The biggest lessons other cultures can teach us about death

It all starts with the fear of death. Perhaps it was inevitable that after my fiancé and I found his father dead after a week I would end up anxiety-ridden, agoraphobic, and then somehow travelling the world visiting seven festivals for the dead. Tale as old as time, right?

I began the journey (to Mexico, Nepal, Sicily, Thailand, Madagascar, Japan and Indonesia) with a burden of misconceptions and the vague notion that my deep terror of death was misplaced. Now, four years later and on the cusp of publishing the book that sprang from it all, here are a few of the biggest lessons I brought home.

# Death lesson 1

Death is normal. Who knew? (Seriously, did anyone know?)

Life has a 100% mortality rate, yet each time it’s presented as if something has gone terribly, terribly awry. In films we watched as kids, death was a punishment for baddies. Then we all grew up to discover we’re bound for a baddies’ ending. Thanks, Disney.

 

The idea that death is a normal, ordinary thing only occurred to me in Nepal during the annual festival of Gai Jatra, during which everyone who’s lost someone that year joins a city-wide procession. After the sudden death of his son, King Pratap Malla (who ruled Nepal from 1641–74) invited everyone who’d been bereaved that year to the palace. The Queen, who had been utterly inconsolable, watched as the palace became crammed with people. Because the biggest lie grief tells us is that we’re alone, and the visual trick of seeing thousands of people who have been through it too still holds today.

My god, I thought, as I stared across the crowd, all bouncing and dancing and singing to let the spirits know it was fine to go on to Heaven, I think death might be…normal?!

# Death lesson 2

We’re afraid because we link death with a loss of power

And sure, it’s true, if you want to get all literal about it: when we die, many believe we go to an afterlife or reincarnate – but as for this life, we’re done. Our projects are finished, our power is gone.

Unless you die in the Highlands of Madagascar, or in Tana Toraja in Indonesia, where the dead are seen as the intermediary between people and God. You want good grades, health, a windfall? You pray to your ancestors.

Where death is associated with a gain in power, suddenly not only are the dead remembered with fondness, their actual corpses are invited to the party. In Madagascar they’re exhumed and wrapped in a fresh shroud. In Tana Toraja, they’re exhumed, dressed in smart new clothes, held in poses for photos and are brought onto FaceTime calls with family who couldn’t make it.

death festival in Madagascar

# Death lesson 3

You can have a continuing relationship with a dead person

Death festival in Madagascar

They say “grief is love with nowhere to go”, and we nod along sadly, as if all over the world there aren’t rituals and festivals and events with the clear purpose of giving the love somewhere to go.

 

In Mexico, they welcome the souls of the dead by setting out their favourite food and drink. In China (and Thailand, where I celebrated with my extended family), they picnic in the cemeteries and burn paper money, a kind of divine postal system of sending gifts to the dead.

 

And in Tana Toraja, I watched a woman sit by her long-dead grandmother and take in the dramatic mountain view. She then turned, spotted some dust in her hair, and brushed it away.

No one told me how ridiculous it would seem that this could ever be called ‘morbid’, ‘ghoulish’ or ‘macabre’. No one told me how visible the love would be.

# Death lesson 4

The policy of silence does nothing but harm

Ok, I’ll acknowledge the short-term benefit of not talking about death until we absolutely have to: for that moment, we don’t have to feel a twinge at thinking about something we’ve been told is fearsome. We can kick the can down the road. And who doesn’t love those few moments before someone forces you to pick up the can? Ooh, those can-free moments are like a carnival cruise.

How shrewd of our repressed society to teach that there’s something distasteful, even shameful, about bringing up something people would rather not discuss anyway. Talking about money is vulgar, tacky, gauche. Talking about sex is uncomfortable, rude, a bit much. And talking about death is, apparently, ‘morbid’ – alright, if a guy is licking his lips while talking about the intricate details of bloating and decay, I’ll agree that’s a bit morbid, and no way to conduct yourself on a first date – but it shouldn’t be gasp-inducing to discuss the inescapable fact of your own death, or your wishes for what happens afterwards.

Dealing with death denial

But death denial isn’t just silly; it’s violence. Shouting down our parents and grandparents when they mention they won’t be here one day may seem like a way to say, “I love you and I want you here”, but the knock-on effect of the policy of silence is heartbreaking: people with terminal illnesses in Britain often find themselves deserted by friends and family who “don’t know what to say”, or “want to remember them as they were”. While writing This Party’s Dead I had the opportunity to chat to Laura Green, a lecturer in palliative care at the University of Manchester, who told me when people are dying they are “almost treated as though they’re dead bodies, even though biologically things are carrying on”. They die social deaths before their physical deaths, simply because we don’t have the emotional equipment to face it.

Final thoughts

The western way of grieving

If my brief were to defend our way of death over what I’ve seen at the festivals, I’ve got nothing. Because in places that hold celebrations for the dead, people remain part of the community long after their physical deaths. The love that sustained them in life is still there, bringing them meals, buying them clothes, brushing the dust out of their hair.

Talking and planning for death

Talking about death isn’t easy. So we put the conversation off, and off, and off again, always taking the short-term avoidance, the chance to pretend it’s something that happens to someone else, and never to us.

If there’s one lesson other cultures can teach about death, it’s to embrace it. It will happen to the best (and indeed, worst) of us. And talking and planning for what should happen when we’re no longer here can help us lead a fuller life.