Pretty much every single person worldwide performs some form of ritual on a daily basis. This might be as simple as waking up at 6.30am, having a coffee, some breakfast and reading the paper, followed by a warm shower and getting dressed for work, all by 8.30am. That’s a pretty standard and very common routine/ritual for many people.
Where death is concerned though, every country and every race, celebrates and concludes a person’s life in a very different way. Some people are mourned and buried in the ground, others are cremated and potted up in an urn to sit on a family member’s mantle. If you’re John Wayne or Walt Disney, you may have your body frozen in the hope doctors find a cure for whatever it is that plagued you in the living and thaw you out to try your luck at life again.
In some Asian and Eurasian countries however, the ritualistic events following someone’s passing into the other world are not just different, but could even be considered down right disturbing.
Sutee, or Self-immolation, was a traditional Hindu ritual practiced for centuries back in the 1800s whereby a grieving widower would lay next to her dead husband’s body on his funeral pyre and be voluntarily burned alive next to his corpse.
Not surprisingly, once the situation ‘heated up’, it wasn’t uncommon for a widow to change her mind and attempt to escape the engorging flames. This was considered highly shameful so to ensure the widow followed through, bystanders would ever so kindly poke her with bamboo canes to force her back into the flames. No wonder the ritual was banned by the British in 1829, 1956 and again in 1981.
In one recorded incident in the 18th century, one widower got beyond the helpful pokers and killed the flames in a nearby river. Not to be outdone, the jab-happy bystanders tossed her back onto the flames, ensuring they broke her legs and arms first to save her from further dishonor.
Until it was outlawed in the 1900’s, Japanese Buddhists practiced the radical act of Self Mummification, a ritual that required a solid 2000 days of preparation.
To start the ritual off, a Buddhist priest for example, was required to remove all of the fat from his body. He would do this by radically changing his diet to mere amounts of nuts and seeds and nothing else for an excruciating 1,000 days. Next, he needed to rid his body of as much moisture as possible by eating only a very small amount of bark and roots from pine trees for another 1,000 days. To wash it down, he would drink a very special and very poisonous tea made from the sap of an urushi tree, a sap that was commonly used to lacquer bowls.
Vomiting and diarrhea that proceeded the tea consumption was a sure sign that it was working, ensuring the body was ridding itself of as much moisture as humanly possible. More importantly at this time, the sap was soaking into the priest’s stomach, creating a protective lining against maggots.
Since the 12th century, Tibetan monks have been performing and outlandish ritual called the Tibetan Sky Burial where they literally leave their ’empty vessels’ for the birds to eat it.
Tibetan Sky Burial is a form of human dissection where a corpse is sliced up, usually on top of a mountain, and left for the birds. After death, a corpse is left for 3 days. Monks chant around the body and the day before the burial, the corpse is cleaned and then wrapped in white cloth, finally resting in the fetal position.
At their burial site atop the mountain, monks have enticed various vultures and scavengers for the consumption of the corpse. From there, the bodies are unwrapped and set upon with axes, first on the back, and quickly cut up in a very precise way the flesh into chunks, the internal organs into pieces, the bones smashed into powder or splinters and mixed with roasted barley flour. All the while, those ugly, massive birds circle overheard awaiting their feast. Once each ‘course’ is served up to the vultures, the body’s soul is set to ascend.
With all of the burning, chopping up and poisonous sap, it makes death sound exhausting on top of the grief and emotions that the deceased’s family are surely already feeling. However, no ritual comes without reason, each one culminating in a higher belief and higher purpose.