well.
Muu believed that everyone was the same when they died, so he introduced the practice of sharing the same “Ba Quan” coffin when a person dies.
“Ba Quan” is a standard coffin that is placed in the Nha Lon (Big House) on the island.
Thanh Thi Thanh, a 75-year-old local resident, said that when a family member dies, relatives go to the Big House to ask to use the Ba Quan coffin.
The deceased’s body is washed clean, dressed in new clothes, shrouded in cloth and mats, and placed in the coffin.
At the cemetery, the body is taken out of the coffin and buried directly in the ground. “Ba Quan” is taken back to the Big House to be used by relatives of the next person to depart the world.
“The burial practice does not include the coffin so the corpse can quickly decay and attain liberation,” Thanh said. “This practice also helps family members save costs.”
She added that only those who are 12 years or older will be placed in the Ba Quan coffin when they die.
The dead are buried within 24 hours, instead of waiting for a set day or time. Family members will complete the mourning ceremony at the graveyard and do not invite guests over or perform any other ritual.
Those who visit the deceased will burn incense for the soul of the dead, and relatives will not receive any condolence money.
This tradition has been kept alive by locals for long.
Tran Ba Viet, head of the Culture and Information Department of Vung Tau City, said that the ceremony that Long Son residents have maintained for decades has many advantages since it is very short and expenses are minimized.
But since the coffin is not sealed for reuse, if the deceased had any serious, contagious illness, it could be contagious and affect the environment, Viet said.
He added that he will work with locals and authorities in the health sector to identify better funeral practices to protect the environment while respecting long-standing customs.
Any parent must agree that one of the greatest hardships experienced around the death of a family member is having to explain to children what happened and what happens next? Should you tell them the stark truth; that the fun and games don’t last forever? What sort of words will you use; dead, died, passed away, lost, crossed over, or went to sleep? This is a problem with very, very ancient origins. Ancient death rituals offer up evidence for this.
Since the beginnings of civilization, whenever and wherever, parents have had to teach their children how to grieve, commemorate, and dispose of deceased loved ones. And in the ancient world death was an infinitely more complicated affair, evident in the bizarre death rites practiced from culture to culture around the world. Here are some of the oldest funeral rituals in history, ones that take death to a whole new level of macabre.
Zoroastrian Sky Burials
Zoroastrianism; the ancient pre-Islamic religion of modern-day Iran, was founded about 3500 years ago and still survives today in India, where the descendants of Iranian (Persian) immigrants are known as Parsees. A 2017 article by scholar Catherine Beyer, Zoroastrian Funerals, Zoroastrian Views of Death, describes the first step in Zoroastrian funeral rites, where a specially trained member of the community cleansed the deceased “in unconsecrated bull’s urine.” The corpse was then wrapped in linen and visited twice by ‘Sagdid’ – a spiritually charged dog believed to banish evil spirits – before it was placed on top of the ‘Dhakma’ (Tower of Silence) to be torn apart and finally devoured by vultures.
Tibetan Buddhist Celestial Burials
Similarly to ancient Zoroastrians, today, about 80% of Tibetan Buddhists still choose traditional “sky burials.” This Buddhist ritual has been observed for thousands of years and it differs from the Iranian/Indian rituals because the deceased were/are chopped up into small pieces and fed to birds, rather than being ‘left’ for the birds.
While at first this might seem nothing short of brutal, verging on undignified, a research article published on Buddhist Channel explains that Buddhists have no desire to commemorate dead bodies through preservation, as they are thought of as shells – empty vessels without a soul. What is more, in their doctrines, which promote ‘respect for all life forms’, if one’s final act is to sustain the life of another living creature the ritual is actually a final act of selfless compassion and charity, which are primary concepts in Buddhism.
Native North American Totem Poles
Native cultures in the American Northwest carved wooden Totem poles to symbolize the characters and events in myths and to convey the experiences of living people and recently deceased ancestors. The Haida people from the Southeast Alaskan territories tossed their dead into a mass grave pit to be scavenged by wild animals.
However, Marianne Boelscher tells us in her 1988 book The Curtain Within: Haida Social and Mythical Discourse that the death of a chief, shaman, or warrior, brought with it a complex and bloodthirsty series of rituals. Dead shamans, who were thought to have cured the sick, ensured supplies of fish and game, and influenced the weather, trading expeditions, and warfare, were chopped up and pulped with clubs so that they could be stuffed into suitcase-sized wooden boxes. Once pressed inside, the boxes were set atop mortuary totem poles outside the deceased shamans’ homes to assist their spirits’ journey to the afterlife.
Known to anthropologists as “endocannibalism” many ancient cultures disposed of their dead by eating them . Herodotus (3.38) first mentioned ‘funerary cannibalism’ as being practiced among the Indian Callatiae people. Furthermore, the Aghoris of northern India were said to “consume the flesh of the dead floating in the Ganges in pursuit of immortality and supernatural power,” according to an article published on Today.
The ancient Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and the Wari people of Brazil both held “feasts of the dead,” where they attempted to “bond the living with the dead” and to express community fears associated with death. Some specialists believe that endocannibalism is something the dead might have expected as a final gesture of goodwill to the tribe and their direct family.
Sati – Burning The Widow
Sati (suttee) is an ancient funeral custom practiced by the Egyptians, Vedic Indians, Goths, Greeks, and Scythians. Banned mostly everywhere today, Sati required widows to be burnt to ashes on their dead husband’s pyres; sometimes voluntary ending their lives, but there are many recorded incidences of women being forced to commit Sati, which is murderous, inconceivable, and beyond any reason.
Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr. is Temple Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, Government and Asian Studies, The University of Texas at Austin. In his informative book The Representation of Sati: Four Eighteenth Century, the Sati ritual is considered as having maybe originated to “dissuade wives from killing their wealthy husbands” and it was sold to the public as a way for husband and wife to venture to the afterlife together.
Sacrificial Viking Slaves
While the threat of a Sati ritual must have utterly terrified Hindi women of all ages and creeds, the death of an ancient Scandinavian nobleman, according to Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th century Arab Muslim writer, brought funerary events of an “exceptionally barbaric nature.” After the death of a chieftain, his body was placed in a temporary grave for ten days while a slave girl was ‘selected to volunteer’ to join him on his passage to the afterlife. The sacrificial maiden was forced to drink highly intoxicating, psychedelic mushroom enhanced drinks, and as a way “to transform the chieftain’s life force” she was forced to have sex with every man in the village who would all say to her, “Tell your master that I did this because of my love for him.”
A 2015 Ancient Origins article written by contributor Mark Miller titled The 10th century chronicle of the violent, orgiastic funeral of a Viking chieftain explored these rites in detail and explained that after what amounts to constitutionalized ‘rape’, the girl was taken to another tent where she had sex with six Viking men. The last man strangled the girl with a rope while the settlement’s matriarch ritually stabbed her to death. The chieftain and his slave girl were finally placed on a wooden ship to take them to the afterlife.
Somewhere Between The Above And The Below
In 1573 AD, the Bo people of southern China’s Gongxian County were massacred by the Ming Dynasty and are today all but completely forgotten, if not for their mysterious 160 hanging coffin baskets located almost 300 feet (91 meters) high on cliffs and in natural caves above the Crab Stream. A China.org article informs that locals refer to the ancient Bo people as the “Sons of the Cliffs” and “Subjugators of the Sky”, and murals surround the coffins that were executed with bright cinnabar red colors illustrating the lifestyles of the ancient slaughtered people.
What Can We Learn from Ancient Death Rituals?
Having skirted over some of the ancient world’s death rituals, we are now hopefully better equipped to answer those questions that our children will inevitably ask us. You might be well served to offer your child the words of author Robert Fulghum: “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”
When your old Aunt Petunia passes away, there’s a good chance her body will either be reduced to ash inside a purpose-built kiln or buried in an expensive (but not too expensive) wooden box next to the decaying remains of Uncle Harold.
If only she’d lived in another time, or another place, things could have been very different.
Different cultures have disposed of human remains in wide variety of ways, some a little more colourful than others.
And we might need to revisit some of them soon, because, let’s face it, we can’t keep packing our dead into prime real estate.
The history of the human funeral is a tough topic to study. Other animals typically have little to do with the remains of their loved ones, and if we go back far enough, our ancestors were no different.
So at some point in history we went from stepping around dead bodies to purposefully disposing of them. Identifying when this change took place is a bit of a challenge.
Several hundred thousand year old hominin bones found in a pit in Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains were once hypothesised to be the oldest evidence of a mortuary ritual, on account of being found among tools nobody in their right mind would throw down a hole.
Recent research has cast doubt on that thought, suggesting the much more gruesome explanation of cannibalism and leaving the question of just when our rituals first evolved up for debate.
The charred remains of an Australian Aboriginal woman near Lake Mungo represent the oldest cremation, at around 40,000 years old. So we’ve been disposing of the dead for at least as long as that.
Even if we can’t settle on an exact ‘when’, we’re left with the question of ‘why?’
Mortuary practices were well underway long before writing was a thing, so we can only speculate their reasons.
Eggener suggests the first burials might have been less than reverent, with those low on the social ladder being thrown into a pit while those higher up were given a fancy send-off.
At some point it’s possible that some viewed burial as a more appealing option, preferring it to being dried or eaten in plain sight.
Whatever the inspiration was, burials were relatively common by the time the first settlements appeared around 10,000 years ago. Cultures far and wide began to store their dead in shared locations, such as underground catacombs or suburban necropolises.
Today we see these kinds of landscapes as sombre spots for quiet contemplation. Yet this whole ‘rest in peace’ attitude has also varied throughout the centuries.
Eggener describes the medieval cemetery as a place where markets and fairs were often held, and farmers would graze their livestock (apparently grass grown over graves made for sweeter milk – try using that in your advertising these days!).
Our historical appreciation of the cemetery as a community centre began to lose its appeal by the end of the 19th century, coinciding with the rise in popularity of public parks and botanical gardens, says Eggener.
But even today there a range of funeral alternatives still in practice.
Various forms of so-called sky burial can still be found in remote parts of Tibet and Mongolia, for example, where bodies are deliberately left to the elements and scavengers to consume.
Filmmaker Sam Green was just about to fly out of Columbus, Ohio when his friend offered to make a quick detour. “She asked if I wanted to see a little pet cemetery that’s across the street from the airport,” Green told The Atlantic. Armed with his camera, Green captured the tombstones of a menagerie of dearly departed animals, some dating back to the early twentieth century. His short film, Julius Caesar was Buried in a Pet Cemetery, featuring an original score from Yo La Tengo, showcases the pets’ final resting place—and the human love they once inspired.
Green said that he finds graveyards for pets especially moving because the headstones tend to be much more emotive than those found in human cemeteries. “You can say, ‘Buster was the best parakeet who ever lived,’” said Green. “With human graves, everything is so much more constrained. People love their animals in such an intense way and are able to express that love in a much freer way than they can about people they’ve lost.”
“You have gone and left such emptiness that time can never fill,” reads a grave for a dog named Jiggs Boy, who died in 1933.
People left their seats to dance and sing along to a live performance of “Mustang Sally” while servers waited in the next room, poised with champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries.
This was not your typical funeral.
Audrey Parker wanted her friends and family to be uplifted by the ceremony and so she planned every detail with that aim before she died on Nov. 1.
“She planned it and she knew that when we walked out of here today we would remember that life is supposed to be a celebration. This is a celebration of life, not just Audrey’s but all of ours,” said her friend Nancy Regan, the master of ceremonies.
Several hundred people gathered at Pier 21 on Friday afternoon to commemorate Parker, the 57-year-old Halifax woman who chose to die with medical assistance as she faced a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Many of the speakers mentioned how popular Parker was, with a large and adoring group of friends and a close-knit family who made up much of the crowd. But the ceremony was also open to the public, who came to know Parker in the final months of her life as she advocated for change in Canada’s assisted dying legislation.
Parker left two legacies: one for the people who knew her and were inspired by her exuberant kindness and another for those in the public who were spurred to take a closer look at a complex law.
“I’m gonna get a little political now, because I want to talk about Aud’s legacy,” said her friend Kimberley King, the last of seven speakers at Friday’s ceremony.
“Audrey knew that she wanted to be a spark, but she never imagined she’d be a national advocate,” King said.
Parker was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 2016 and as her illness progressed she experienced excruciating pain from tumours in her bones. She was approved by a doctor for medical assistance in dying (MAID), but as it stands, the law stipulates that patients must give late-stage consent.
It’s a safeguard that’s meant to protect people in a vulnerable state — such as when their physical health and mental faculties may be failing — but Parker said that in her circumstance, all it did was cut her life even shorter.
“I really wish that we had her this Christmas,” said her stepdaughter, Lucie MacMaster, after reflecting at Friday’s ceremony on past holidays they’d shared.
“But here we are,” she added.
Parker chose Nov. 1 for her final day because she knew that she would still be able to give the necessary late-stage consent. The cancer has recently spread to the lining of her brain, and she worried that if she waited much longer, the opportunity would be lost.
Before she died, Parker called on Ottawa to amend MAID so that people like her could give advance consent for their own death. It could not be amended in time for her, but she asked the public to keep pushing for the change.
“She did her part, and now it’s our turn. In Audrey’s honour and memory, I ask you to continue to support her movement. We have an opportunity to amend a federal law so that people who are invoking MAID don’t need double consent and therefore don’t need to die early like our Audrey did,” said King.
Local MLA Darren Fisher has said he’d like to see the legislation go “a little bit further,” but Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould disagreed, telling reporters the day after Parker’s death that there were no plans to change the two-year-old law.
Parker’s friend Robert Zed announced on Friday that there will soon be a permanent memorial for Parker in Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park. A steel bench is to be installed on Monday, facing out toward the water on Sailors Memorial Way.
Katrina Spade wants to transform the U.S. funeral industry, making way for many more options for those facing death and for their families. She founded Recompose in 2017 to champion a dramatically new approach that reconnects death to natural cycles of life and engages people through meaningful participation. Ashoka’s Michael Zakaras caught up with Spade to learn more.
Michael Zakaras: What inspired your interest in the rituals and practices around death?
Katrina Spade: I had a moment around age 30 when I realized I was mortal, and I became curious about what would happen to my physical body when I died. Because my family is not religious and most of my friends aren’t either, I thought, what will they do? And I discovered that there are really just two options in the U.S.: cremation and conventional burial. Both practices poison the planet — this struck me as the wrong punctuation for lives lived in harmony with nature.
Zakaras: Why do we have just these two options?
Spade: Much of it is convention, it’s just the way things have been done. Take modern embalming. Many people think of it as a centuries-old tradition — but it became popular in the U.S. only during the Civil War. A couple of enterprising young people invented and marketed it to soldiers on the battlefield as a way to get their bodies home to their families — for advance payment. They used arsenic instead of formaldehyde back then. Today’s funeral practices, and many of our laws, are based on the dual practices of selling caskets and embalming bodies from 150 years ago.
Zakaras: How big is the funeral industry today?
Spade: About $20 billion dollars, and it’s an interesting industry, with many funeral homes passed down generation to generation and a few large corporations that own a lot of funeral homes. One of the things that’s so interesting is the idea that every person can “own” a piece of land for eternity, in the form of a cemetery plot. This is not a sustainable model, especially for cities with space constraints.
Zakaras: That’s a good point. How much land would you need to bury everyone in, say, New York City?
Spade: We’d need over 200 million square feet of land, or 7.5 square miles! And besides the land use, cemeteries are filled with metal, wood, concrete, and embalming fluid, a known carcinogen.
Many people consider cremation to be a more sustainable choice, and its popularity is rising: by 2035 an estimated 80% of Americans will be cremated. But actually, cremation is an energy-intensive process that releases greenhouse gases and particulates, emitting more than 600 million lbs of CO2 annually.
Zakaras: So what’s the alternative?
Spade: With Recompose, we asked ourselves how we could use nature — which has totally perfected the life/death cycle — as a model for human death care. We developed a way to transform bodies into soil, so that with our last gesture we can give back to the earth and reconnect with the natural cycles. We’re also aiming to provide ritual, to help people have a more direct and conscious experience around this really important event. As hard as it can be, the end of one’s life is a profound moment — for ourselves and for the friends and families we leave behind.
Zakaras: If you are successful, what will look different in 10 years?
Spade: I’m hopeful that we will have many options for the end of life — from hospice care all the way through disposition. It won’t be the odd family who says, “Maybe we should have a home funeral” — it’ll be every family that says, “Okay, how are we approaching this? What feels right to us?” And it will be normal to ask: “What do I want my end of life to look like? What will happen to my body? Where do I want to be when I die?” These are things that should be up to us, but we’ve never really felt that we had the agency or the cultural support to decide them.
The funeral industry would like us to think that it’s difficult or impossible for us to care for our own after a death, but humans have been doing that for millennia. There are a lot of reasons to take back some of that work, the work of caring for the dead, because there’s so much beauty inherent in it and it’s such a personal thing.
Zakaras: Why is this a particularly important moment for this work?
Spade: There’s a growing realization of climate change, coupled with this incredible cohort of baby boomers — 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day — who are approaching the end of their life or seeing someone go through death and thinking, “Is this really the best we can do?” This is a generation that’s really good at saying “Wait a minute, we can do better than this.”
Zakaras: Do you ever get tired of talking about death?
Spade: I never do! We have such a long way to go, but a new relationship with death is totally possible. One of my favorite sayings is “Death is not an emergency.” This is a wonderful reminder that the very first thing we should do when someone dies is pause and take a deep breath and just be in the moment.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, a week after my father received a terminal cancer diagnosis, he asked my cousin to take him to a local mortuary where he made decisions about his burial and paid for his funeral. Following his death five months later, as a grieving only child, I was thankful my father had the foresight to plan ahead, as he had always done for other life events. His choice to preplan was a gift that prevented me from making emotional and costly decisions based in grief.
Death is a subject none of us want to confront. Talking about death causes us to face mortality and run head-on into the fact that we will not always be here. Yet death is inevitable and planning your funeral is a lot like planning for retirement. It requires honest evaluation and sometimes hard decisions, but it’s something that needs to be done.
Here are five reasons to overcome hesitancy and consider planning your funeral now:
1. Rising Costs
Each year, funeral costs continue to rise. Planning and paying for your funeral now is a way to avoid those increasing costs. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the median cost for an adult funeral with viewing and burial, including vault, was $8,755 in 2017. For a funeral with viewing and cremation, the median cost was $6,260. These amounts do not include cemetery costs, monument or marker, pall flowers, obituary or other related expenses, which could raise the cost to between $10,000 and $12,000. However, consumers have options.
“Charges at all mortuaries are based on operating costs and overhead and are higher in larger metropolitan areas,” said Glenn Miller, manager at J.F. Floyd Mortuary in Spartanburg, S.C. “With a full-service mortuary, there are many options. All of our services are itemized, and families can choose what to include. Our fees are the same for a funeral at a church or at our chapel as long as it involves our standard five staff members.”
2. The Ability to Make Your Own Decisions
Most people like to feel in control over decisions that affect their lives, and often that extends to end-of-life decisions. While no one can predict the time and circumstances of death, many take comfort in knowing they’ve selected the type of burial, location and funeral they want. While many plan to make these decisions eventually, most never actually follow through.
“Emotions are the greatest deterrent to preplanning,” said Miller. “People often have the attitude that if they don’t talk about death, it won’t happen.”
If you approach funeral planning as you would a financial or business decision, you may be able to get beyond those difficult emotions. Many mortuary websites provide preplanning information. Other websites, such as Funeralwise, help calculate costs. Move beyond any superstitious notions that funeral planning hastens death, and take time to investigate.
If you’ve ever tried to plan a family reunion or holiday get-together, you know suggestions and opinions abound and conflict. When planning a funeral — factoring in intense emotions, personality conflicts and multiplying by the number of siblings — you potentially have a recipe for a family squabble.
“Many people are still traditional in their faith and type of funeral they want, while their children may not be,” said Miller. “Children think differently than their parents and often have a more contemporary approach to burial, funeral location, music and minister. Planning ahead documents your wishes.”
While you can’t guarantee family members will abide by your choices, preplanning documents your wishes and provides a benchmark.
4. To Reduce the Financial Burden
We all hope to leave assets for our children, yet a prolonged stay in a care facility can deplete savings. Remaining assets are often non-liquid, which doesn’t help with the immediate need to pay mortuary or crematorium costs. Prepaying for your funeral and associated costs eliminates or reduces the financial burden on those left behind. Most mortuaries provide incremental prepayment options over months or years.
5. Preplanning is a Gift to Loved Ones
Planning a funeral is a huge hurdle for grieving family members who may be physically and emotionally exhausted. If even some planning has been done ahead, the burden of making rapid, costly decisions is eased.
Sometimes planning occurs near the end of life, but any information given or selections made are gifts to those who will execute the funeral.
Sherry Cochran’s father made decisions about his funeral while in hospice care, with his wife and six children present.
“My father was a minister, and he openly discussed his funeral,” said Cochran, a retired attorney in Raleigh, N.C. “He chose the hymns, minister, mortuary, cemetery and told us any casket we chose was fine as long as it was plain and didn’t cost much. When your parent is willing to talk about end-of-life issues and make decisions, it teaches you how to approach death and provides closure.”