Death be not Proud

Euripides said, "No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow". Death unfortunately is a part of life and is faced in true democratic fashion, by all.

Diverse cultures across the world and throughout time, have struggled with the loss of loved ones and the desire to bring meaning and significance to death, an event which often feels cruel; bringing a well of anguish, wretchedness and desolation.

The Ancient Greeks

By the sixth century B.C.E, the Ancient Greeks had well established beliefs and rituals related to death and the afterlife. The Odyssey, which is attributed to Homer, describes the underworld as being below the earth. It was a sphere where Hades, Poseidon, and his wife, Persephone, reigned supreme.

Gustave Doré, 1861.Credit: Wikipedia

Gustave Doré, 1861.

Ancient sources tell us, that the Greeks saw proper burial rituals, as being an absolute necessity. Theses rites, or rituals took place in 3 parts. First the laying out of the body (prothesis ); next the funeral procession (ekphora) and last, the placement of the body in an earth mound or tomb; or perhaps cremation of the remains. Ceremonies usually took place before dawn and just like today, extravagant marble statues were often placed to mark the grave.

It was important that the dead were not forgotten and kept alive in the memories of the living. Paintings from ancient Greece show women especially, visiting graves with cakes and libations  (ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to a god, or spirit, or in memory of those who have died).

The Aztec people

The ancient Aztec people viewed death somewhat differently. Diego Duran, a 16th-century priest, who made a study of the Aztec's noted, that the dead could be buried in many different places, like under houses, in the fields, or shrines made in woodland areas. The dead would be dressed in their finest clothing, with pottery bowls placed around them.

Book 3 of the Florentine Codex, a copy of original source materials about Aztec culture, detailed how those who died of old age or illness, would go to the netherworld of Mictlan, where the skeletal god of death Mictlantecuhtli, reigned supreme. To journey to this underworld, the dead would be dressed in paper garments and tied around with cloth. The body would then be cremated, with a dog as a guide to the underworld. This journey was perilous, brimful of awful beasts and other hellish dangers. There was no return.

If you died  by lightning, or drowning however, you could go to the afterworld of Tlalocan, which was a place of abundance and wealth, ruled by Tlaloc, the god of rain and water. Warriors, lords and those who died by sacrifice in honor of the sun-god Tonatiuh, journeyed to another celestial paradise. 

Slate mask of Tlaloc (the rain god)Credit: Wikipedia

Slate mask of Tlaloc (the rain god)

The Aztecs conducted yearly ceremonies for the dead, over a two month period (of 20 days each). The first month was for children and the second for adults. In Mexico today, many of these rituals have been incorporated into the Catholic All Saints' Day.


Oro Province, Papua New Guinea


Mourning WomanCredit: Flickr by eguide travel

The culture of Oro Province, north-east Papua New Guinea, has very complex mourning rituals, which involve the wearing of particular clothing. After a person died their spouse would withdraw from society. During this time of seclusion, the spouse could only be visited by women, who would help with the making of a mourning vest; there would be no contact with other members of the village. A large tapa (bark cloth) would be worn to cover the person if they needed to go out. 

The period of seclusion would end with the burning of old tapas and a feast with other widows, a ceremony called tepurukari. 

Mourning- Victorian Era

Mourning DressCredit: State Library of QLD

During the Victorian period, people mostly died at home and family and friends would gather to view the body for the last time before burial. For the Victorians, death and mourning were a serious business, which involved great expense and elaborate ritual. Mourning periods were highly regulated and adherence to these rules was expected.

Women mostly wore crepe dresses known as "widows weeds" (Old English "Waed" meaning "garment"). Crepe  as a material was uninspiring and plain and was deemed appropriate, as it was regarded as incorrect and unacceptable to wear luxurious or alluring outfits. Women had to consider every assessory such as :shoes, umbrellas, fans and handbags, for suitability.  Men on the other hand, often wore mourning suits and black frock coats, or simply black hat bands and gloves.

Victorian era parents posing with their deceased daughter.(101604)Credit: Wikipedia


The Victorians were also very fond of keeping  mementos of loved ones who had died, these were called Memento mori ('remember death'). Mementos could be such things as: rings or lockets, with a lock of hair from the deceased. Post mortem photography also fell into this category. The dead person would be presented as though they were sleeping, or posing with their siblings or parents.





The mourning tradition of the wake is most well-known in the Irish context, although such a tradition was common throughout other Celtic countries. The wake involved the mourners keeping watch over the deceased, until they were buried, a occasion which would involve both festivity and sadness, to "wake the dead", so to speak. Games and story telling were part of the custom of a wake and have a long history.

In the Iliad by Homer, both Hector and Patrodus have funeral feasts, which include "funeral games". The wake seemed to be a way to celebrate and emphasise the importance of the deceased to a group and to commemorate that significance, while providing a  sendoff into the next life.

Mourning which usually refers to particular rituals, traditions and displays associated with death, encompass diverse practices across time and culture and also seem to be evident in the animal kingdom. Konrad Lorenz, the renown ethologist, related how Sea lion mothers, who had their cubs eaten by killer Wales, would wail in a most pitiful fashion. Jane Goodall related how Flint, a young chimpanzee, after the death of his mother withdrew from the rest of the group, stopped eating and eventually died. Gorillas often hold wakes for the dead and bang their chests and weep.  Jim and Jamie Dutcher the creators of the Emmy-winning Wolves at Our Door, detail how after the death of a female wolf, the pack stopped howling together but "sang alone in a slow mournful cry."

I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God's throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death--
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.

--- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Mozart - Requiem