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Death rituals in modern society

02 February 2020
Volume 25 · Issue 2

The advent of death prompts a series of events leading to the disposal of the body and any period of mourning thereafter, and these rituals differ among societies. The differences in death rituals tend to signify different cultural blueprints of actions and behaviours passed down through generations that everybody learns while growing up as members of society. In this column, I intend to briefly outline some anthropological perspectives on death rituals, explain why rituals were and continue to be important and conclude by highlighting the de-ritualisation of these events.

Death rituals, which have been practised for over 500 000 years (Wallace, 1966), are both private and public expressions of grief towards the dead and are, therefore, socially sanctioned and symbolic to each society. In most societies, death rituals start when death occurs and may be characterised by last offices (washing and preparing of the body for funeral rites). Last offices serve a number of purposes (Nyatanga and de Vocht, 2009). All orifices are closed, not only to stop body fluids leaking but also in the belief that this will stop evil spirits from invading the body. The eyes are closed and, in some cases, coins (weights) are placed on the eyelids with the belief that the corpse cannot now stare at the living (Wallace, 1966). On hearing about the death, relatives, friends and communities gather to express their grief, which can be through crying, wailing, screaming, singing and dancing, reciting verses from scriptures and offering prayers. Normally, mourners in the West dress in black, but nowadays, it is not as strict a ritual, with some people wearing white to celebrate the life lost. One of the oldest rituals is death vigils preceding burial, where relatives and friends sit with the corpse throughout the night. A number of explanations are available for this ritual, including being close by in case the deceased person comes back to life and supporting the soul to leave the body with dignity.

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