Throughout humanity’s existence, we’ve looked for ways to cheat death, and some cultures found some unusual and creative workarounds. In this article, we’ll look at nine of the most unique funeral customs throughout history and how people have been preparing their deceased for their final journey to the afterlife. 

Warning: Some images may upset sensitive readers. Please proceed with caution.

The World’s Oldest Mummies — Chinchorro Society (Chile)

The Chinchorro people were a group of hunter-gatherers who lived at and on the coast of the northernmost corner of Chile and artificially mummified their dead between approximately 5,450 to 890 BCE. Unlike the Egyptians, the Chinchorro mummified all members of their society. It is believed that the practice was inspired by the dry climate of the Atacama desert, where they lived.

As time progressed, they developed new techniques like stripping the flesh from the bones, removing the organs, and dismembering the body. Next, the body was ‘put together’ and ‘filled up’ again with natural materials like grass, clay, and the like. Next, the limbs were strengthened with sticks. The skin was also reattached, and they fastened an elaborate wig to the head. Finally, the body was wrapped in reed mats and covered with a clay paste.

Although the Chinchorro society did not leave behind any structures or pottery to help us understand their culture, their most significant contribution was the way they revered and treated their dead.

An image of a mummy with a bright blue mask covering the face. The internal organs are exposed.
Artificial Mummification of the Chinchorro Culture, UNESCO World Heritage Convention

DIY Mummification — Buddhist Monks (Japan)

The now-outlawed practice of Sokushinbutsu, or ‘Buddha in the flesh,’ is a years-long, grueling practice. Over six years, a monk will slowly shed as much body fat and muscle as possible. A special (toxic) tea made from the sap of the urushi tree is also consumed to aid in dehydration. In addition, the tea’s toxins build up in the body, making it impossible for flesh-eating bacteria to attack the body after death which aids in the mummification process.

When the starved and emaciated monk feels that his death is near, he will climb into his tiny tomb to sit in the lotus position and meditate. He’s sealed in the tomb with a thin bamboo reed for air and water. He also has a small bell rung daily to show he’s still alive. When the bell stops ringing, it is assumed the monk has died, and the tomb is completely sealed.

A thousand days will pass before the tomb is opened to remove the body and check if the mummification was successful. If successful, the monk is placed in a temple and revered as a Sokushinbutsu.

A photograph of a mummified Japanese monk. The mummy is in a sitting position inside a glass cabinet. It is wearing a bright red robe.
Sokushinbutsu, or ‘Buddha in the flesh, circa 1683, Onuki Sokushinbutsu Preservation Society Photo courtesy of Asakawa Printing Co., Ltd.

Hanging Coffins — Bo People (China)

The Bo People, a now-extinct tribe, were wiped out by the Ming Dynasty in the 1600s in China. The Bo did not leave any documentary or language evidence behind. But they left their hanging coffins on steep cliff sides.

The hanging coffins are primarily found in Luobiao, Sichuan, China. The coffins were carved from a single tree and suspended from sheer cliffs. Families dressed the bodies in several layers of clothing adorned with personal ornaments. It remains a mystery how the Bo managed to suspend the nearly 500-pound coffins with only workforce and ropes — no modern climbing equipment. According to researchers, the Bo people believed that their ancestors’ spirits resided in heaven and that being suspended high up helped the soul in reaching heaven after death.

A photograph of three large wooden coffins attached to the side of a cliff.
Hanging coffins on cliffs, Sichuan province, China

Canoe Burial, Sending the Soul on Its Journey — Mapuche Society (Argentina, Chile)

She is known as Individual 3 at the Newen Antug site in Patagonia. The young woman, between 17 and 25, was placed in a wampo, or small canoe, and sent on her metaphorical journey to reach the afterlife. The canoe itself was made from a single Chilean cedar tree trunk hollowed with fire. Individual 3 was part of the historical Mapuche society, which believed the deceased must reach the land of the dead by crossing the sea in a canoe.

Her burial is unique because it is the first archeological evidence of the practice before the Spanish conquered South America. Usually, this type of burial was reserved for men, making this specific burial even more exceptional. This discovery is also prized for the level of preservation it shows, because wood typically decays in the humid conditions of river systems as opposed to the drier climate of Patagonia.

An illustration of a body placed inside a canoe, multiple angles are portrayed. A chart of radiocarbon dating of the body is also shown.
The young woman was buried more than 800 years ago in a wampo, or ceremonial canoe, that researchers think symbolized a boat journey to the land of the dead., Pérez et al., 2022, PLOS ONE

Bog Burials: Sacrifices to the Gods? — Northern Europe

Bogs, also known as cold-weather swamps in northern Europe, are the perfect place to preserve bodies due to their lack of oxygen and rich tannin content. Iron Age people did not think of bogs as scary places and maybe even revered them as a transition between the nether world and our living world.

Modern research points out that although many of the bog bodies found have met violent deaths, these persons perhaps willingly made the sacrifice. One of the most famous examples is the Tollund Man, who was hanged and placed naked in the bog.

We don’t know why these people were buried in bogs instead of being cremated or buried in the ground. Either way, bog bodies offer a fascinating burial practice that continued through the Middle Ages and early modern era, telling stories of loss, sacrifice, murder, and religious beliefs.

A photograph of a mummified man in the fetal position. The body has a hat on it's head and is dark brown in color.
Tollund Man, uncovered in 1950, was hanged with a leather cord and cast into a Danish bog, is housed at Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum

Endocannibalism: Eating and Honoring The Dead — Amazon Tribes (Brazil)

Several tribes in the Amazon practice endocannibalism — eating their dead.

The Wari tribe treat their dead in a process that can be likened to winemaking:

  1. The body is placed on racks to encourage decomposition.
  2. Once the body reaches a particular stage of ‘juiciness,’ it is trimmed at the shoulders.
  3. The trimmed body is fermented in a giant container.
  4. The solids are buried, and the fermented liquid is consumed.

The Yanomami tribe, known for their violent lifestyles and aggressive behavior, follows an entirely different process. After death the body is left to decompose. Then the bones are cremated and mixed into a soup made from fermented bananas. Finally, all the villagers consume the soup to help the deceased’s spirit cross into the afterlife.

The Tupinambá people allegedly ate their prisoners of war, although modern scholars have disputed this claim. Their religion and social culture centered on warfare. However, normal social relations within the same group was marked by cooperation and gentleness.

An sketch of a group of people sitting in a circle and consuming various human body parts.
Brazil: Tupinamba Indians as cannibals enjoying a feast. Etching by T. de Bry., Wellcome Collection

Towers of Silence, the Zoroastrian ‘Clean’ Burial — Zoroastrians (Iran)

The Zoroastrians believe that the four elements, fire, water, earth, and air, are sacred and should not be contaminated under any circumstances. Thus, burying a body in the ground would pollute the planet. Their answer to this problem is the Tower of Silence, or dakhma.

Bodies, stripped of all clothing, are placed on one of three rings — men on the outer, women on the middle, and children on the innermost ring. Scavenger birds eat the flesh, and the bones are left exposed to the elements to dry out. The bones fall in a central pit (astodaan), and then treated with lime to help break down the bones.

A technical sketch showing the cylindrical shape of a tower of silence, in both top-down and sideways views.
Layout and cross-section of a dakhma (a tower of silence), The Guardian

Suttee, A Wife’s Tribute Through Self-Immolation — India

Suttee or Sati, meaning ‘good woman’ or ‘chaste wife,’ is an Indian custom where a wife would set herself on fire on her dead husband’s funeral pyre or some other way shortly after his death. This act was seen as the ultimate form of devotion to her husband but was never widely practiced. Sometimes wives would commit voluntarily. Other times they were drugged with bhang or opium. The practice was banned under British colonial rule, and those who forced a widow into suttee were charged with culpable homicide.

A drawing of a funeral pyre, a woman is sitting inside the fire, the pyre is surrounded by numerous men.
A Hindu princess committing sati, Wikimedia Commons

Saving Up for Funerals — Tana Toraja (Indonesia)

In Tana Toraja in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, the dead are treated as to macula, or ‘sick,’ and kept in the home until the family can afford a lavish funeral ceremony — sometimes years later.

The Torajan culture believes a person’s funeral is the most critical day in their life. Saving up for a funeral can put a family in crippling debt for several generations. The final funeral can last up to a week and is attended by thousands of people. In addition, hundreds of livestock are slaughtered to feed them.

A photograph of the remains of an elderly woman inside a coffin. The body is wearing elaborate clothing and jewelry.
Grandchildren of Alfrida Lantong, who died in 2012, visit her in her coffin at the family’s home near Rantepao, a town in the Sulawesi region of Indonesia, Tommy Trenchard and Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville