Grief: Ritual Finger Amputaion

The death of a loved one can be a traumatic experience and causes emotional pain and suffering. However, in some cultures the loss can result in physical pain as well. Certain cultures believe this physical representation of emotional pain is essential to the grieving process. This can be seen in the Dani tribe in Papua, New Guinea. Some tribe members have cut off the top of their finger upon attending a funeral. This ritual is specific to the woman population of the Dani tribe. A woman will cut off the top of her finger if she loses a family member or child. The practice was done to both gratify and drive away the spirits, while also providing a way to use physical pain as an expression of sorrow and suffering. The Dani tribe members have the religious belief that if the deceased were a powerful person while living, their essence would remain in the village in lingering spiritual turmoil.

The practice is performed by first tying a string tightly around the upper half of the finger for about 30 minutes. This allows the finger to become numb for a “near” painless removal. The finger is removed by using an ax and the open sore is cauterized both to prevent bleeding and to form new-calloused fingers. The left over piece of finger is dried and then either burned to ashes or stored in a special place. This ritual is now banned in New Guinea, but the practice can still be seen in some of the older women of the community who have mutilated fingertips. The practice of causing physical pain to show grief and deal with mourning can be seen in a numerous amount of other cultures as well. Cutting arms, legs and body, shaving off hair from the head, and burning skin are rituals used by other cultures during the grieving process. Grieving is a natural response to losing someone and everyone has different ways of dealing with grief.


Zimmerman, F 2011, Sioux Mourning Ritual, 18 October 2011, American Indian History Blog Spot. Available from:

Sumitra, M 2011, Tribe Practices Finger Cutting as a Means of Grieving, 16 December 2011, Oddity Central. Available from:

3 responses to “Grief: Ritual Finger Amputaion

  1. I’m very interested as to how this practice served to drive away and gratify spirits and how this manifested in only the women of the community. In Western culture, it seems that we rarely see grief in such an immediate physical form. We expect grief to be mental and emotional as we mourn. Sometimes emotional dependencies mixed with a form of substance abuse become physical affliction, but that pain is a processs over time. By inflicting intense immediate pain, I’m curious how this aids the grieving process. By axing off the fingers, does the death become more finalized? Does the grief period end once the fingers are removed and sacrificed to satisfy spirits?

  2. Austin Piccolo

    I always find it interesting to learn about different aspects of cultures. I think that when you learn about others, you learn about your own culture and comforts. In learning about this cultural practice, I found that the idea of cutting off the end of a finger on purpose makes me uncomfortable. I think that my aversion is initially the pain that the cutting and cauterization would cause and the long-term effects of the amputation. I would imagine that those that have lost several people would have difficulties in completed daily activates. I wonder if the permanent mutilation acts as a reminder of the loss and aids in the grieving process.

    Even though I do not understand the practice, I think that the banning of it is wrong. A person’s culture and beliefs should not be challenged in this way. This practice held religious value and helped in the grieving process of this tribe and I would be interested in understanding why it was banned in New Guinea. I would also be interested in how the grieving process of the tribe has changed since it was banned.

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