Seeing death differently - an international overview of funeral rites

Seeing death differently - an international overview of funeral rites

By: Camille Baillargeon - Family Advisor

The universal experience of the death of a loved one touches us all. Each culture has its own way of marking the passage from life to death, and at Memoria, we want to honor your traditions with respect and sensitivity.


Here we offer a brief introduction to the funeral rites of certain international communities. These may not represent the entire population, but we have endeavored to provide a brief portrait of the most common funeral rites in these communities.


We begin our world tour in Italy, where the Catholic religion predominates. The importance of the community that gathers around the family of the deceased is noted: it is customary to show support by sending flowers or providing food to the bereaved family. In some Italian towns and districts, the announcement of a recent death is still made on public notice boards, a practice known as "manifesti di lutto". Most deaths in large cities, however, are announced by newspaper advertisement. Exposure of the body and traditional burial in a coffin are still very common. For Italians, this is an opportunity to see the body one last time, and even to offer a last kiss to the loved one. This is followed by a prayer vigil with a short liturgy in the evening, a traditional funeral mass, and burial. Black clothes and a sober attitude are the order of the day, as the rites are very much focused on mourning, and little - if any - on celebrating the life of the deceased.


Vietnamese funeral rites are marked by ancestor worship. At death, the deceased becomes an "ancestor". There is therefore great respect for the funeral and mourning process, and a dichotomy between sadness at the loss of a loved one and rigorous preparation for a safe journey to the afterlife. Adult family members wear a white headband, the color of mourning in Vietnam. Children are invited to wear a yellow headband. Offerings (rice, eggs, burnt bills), accompanied by incense, are placed next to the coffin or urn to accompany the deceased to the afterlife. The body is exhumed at least 3 years after death, the bones are washed with ritual water infused with herbs, and the coffin is changed to allow the soul to pass on to the afterlife. The location and direction of the grave will be determined by a geomancer, and the date and time of the funeral will be determined according to the calendar and the position of the stars.


Haitian funerals are influenced by the voodoo tradition, but mostly take place in a Christian context. Although the voodoo tradition acknowledges the existence of the Christian god, it expresses itself more through the intercession of lwas, emblematic figures who could be likened to saints, such as Baron Samedi, master of death and the cemetery. Mourning in Haiti is marked by a fervor that is expressed in vocal cries and weeping, and strikes a fine balance between great celebration and devastation in the face of the death of a loved one. A ritual ceremony takes place to completely separate body and soul. In the past, funeral rites lasted nine days from start to finish (the novena concept), but this practice is increasingly rare in densely populated urban areas. However, the funeral procession is still held today. Relatives of the deceased gather in a convoy and lead the body to its final resting place, accompanying the march with songs, cries, shouts and prayers. Although cremation is common, it remains less popular than viewing.


These are primarily Christian rites, Catholic or Orthodox. The family participates in a 3-day wake, at the funeral home or at home if permitted, receiving family and friends who come to offer their support and sympathy. This is followed by the panakhyda (short liturgical memorial service) in the evening, the day before the main funeral mass. This mass has a different name depending on the religion: "Requiem" for Catholics and "Order of Burial" for Orthodox. As with the Italians, Ukrainian funerals offer the opportunity for a "last goodbye" or "last kiss" in the presence of the body, and a moment of recollection before the final closing of the coffin. Burial in a traditional cemetery, with another short memorial service, is the norm. A handful of earth is thrown onto the coffin by the officiant, signifying a return to the earth. Cremation, though permitted by the Church, is much rarer. Moreover, the urn is deposited in a sanctified cemetery, in the same way as a coffin.


Whatever your cultural background, beliefs or values, Memoria is here to listen and to help you create a celebration of life in the image of your loved one. Simply call 514-277-7778 to speak with one of our funeral consultants and plan a ceremony that reflects your customs and traditions.