Written by Alexia Pane
Graphic by Chloe Davison
I have always associated grief with dark clouds, black clothes, and an atmosphere of sadness. I think of a typical, Hollywood, ‘death-of-a-supporting-character’ scene. You know, the scene where everyone gathers sombrely in mournful ambience, all in black, and it starts to rain at the perfect time.
Obviously, it does not always rain at funerals, but for a long time this trope made sense to me. Understanding that it doesn’t resonate with everyone has led me to seek answers to some of life’s enduring questions: when someone passes from Earth in ‘death’, what do we do with their corpse? How do we process their death?
Despite being born and raised in Southeast Asia (where we don’t wear black to funerals, or conveniently carry umbrellas), I have always thought that after death comes the funeral. Bombarded with American television throughout my childhood, the black and solemn is what I pictured whenever I thought of processing grief. If there is one thing American television has taught me, it is how to mourn. Now, being older and having interacted with a wider array of people and experiences in the shrinking world of post-globalisation, I am inspired to question this American narrative of funerals and conveniently-carried umbrellas, and to learn of alternative rituals of death.
Through exploration, I have learned about a wide variety of ceremonial rites, celebrations of life, and traditions of mourning; the ways people from cultures different to my own process death. In some cultures, there are no burials or open caskets, but parties celebrating the achievements of the deceased. In others, people come together after the death of a loved one to share a meal and play games. I learned that when someone dies, we do not always have to experience grief as sadness. We can appreciate and enjoy life through mourning the end of one.
Balinese practice prescribes ritual cremation of the body; it is believed the cremation process will allow the dead person to successfully reach spiritual nirvana. Cultural beliefs prioritise the ascension and peace of the spirit, and celebrate the life that was.
In Toraja, bodies are mummified, preserved, and kept in family homes for several years, until the family can pay for a proper funeral or until they feel it is the right time to bury the body. The Torajan people believe death does not officially end one’s life, and that relationships can continue past physical death as the spirit remains close by to protect loved ones.
Mexican cultural traditions are commonly known to include practices that celebrate life. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one such festivity — where the dead are celebrated with food, parties, and commemorative activities. It is believed mourning and sadness would insult the deceased loved ones.
Throughout my research, I noticed a consistent pattern: death and life are not mutually exclusive — they can each be honoured by the other. Accepting death is difficult. By looking to other cultures and even, sometimes, within our own, it becomes evident that everybody mourns differently — be that through a funeral in the rain, a party the next day, or week-long traditional rituals. Even so, acknowledging those who passed should not stop us from continuing to live. It is important to remember we still have memories or traces of objects to remind us of our deceased loved ones and carry us through life. Like when you go on a holiday in a far-off land, or score an internship in a different city — it is the memory of our loved ones that we are always able to keep close, through distance or death.
When we know a loved one is about to become separated from us through death, most of us begin grieving. The recent loss of my beloved childhood dog, Stella, saw me discard what I had learned of finding joy in death. When she passed, I was once again expecting dark skies, soft rain, black attire, and complete anguish. Unexpectedly, the sun shone on the day we buried her in the ground. The sky was clear, and a beagle appeared running near the burial area. I anticipated another rush of tears and a set of hands fumbling for paper towels. Instead, there was a realisation of peace. I knew I could still be thankful and enjoy small moments in life without Stella being present. Seeing the beagle sniff around playfully reminded me of my companion, and despite the loss of her life, I became aware that I will always be able to hold onto her memory. I thought of the traditions in Bali, Toraja, and Mexico, and how some would perceive this moment: a time to celebrate her start of peace and end of physical presence — but not the end of her existence, or the joy her life brought to mine. Everybody marks the passing of a life differently, but the way we grieve should not let us forget to enjoy the way we live.