Category Archives: ritual

Reincarnation in Hinduism

The Western definition of death is known as “the irreversible cessation of all vital functions especially as indicated by permanent stoppage of the heart, respiration, and brain activity”. Although this is true to define the end of someone’s life, there are many who believe that there is more to life even after death. Those who worship Hinduism believe that death does not necessarily mean the end. They follow the idea of reincarnation which means that the soul is indestructible and repeatedly takes on a physical body until moksha. Moksha is a term in Hinduism which refers to the various forms of liberation or release which occurs when the cycle of dying and rebirth ends. It is the central concept in Hindu tradition and included as one of the four main goals in human life. These goals include dharma (virtuous, proper, moral life), artha (material prosperity, income security, and means of life), and kama (pleasure, emotional fulfillment). The four together are called Purusartha.

Since reincarnation is essentially another chance of life, there are some important things to keep in mind. Good intentions and actions lead to a good future while bad intentions and actions create the opposite outcome. This plays an important role in how one is reincarnated. There is no heaven or hell in Hinduism but more of a release from the cycles which brings freedom to the individual.  The death of a family member is seen more as a celebration rather than a time of mourning. Hindus are cremated due to the fact that burning the body releases the spirit from the person. 


  1. “Reincarnation.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  2. “A Memory – a lifetime of memories.” Customs and Protocols on Death, Dying and Funerals. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
  3. “Moksha.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Jan. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Tibetan Sky Burials

Sky burials (or celestial burials, as they are also called) are the burial rites of choice for the Tibetans. After a member of the community has died, the body is cut into pieces by a Burial Master, and then taken to a selected site, usually in an area of high elevation. This is because the corpse is then supposed to be eaten by vultures, who tend to congregate at higher altitudes. After the vultures have consumed the body, the belief is that they take the body away to heavens where the soul of the deceased person remains until they are ready for their next reincarnation. This practice is believed to have been practiced for as many as 11,000 years, but there is little written evidence, or physical evidence, due to the fact that the remains are ingested by the vultures or other animals.

For Tibetans, the sky burial serves both practical and spiritual functions. Often, the ground is frozen, making it difficult to dig graves, making sky burials an appealing alterative. Also, some of the central values in Tibetan culture revolve around being humble, generous, and honoring of nature; sky burials allow the physical bodies of Tibetans to be returned to the earth in a way that generously provides a meal for the vultures and very minimally disturbs the earth. Because of their belief in reincarnation, death is seen as more of a transition as opposed to an ending. They believe the soul moves on from the body at the very instant of death, leaving very little room for attachment to the physical body after death. In fact, in order for the soul of the person to have an easy transition into their next life, the Tibetans believe there should be no trace left of the physical body after death, providing another advantage of this practice.

Sohma, Marina. “Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead.” Ancient Origins. N.p., 15 Nov. 2016. Web.


Seppuku – Honorable Suicide

A staged version of the Japanese ritual suicide known as Seppuku or Hara-Kiri, circa 1885. The warrior in white plunges a knife into his belly, while his second stands behind him, ready to perform the decapitation. (Photo by Sean Sexton/Getty Images)

As an anime fan, one thing that I have grown to love and appreciate is the diversity and uniqueness of both modern and traditional Japanese culture. One practice that does stand out to me is the practice of the honorable death known as Seppuku.  Seppuku, death by self-disembowelment, became a ritualized and institutionalized form of suicide among the Samurai in Feudal Japan; and it was seen has a form of honor and courage reserved for the Samurai, the traditional Japanese military. I was interested in learning a little bit more about this practice especially with our recent class discussions of what constitutes a “good” death or a “bad” death.

The deaths of Minamoto Yorimasa, a poet, and Minamoto Tametono, a samurai, describes the earliest known acts of Seppuku. Seppuku, which describes a process of slicing the stomach open, was considered the most courageous, straightforward and bravest way to die because the stomach was considered to be where the human spirit resided. In these practices, witnesses would sit discreetly to the side while the samurai, dressed in white, would kneel on large white cushion. The Samurai would then inflict the fatal injury to his stomach and his Kaishakuin, second in command or assistant, would make sure the Samurai did not experience prolonged suffering and ensured a honorable death.

Seppuku’s adoration and inspiration in Japanese culture has remained even today and can be seen depicted in movies, plays, novels, anime and more. During WWII, in the Pacific Islands, American soldiers witness Japanese militia committing this ritual right before their very eyes. After losing the war, some men and women performed the ritual in order to serve as an apology to the Emperor of Japan.  But for people who are not Japanese the practice has been held with horrid fascination.I think this is because each individual has their own qualms about the topic of death and even more so suicide. So for me, it is interesting to see how understanding death is highly influenced by the culture, the society and the time and how they all play a major role in determining what constitutes a “good” or “bad” death.


Fusé, Toyomasa. “Suicide and culture in Japan: A study of seppuku as an institutionalized form of suicide.” Social Psychiatry 15.2 (1980): 57-63.



Pet Funerals

Pets can easily become part of your family at home. When they die, it can hit us a much as a person’s death would. For a young child, the death of a fish might be detrimental to them because it is the first experience of death. However, rituals to help the child cope with the death of a fish are not as extensive as a person’s death. They usually just involve flushing the fish down the toilet while saying a few words about how meaningful the fish’s life was. But as the involvement and length of the life of the pet increases, such as with a cat or dog, the death rituals also increase. The death of a cat or dog also comes at a later age. I found this chart in an article about how to talk to your child about the death of a fish.Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 8.31.55 PM


It shows us that a child is able to better grasp the idea of death as they grow older. With the better grasp comes more elaborate rituals for some. You often have the option to cremate your pet and keep their ashes in an urn. My cousins have a shelf in their living room called the “dead pet shelf”. This isn’t uncommon in households where pets are considered part of the family, but anything more than this, such as a funeral, is unusual. Even though they are unusual, pet funerals do happen. Not far from Emory, the Shugart Family owns Deceased Pet Care, which offers burial and funeral services for pets, including horses. Because these deaths mean so much to some people, they are willing to pay and involve others in the funerals for their pets. They buy caskets and bury their furry friend in a garden. How far are you willing to go for your pet and where would you draw the line?

Comfort in Contact, Solace in Sharing

In New York City, a photographer named Brandon has made a career of photographing people in the streets, recording their story, and posting them together on Facebook. Started in 2010, his Humans of New York Facebook page has since accumulated over 15 million followers and garnered international fame. His candid photographs and either concise or multi-part stories reveal intimate stories to the public, connect individuals all over the world, and create a beautiful network of strangers related only by a common humanity.

Stories portray a range of human experiences- the joys of falling in love, the losses of family members during wars and genocides, the violence in poor neighborhoods, and moments of personal struggle, defeat and successes that will trigger tears in crowded coffeeshops, laughter in silent libraries, and long reflection during the busiest of days. Among the most poignant of stories are the ones revolving around death and dying. One recent post depicts a woman whose spirited smile defies her 86 years of age.

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Although the photographer emphasizes that the fear of death seems to be a human universal, she denies sharing this feeling. Her matter of fact assertion that she does not fear death is attributed to her longing for her husband. Does this woman believe death will reconnect them in the afterlife? Or does the sheer pain of life without him cause her to forsake life itself? Regardless of her reasoning, the yearning for her husband is powerful enough to neutralize a fear so intense it is referred to as “a natural condition of living”,  and readers are left with heart wrenching empathy for this woman’s literally undying love and loss of her husband.

Other stories touch on the spiritual.

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A young woman describes the close relationship she had with her grandfather- a man who deeply valued education. He suffered a major stroke and remained on life support, while his granddaughter went on to college. Her descriptions of the college graduation at his bedside preceeded his death later that night. Whether an eerie coincidence or a divine sign, the news of his granddaughter’s academic successes seemed to provide him with a sense of completion and finality- allowing him to pass from this life to whatever lay ahead.

Stories like these go on for pages. While their faces represent the full range of physical diversity, their words are identical in candor and intimacy. Why are these people so willing to share such tragic, uplifting, and intensely personal moments of their lives with millions of strangers? Is there something inherently palliative about confiding in others? Perhaps the social dialogue revolving around death is a way for us to cope with the dread it invokes. By addressing death, we lessen its power. The thoughts and narratives on platforms like Humans of New York provide vital outlets for survivors to share the burdens of tragedy. By sharing their stories and forming connections, people around the globe are healing from the wounds of mortality.




The Island Crematorium

One of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had regarding death was on a tour of The Island Crematorium in Cork, Ireland. I’d never been inside a crematorium, or funeral home for that matter, and I was very taken aback by how the layout and architecture of the crematorium impacted one’s thoughts as well as emotions. As one of the directors led us around, I found that the atmosphere was very peaceful and seemed to be separated from the outside world; perhaps this was due to the high walls and tunnels or that it is on an island. The director took us into the different sections and rooms of the crematorium and explained what occurred or happened during funerals. He discussed how a ceremony would typical run and even showed us what the audience would see when the body would be taken back to be cremated at the end of the ceremony. The casket laid in a little cut out section of the wall in the front of the room and painted glass doors book-ended each side. Once the ceremony ended, the doors closed together, hiding the casket. To see this acted out, it was very surreal and also I felt like the closing of the doors could act as a type of closure for the friends and family of the deceased. The director took us then to a room with all the urns people could choose from. It was interesting to see the variety in the different kinds of urns. They ranged from small boxes, to vase-like urns or decorative jars and there was even one that was inside of a teddy bear. This tour made me think about how important it is for us, as humans, to deal with death through ritual and made me reflect on how I think about death.

Here is a link to the site of The Island Crematorium.  It has a really nice virtual tour of The Island Crematorium and I definitely recommend using it!

Mortuary Rituals and Archaeoastronomy

This summer, I had the pleasure of traveling to Ireland with my family and visiting the World Heritage Site, Brú na Bóinne. The most well-known tomb at the site it Newgrange and dates back 3200 B.C. Newgrange is a massive stone structure, weighing over 2,000 tons, and has a single passageway at the end of which human remains were placed. Every year on the winter solstice, light shines through the opening of the tomb, all the way down the passage to where the bodies rested. Although it is impossible to know the exact significance of the burial site, many archeologist suspect the culture regarded the ceremony as a way to guide the bodies into the next life. Some archeologists interpret the hieroglyphics carved into the surrounding stones to indicate the culture considered the sun to be a god, as was common in many agricultural societies who depended on the seasons for food. Because the tomb could not hold many bodies, it is suspected that only people of significance took part in the burial ceremony.

Front Newgrange

Front Newgrange by Dave Keeshan, CC4.0

Brú na Bóinne is just one example of the many prehistoric burial sites that incorporated the sun and astronomical phenomena into its construction. Perhaps the most famous example is Stonehenge, found just outside Salisbury, England. Also estimated to have been built approximately 3000 B.C., two of the stones of Stonehenge align with the sun on the summer equinox while there is a different alignment of the sun and stones on the winter equinox.


Stonehenge by Hamad Aziz, CC3.0

Brú na Bóinne and Stonehenge are just two examples of archaeoastronomical sites; such sites were built on every continent except Antarctica. Although it is impossible to determine ritualistic meaning of these prehistoric sites, it is fascinating that such a diverse range of cultures incorporated similar concepts into their burial rituals. As mentioned previously, many agricultural societies considered the sun a deity and therefore solstices and equinoxes would have been major events which these monuments incorporated into mortuary rituals.


Save the Planet, Kill Yourself

Over the past few weeks I’ve been really into researching religious zealots and cults (brought on by this Netflix documentary called Jesus Camp –10/10 would recommend) and I just read an article about one group in particular that shocked me a little more than all the rest. The Church of Euthanasia was founded in the mid-1990s by an ex-DJ named Chris Korda, who says the church’s guiding principle is “Thou shalt not procreate.” Apparently, Korda and her followers (of which there were more than I had hoped) were so worried about climate change and overpopulation that they decided to start a movement based solely on encouraging people to die.

A Church of Euthanasia protest for abortion

“Fetuses AREN’T People. They aren’t even CHICKENS. Who Cares?”


The Church of Euthanasia gained traction by protesting at major political events, including the 1992 Democratic National Convention, where they popularized their slogan, “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself.” This fits in nicely with the four pillars of their religion, which are as follows: “Suicide (optional but encouraged), abortion (may be required to avoid procreation), cannibalism (mandatory if you insist on eating flesh, but only if someone is already dead), and sodomy (optional, but strongly encouraged).” It seems as though the CoE was trying to get rid of the Earth’s population through every way possible, except outright homicide. Side note: I’m a little unsure of where cannibalism fits into the whole philosophy, but I guess that by consuming dead bodies you’re freeing up space for other activities???

The part that really shocked me was the hotline the Church attempted to set up, which would have provided round the clock instructions for people looking to commit suicide. It’s kind of a cruel twist of fate, because suicide hotlines are normally resources used to prevent suicide, not to encourage it. I really couldn’t believe that people’s lives meant so little to the members of this group that they were willing to encourage this sort of behavior for the sake of an imperceptible amount of extra breathing room on the planet.

I was expecting a disclaimer at the end of the article, something along the lines of, “Korda, along with her most loyal followers, committed suicide in 1995..,” but there was none. The founder of the Church of Euthanasia, who had no problem telling everyone else it was their duty to die, is still living today. Whether that means she felt she needed to be here to keep up the mission, or if the whole thing was just some elaborate hoax, I don’t know.

Link to article:

This article is part of a Vice News column called “Post Mortem” and there are some really great pieces on there as well!




Acknowledging Death with a Cup of Tea

Discussing death in the United Kingdom was previously considered a taboo topic, despite its inevitability for everyone. Death has always been and will be, an event in which one finds themselves experiencing first hand and/or through friends and family, yet discussing it openly is not socially ‘correct’. This attitude of not addressing the topic both before and after it has occurred is slowly shifting as discussed in the article ‘Anyone for Tea and Sympathy? Death Cafes Embrace Last Taboo’ by Harriet Sherwood. Originating in London, death cafes have begun appearing in various countries to provide a safe space in which one can discuss anything relating to death (pre or post). These cafes are an innovative and well intentioned idea in my opinion as they bring about a topic that most people do not feel comfortable talking to with other people or feel wrong for even bringing up in fear being the harbinger of dark subjects. The ability to be in a safe space to talk to complete strangers (or friends) allows people to explore topics they may not have even thought about, such as after death procedures and preferences.  Death cafes are able to bring light and perhaps more lighthearted talk, on morbid issues and help to reduce the stigma and fear that permeates the process of dying. Unlike a wake and more like an AA meeting, people are able to participate at their own leisure and structure their meetups like an open forum.

In addition to death cafes, the topic of death is also being embraced through conventions such as the Ideal Death Show and websites like Final Fling. The convention weekend of ‘celebration’ for death is designed with the intention of allowing people to explore after death options such as customized urns/coffins, types of bereavement, discussion panels and other ways in which to handle death in a healing fashion rather than a silenced mourning. Websites like Final Fling are designed to allow people to set up basic procedures surrounding death and helping with their end-of-life planning. Conventions, end-of-life websites, and death cafes are meant to embrace the losses people may have experienced through death by acknowledging it as well as providing persons with company who share a similar loss. They all three also serve to reclaim one’s individual preferences and conceptions from the professionals who have inadvertently (or intentionally) designed the hushed, coveted treatments of the dead.

It is unclear where this growing acknowledgment of death in everyday lives and public spheres arose but there are a few theories presented in the article. Some believe it derives from the baby boomer generation currently aging and beginning to face their large mortality rate. Others claim the openness is required due to the reduction of religious guidance (influences from the church) and beliefs of afterlife. Another theory is that is has become more socially acceptable to be ‘vulnerable’ in public versus stoic. I agree more with the last theory however, that people are rejecting the “power dynamics of death and dying” and seeking to have more self-determination in societies where we have cleanly organized and dictated how death should be confined and treated. Humans are curious by nature and the idea to challenge common conventions and discuss taboo topics such as death in a previously thought of “happy space” appeals to them.

The article ends with the thoughts that discussing death is not the same as wishing for it- a notion that previously preoccupied minds and is actively being altered through specific measures in order to reduce its taboo status. Additionally, that by addressing death openly, humans are accepting its inevitability, which I think is a step in the right direction in order for healing to take place as well as for people to become more comfortable with end-of-life decisions that are extremely difficult for the survivors to handle without guidance.

Article available here:


“I Had To Eat a Piece of My Friend to Survive”

On October 13th, 1972, the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed into the Andes mountain range in South America. There was a total of 45 passengers on the flight, and only 27 passengers survived the initial crash. Rescue parties searched extensively and after 10 days, the passengers were presumed dead and the search ceased.

Survivors desperately began to search for resources. These efforts soon became fruitless, as they continued to search on the snow covered mountain that lacked any natural vegetation or livestock. Under harsh weather conditions, the survivors were soon faced with a difficult and unforgiving choice. As a group, they made the collective decision to eat the flesh of their dead friends. Nando Parrado, one of the survivors states, “again and again I came to the same conclusion: unless we wanted to eat the clothes we were wearing, there was nothing here but aluminum, plastic, ice, and rock” (Miracle In the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home). 

"Survivors: Passengers shelter near the tail of the Uruguayan plane which hit a mountain shrouded in mist as it flew from Santiago to Montevideo."

“Survivors: Passengers shelter near the tail of the Uruguayan plane which hit a mountain shrouded in mist as it flew from Santiago to Montevideo.”

What I found interesting was that the surviving passengers were all Roman Catholics, and initially, they were against the act of cannibalism,  but soon realized it was their only means of survival. They began to justify their actions with bible verses and compared the act of eating their dead friends to the rituals present in the Holy Communion. By using religious context to condone their behavior, it decreased their levels of guilt and humiliation. Many argued that the pain experienced by their loved ones would be more severe than the act of dying itself.

One of the survivors of the crash was a second year medical student, Roberto Canessa, who had successfully managed to objectify the deceased loved ones into sources of protein and fat. My question is, at what point do your friends and colleagues transform into simple cadavers, despite extreme conditions? Every individual has the right to be buried with dignity and in accordance with their personal beliefs, because even in death, they still maintain their identity as a human being.