top of page

Dying rituals around the globe

We are presenting in the iLIVE Project website images from the exhibition 'Worldwide Dying Rituals, presented by the photographer Heleen de Graaf. The iLIVE Project wants to thank the artist for allowing the reproduction in our website. A tour around the world that makes it possible to open a little window to how different cultures face the fact of death and dying.

Exibition: "Worldwide dying rituals"

Heleen de Graaf / Photographer

I turned my passion for photography, people, cultures and traditions into this photo exhibition "Worldwide dying rituals" . For many years I travelled around the world and discovered a wide diversity of cultural rituals and ceremonies related to the dying process. What has deeply impressed me is how we deal with the loss of our loved ones worldwide. The love and sorrow after a person passed away is universal, we just deal with it in different ways. With these photos, we hope to create more understanding and openness about the dying process. And the acknowledgement that dying is part of life.

Ask yourself, what can we in our Western society learn from other dying cultures? For some dying is a comforting thought, for others a frightening one. Expand your view and join me on a journey to discover this!

(The texts are written from my personal viewpoint and may contain information that is not scientifically based and/or consistent with the general view).

National Expertise Center on Dying

Eventually, everyone will have to say goodbye to life, that is a certainty. How you experience this depends on what your view is on dying and death. Approaching death is the ultimate moment to contemplate your life and ask for forgiveness for unfinished business. The soul is prepared to let go of life and the body to be buried. For this, each culture has its own rites and rituals. How we say goodbye is different in each culture and country but there are also many similarities.

As the National Center of Expertise on Dying, we want to contribute with our mission to quality of life and the dying process. We share our knowledge, wisdom and experience and educate volunteers and professionals in terminal healthcare and in the medical world to be better equipped. From our experience we learned that more insight and knowledge reduces anxiety and enhances trust concerning the dying process.

The images

Argentina / South-America

Los Tres Morres

In this desolate landscape, on the edge of the salt lakes of Bolivia (Salinas Grandes) lies a very small village that literally consists of five tiny houses. The solid salt flats look like a snow-covered lake, with some islands where ancient cactuses slowly grow in the devastating sun. This cemetery lies on a hill next to the village. The wall marks the split between the land of the living and the land of the dead.

When a person is dying everybody comes and visits the family. These are intense moments of reuniting with each other. Not only family, but also friends, acquaintances and neighbours visit the dying person to say goodbye and have conversations about the past, memorable moments, the weather, food, football and politics. Al combined with laughter and tears. The last hours of someone's live are spent together.

It is assumed that the soul remains with the body for nine days when the person passes away. Number nine symbolises completeness of the circle of life. During those days a novena (a series of nine prayers) is recited to the deceased. In this way, forgiveness is sought for any misdeeds of the deceased during the past life. Thus, the afterlife can be entered sin-free. During the nine days, family members provide a generous banquet at which everyone may join.

Italy / Europe

Porto Venere

Along Italy's west coast you will find the picturesque five villages of the Cinque Terre, looking over the sea. Stuck against the Ligurian hills. Around the corner is another village, Porto Venere, according to many Italians this one is the most beautiful village. Family and acquaintances are closely involved in the last days of life and they take good care of the dying person. Many candles are lit and a crucifix or a portrait of a Saint is always nearby.

This picturesque little cemetery overlooks the sea and the black-and-white striped

San Pietro church dating back to 1200. In the last stage of life, the sacrament of the dying is administered by a priest, customary to the Catholic faith. This aims to forgive the sins of the

dying person's sins and offer comfort. Prayers and psalms are sung. They believe that during the first 40 days after a person died, the soul detaches from the earth. Family, friends and acquaintances pass by to say goodbye. There is plenty of food and drinks for all the visitors.

It is customary during the funeral to put something from the profession of the deceased on the corners of the coffin. For example buns for a baker and tools for a carpenter. On the graves you will find fresh flowers and a portrait of the deceased on the headstone or cross. They touch and kiss the photo and it looks like the deceased is still there. There are whole conversations held with the deceased, making it seem as if the person is just still there. This is the way to honour the deceased and to keep the memories alive.

Japan / Asia


Kyoto has traditionally been the city from which emperors ruled Japan. It is believed that the soul is immortal and reincarnates. How you live and lived (in previous lives), determines how your next life will look like. For crossing the mythical Sanzu River to the hereafter, the coffin contains a white kimono, sandals and six coins. The way you have lived your life determines how you cross the river: a safe bridge, a shallow spot or a wild river full of poisonous snakes.

Shintoism and Buddhism play an important role in Japan. During the dying process family members continuously watch over the dying person. Candles, lanterns and incense are lit continuously , so that the dying person, even after dying, doesn't get lost and finds the way to the afterlife. Just before death sets in, the lips of the dying are moistened, it is called the "water of the last moment", to facilitate the rebirth easier.

After the cremation, a bone-picking ceremony is organised. Bones are removed with long sticks removed from the ashes and carefully placed in the urn, starting with the feet and ending with the head, so that the deceased does not end 'upside down' in the urn. Most people in Japan are cremated (in 99% of cases) and a cremation is one of the most expensive in the world. The headstone or wooden plank (see photo) bears the name of the deceased. The transition period to a new life lasts 49 days.

Ireland / Europe

Glendalough Wicklows

Hidden among the trees lies the small village Glendalough, one of the oldest Christian remains of Europe. From the 10th century onwards, it was frequently raided by Vikings and in 1398 it was completely destroyed. What remained is an old monastery ruin, a round tower and a cemetery from the 6th century. The oldest surviving graves date back to the 11th century.

When someone dies in Ireland news spreads like running fire through the area. Immediately the neighbours take over the household, so that the family has all the time and space to give the dying person the best possible support in this final stage. The women give the house a major overhaul and provide enough food for all the visitors who come by. The men do the work in and around the house to make sure everything looks perfect, the grass is mowed and the shed cleaned up. So that after the funeral the family has all the space to mourn.

The dying is (preferably) lovingly cared for at home. There is often a prayer card on the bedside table next to the family photos and many candles are lit. With (violin) music and a glass of whiskey they laugh, shed a tear and bring back memories of the person's life. In Irish Catholic custom, the deceased is bearded for only 24 hours in the living room. Everyone from the surrounding area comes to the wake, whether you knew someone well or hardly knew anyone. An Irish funeral is an occasion to celebrate the celebrate life and to honour the deceased.

India / South East Asia


Haridwar is one of the seven holy places for Hindus to take a bath in the Ganges River so you cleanse your soul and wash of all your sins, including those from previous lives. In the picture you can see the Pitru Paksha ritual 'the fortnight of the ancestors'. These are important days during which Hindus mourn their deceased ancestors and family members are being commemorated.

Candles and incense are burnt, mantras chanted to honour their ancestors during special services, so that the deceased ancestors in the coming year ensure the well-being, health and happiness of their families and children. In Hinduism, during the dying phase, a priest (pandit) is asked to perform a complex farewell ritual. The eldest son or the oldest male relative pours a drop of water into the mouth of the dying person and after this ritual the rest of the family follow. The water symbolises life, impermanence and infinity. Prayers are said and sacred texts are recited.

It is important to put the dying person in a good mood. Hindus assume reincarnation: the soul is given a new life after death a new life. The last thoughts of the dying person determine the fate of the soul in a next life. If you have lived well, then you return to earth as a human being, the highest possible form of life and otherwise in a lower level than human. This process repeats itself until moksha (salvation) is achieved.

Hindus cremate their deceased as soon possible, preferably the same day, to

allow the body to return to the primal source (Brahm). As a last farewell, the family scatter flower petals, herbs, money and fragrant water over the body of the deceased.

Patagonia Chili-Argentina / South-America

Punta Arenas

Patagonia appeals to many people. A rugged and fascinating region, it is pure and desolated. Freezing temperatures, strong winds, rain and snow alternate. The boats sailing to Antarctica leave from Punta Arenas. It is the last stop for ships sailing around the most southern tip of the world.

This cemetery dates back to 1894. Many sailors and immigrants have left their mark on the history

of Punta Arenas. Due to the unpredictable weather, many ships were lost off the coast. There are quite a few European names on the beautiful graves decorated with angel-adorned sculptures and monumental tombs: Spanish, Portuguese and German. Quite a few Dutch are also buried here.

Due to Spanish colonisation, around 90% of the population is Catholic. Nevertheless old Inca traditions are still alive and practiced in Chili and Argentina like ancestor worship and belief in spirits. Performing the right rituals when a person is dying is very important. And what we call superstition is taken very seriously. Many shops sell items needed for the ceremonies, like sacred bags with herbs, stuffed animals and pictures of various saints. Also supplies for performing the death rituals to purify the soul of the dying person so that the deceased can pass well into the afterlife.

Children are also involved in the dying process and the mourning ceremony. It is important that all generations remain aware on a daily basis of their deceased family members, knowing that everyone will die one day.

63 views0 comments


  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Icono negro LinkedIn
bottom of page