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Funeral Customs the World Over (1960)

by Robert W. Habenstein & William M. Lamers

This book, published as a guide for funeral directors in 1960, consists of nearly 1,000 pages of descriptions of customs and rituals. In short, the etiquette book the living aren't meant to see.

I checked the net for selling prices for this book. It routinely brings as much as $85, but for only $15 one antiquarian bookseller was willing to unload a copy with only one defect, a "slight musty odor."

No matter, cos even a malodorous copy could spare from embarassment an American funeral director unfortunate enough to have a member of a strange culture drop dead in his precinct.

  • Ikongo (Africa): Internment among the Ikongo is called "throwing away the body." The procession that bears the body over the forest road is noisy with much screaming and yelling, and now and then the bearers set the body down so that the spectators may pause to engage in wrestling matches and other games.
  • Gypsy: Some of the women so overcome by the moment are unable to control themselves. "The women sometimes go to such an extent it's pitiful," notes an expert on gypsy affairs. "I've seen them run over and fall on their knees and butt their heads against tombstones, and when they stood up they'd be so dazed they'd walk around in circles and stumble into each other."
  • Jivaro (Eastern Andes): The Jivaro woman wails, sighs, and sobs more or less simultaneously. The wail begins in a high and strong falsetto with diminishing pitch and volume until it ends in a low murmur.
    (Hmm..that's a pretty accurate description of Yma Sumac's singing. And she does sing a number called "Jivaro.")
  • Eskimo: This realization of the inevitability of death does not prevent them from often discussing it in a lighter vein. "The foxes have eaten so-and-so" is a typical jesting remark.
  • Dakota (U.S.): When the announcement was made that [the dying person] had died they broke into loud wailing and bitter complaint, and they tore off their garments and mutilated themselves. A common form of mutilation was to chop a joint from a finger. Men and women both were likely to run knives along their thighs and forearms, or to gash their limbs until blood covered them.
  • Russian: Sokolov quotes a Russian description: "And when the buffoons begin to perform all kind of demoniac games, then they cease from their weeping, and begin to leap and dance, and to clap their hands, and to sing satanic songs; at these same mourning ceremonies there are thieves and rogues."
  • Amish: The number in attendance at a funeral varies according to the age of the dead person. Because the Amish marry early and inter-marry, and have large families that are likely to remain in the neighborhood, most Amish have many relatives living close at hand.
  • Tibetan Buddhist: The commonest method of disposal in Tibet is air burial, Ja-Tor, in which the body is eaten by animals....

    Kawaguchi was aghast to observe that certain Tibet gravediggers after cutting up a body and feeding the ground bones to the dogs did not wash their hands before preparing food or taking tea, "the most they do being to clap their hands, so as to get rid of the coarser fragments. And thus they take a good deal of minced human flesh, bones, or brain, mixed with their tea or flour."

  • Yugoslavian: Death among the South Slavs is first proclaimed by the wailing and moaning of women -- rarely joined by the men. The people seem "ready to shed tears and inclined to go to extremes in their sorrow." From a hundred yards off the death wail was compulsive in its intensity, "a terrible rhythmic chant" that set the mountains re-echoing. For some it is scarcely an expression of personal grief -- hearing others wailing, they inquire the name of the dead man before they join in the lament. The wail is a panting sob, a "convulsion at the diaphragm." It is accompanied by streaming tears that soak their clothes, a clawing of the face, a rhythmic swaying of the body, a fearful frenzy, in which the mourners seem to enter upon a trance as they drum loudly with closed fists upon breast and temple, and dance wildly, leaping a yard or more into the air.
  • Hindu: Those who have come out to honor the dead march around the pyre, but are forbidden to gaze into the flames. They are expected, however, to see to it that the skull bursts in the burning. Hindus believe that at death the soul is trapped in the skull, and must be released. If fire does not split the skull, it is broken by blows from a cudgel.
  • Iranian: Death triggers strong family reaction. Relatives and servants scream, roll on the ground, rip their clothing from throat to waist, pluck out their hair, scratch their faces and chests, smear mud on their faces, and run through the city. The paroxysms of the women are more violent than those of the men.
  • Maori: When the pick-up wagon arrives there, the women are waiting for it. They have decorated themselves with ferns, and are seated on the ground. After prolonged wailing, which is torrid and rather unmelodious, relatives bury the dead.
  • Hungarian: According to venerable religious traditions, certain persons who die under unusual circumstances receive a special type of burial. Thus unchristened children are encased in a pot or box which is borne to the churchyard and buried without religious services in a burial trench. The same trench is also used for the burial of suicides and murderers. When passers-by see such a grave they remove their hats and scatter green leaves upon it. The custom is passing, due in part to the influence of modern education.
  • Lebanese: The ancient practice of employing professional mourners still persists in some areas, and is today defended on the ground that they assist the bereaved in securing emotional release, thus lessening their grief. Blind sheiks from the medieval University of Al Azhar in Cairo, who receive their food and lodging from religious endowments, secure money for their clothing and other necessities by servings as mourners for funerals of the rich.
  • Annang: The women of the family sit around the body bending and stretching its joints to delay rigor mortis.
  • Azande: As part of the cycle of mourning, the Azande organize beer dances sometime after a year has elapsed following a death. The Azande know certain traditional and extremely obscene songs which they consider wholly improper to sing on any but certain occasions. One of these is the feast at which a mound of stones is placed over the grave of a person some years after burial
  • Ba Venda: The body of a married man is bound with a tree fibre in a seated position, with the right side of the head resting upon the clasped hands. If rigor mortis interferes, the joints are cut with an axe.
  • Balian: After being borne to the cemetery on flower-decked bamboo towers and there fed, the princess and her attendants were led to troughs where they were killed by being stabbed, the princess being the last to die. In another type of widow-sacrifice the women, apparently partly hypnotized and drugged with wine sometimes to the point of not even crying out when meeting incandescent heat, jumped into the fire and were burned alive.
  • Australian: Like their English cousins Australians for the most part take a common sense attitude toward death, as in its presense there is no violent outward show of grief, and very little observance of public mourning.

This seems to be the first in our (apparently) continuing Funeral Director Handbooks series. (See also Funeral Tributes II.)

You may also enjoy:
Wagner's visit to the National Funeral History Museum