Even though it sounds a bit dark, I have to admit — I always had such a strong fascination with the afterlife. But not only that, also the diverse number of beliefs and traditions surrounding it. Across various civilizations, from ancient burial rites to contemporary funeral ceremonies, each culture has its own narrative around what lies beyond earthly existence. The ways in which different cultures honor and commemorate the departed also says a lot about their history and also about their understanding of spirituality and mortality. So let’s take a closer look at the legends of the afterlife across different sites and cultures.
Ancient Egyptian funerary practices were a reflection of the profound belief in the afterlife and the journey of the soul. Mummification, a complex and meticulously orchestrated process, aimed to preserve the body for eternity, ensuring the soul’s seamless transition to the afterlife. The construction of grand pyramids served as elaborate tombs for pharaohs, equipped with valuable possessions and offerings essential for their prosperous journey. The myth of Osiris, the god of the afterlife and the underworld, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a collection of magical spells and formulas, were central to the understanding of the intricate Egyptian views on death and the afterlife.
Viking funerary customs were deeply rooted in their warrior ethos, emphasizing the importance of an honorable passage into the afterlife. Valhalla, the great hall of Odin, was the ultimate destination for fallen warriors. It was where they were believed to feast and battle for eternity, surrounded by fellow brave souls. Burial rituals included ship burials, symbolizing the deceased’s readiness for the journey to the realm of the gods. It was often even accompanied by weaponry, treasures, and sacrificed animals. The Viking culture believed in the strong connection between the natural world and us humans. Which means they looked at death as an integral part of the eternal cosmic cycle.
Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual traditions offered profound insights into the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Central to Tibetan beliefs was the concept of the Bardo. Is is an intermediate state where the soul navigates the transition between death and rebirth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol, acted as a spiritual guide. It basically gave instructions for the deceased to recognize the spiritual realms and attain enlightenment. The practice of sky burials, a sacred ritual where the deceased were offered to vultures, symbolized the soul’s transcendence and the impermanence of the physical body.
Mexican Dia de los Muertos
The vibrant celebration of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico exemplified a joyous commemoration of the departed. And it also perfectly blends the indigenous Aztec rituals with Catholic customs. The multi-day festival, taking place from October 31 to November 2, involved some serious preparations. From the creation of altars decorated with marigolds, preparing the favorite food and drinks of the deceased, to making gorgeously decorated sugar skulls. The belief that the spirits of the departed returned to join their families during this time fostered a sense of connection. Not only between the living, but also between the living and their deceased loved ones. Looking at it a bit deeper, it’s really a little bittersweet, isn’t it?