In our Sunday pages, reporter Jung-yoon Choi explores the Korean market for “death beads,” which are made of human ashes and look a little like beluga caviar. To delve deeper into death around the world, we turned to Caitlin Doughty, a Los Angeles funeral director who hosts the surprisingly cheery Web series “Ask a Mortician.”
What are some unusual ways that people handle remains around the world?
The Wari tribe of Brazil used to wail over the corpse until it began to decompose, at which point they cut it up and consumed part of it, with the idea that the dead contribute to their own strength.
At the Bone House in Hallstatt, Austria, the lack of space in the graveyard led them to dig up the skulls, paint them with flowery designs and the person’s name, and stack them on display. The last skull was placed in 1995.
In Madagascar, people dig up their dead relatives for a ceremony called famadihana. They dance with the bones and then bury the remains in a new shroud.
In Bali, when prominent people die, they construct elaborate, several-stories-tall bull [sarcophagi] that they are publicly cremated in.
Do people see death differently in other parts of the world? How — and how does that change the way they respond to death?
Some cultures are terrified of corpses being dangerous and filled with bad spirits, so only designated “unclean” people handle them. Other cultures see the corpse as something to be intimately interacted with and practice something called secondary burial, where the corpse is cleaned and prepared by the family over a manner of months as it decomposes.
Americans fall somewhere in the middle. There is almost an apathy about it. We don’t think the corpse is going to attack us with bad spirits, but at the same time we don’t want anything to do with it if we can pay a professional to handle it instead.
How else would you characterize the American way of dealing with death?
American death is a cycle of denial and fear. If you’re not exposed to the realities of death and dead bodies, death becomes something not entirely real to you. Of course, we naturally fear what we don’t understand and what’s hidden from us. But the more we fear it, the less likely we are to face it head on. So the cycle just keeps going until someone we love dies and we’re entirely unprepared.
Have you run into any surprising or uncommon requests here in Los Angeles?
We’re pretty tame here in Los Angeles. Sometimes I’m surprised by a request for locks of hair or the return of mother’s titanium hip replacements. But for the most part, there aren’t a lot of families pushing the envelope, mostly because they aren’t really aware there is an envelope to be pushed.
– Emily Alpert