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Death and the afterlife

Burial or cremation - these are usually the only two choices offered to a person in the UK. But if you died in the Himalayas you could expect to be disposed of by hungry griffon vultures and in Madagascar your bones would be disinterred every year for washing. Every culture has a different idea of what happens to you after death, and how you should be remembered.


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Photo: The cremation of a body at Pashupatinath, Nepal (1999)

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About Death and the afterlife

Death is the only constant in life. But our attitudes to it - and how we deal with its effects - vary from place to place.

For the Babongo of Tanzania, when someone dies, families are inconsolable and grieving is a whole community affair. The Babongo believe that the spirit of a dead person will linger in the village it died in and cause harm, so the whole village must be cleansed. Women also wash and wrap the body before the men carry it to the forest for burial. This done, the women paint then their faces white for purification and stay up into the night, drumming, dancing and singing.

The Babongo may have forests to bury their dead, but where do you bury your dead if you live on the sea, in the arctic snow, or high up in the mountains? What do you do with a body if there is no earth around in which to bury it or the temperature makes decomposition impossible?

Few people have a deeper connection with the sea than the Bajau Laut of South-East Asia. Sometimes known as “sea gypsies”, they live in house boats or stilt houses built on top of coral reefs. And yet, even these masters of the waves don’t have graveyards in the water, preferring to bury their dead on a special island instead.

Buddhists usually cremate their dead rather than bury them, but high in the Himalayas there is no wood for the Dho Tarap community to use as fuel. So, for more than a thousand years, they have relied on griffon vultures to help them dispose of their dead. What’s more, the Buddhist families see this Sky Burial as a sacred act, an offering that, in death, will sustain the life of another animal.

In some places the dead are just as important as the living. In Madagascar, for instance, the bones of ancestors are exhumed each year, washed by relatives, and revered. It’s an occasion for laughter and celebration and ensures that dead ancestors play an important role in the life of the living.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a time to celebrate and to remember relatives as they were when they were alive. Revellers throw parties in graveyards to welcome back the spirits of the dead and huge parades snake through the city, with people dressed in all sorts of morbid costumes. One of the most common is of a rich old lady called Katrina, reminding people that even money can’t stave off death.

But even if it can’t stave off death, perhaps money can buy back life. Instead of placing their faith in religion, some people in the USA are placing their faith in science and opting to be cryogenically frozen. Just because scientists can’t bring the dead back to life just yet, they reason, that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to in the future. Will this be then the death of death?

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