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Special Edition

Dead Serious: How to Respect the Dead While Abroad

What do the Pyramids, Westminster Abbey, and Pompeii have in common? It’s not just that they’re popular tourist sites—they’re also resting places for the dead.

Photo by Pixabay

Whether on a battlefield, at a memorial, or in a museum, as we encounter the past, we encounter the dead. These encounters can be educational, inspiring, and even sacred—if we do a little research first.

Discover Cultural Traditions

Traditions around the dead vary more than you might think. Our dead have been cremated, embalmed, interred underground, set afloat in boats, burned on pyres, and laid inside trees. In Tibet, some Buddhists perform “sky burials,” in which a body is taken to higher ground and consumed by vultures. Unfamiliar practices can be unsettling until you discover the beauty in their meaning. For Buddhists who perform sky burials, the practice expedites the process of reincarnation and expresses generosity toward the earth.

Just as our treatment of bodies differs, proper shows of respect may vary. Beginning in the Victorian Era, black became commonly worn at funerals in Europe and the United States. Previously, mourners had worn white, a color most people owned regardless of wealth. South African funerals may incorporate the color red, which has come to symbolize the bloodshed of apartheid. However, in China, red is a celebratory color and could be highly offensive at a funeral. Whether you set foot in tombs, cathedrals, cemeteries, memorials, or sites of mass deaths, find out what respect looks like in the area you visit. When you honor an area’s culture, you honor its people.

Celebrate the Dead

You may even come across a celebration of the dead as you travel. You’re likely familiar with Día de los Muertos in Mexico, but have you heard of the Qingming festival in China? Or the Obon festival in Japan? Festivals or holidays in honor of the dead, especially deceased ancestors, are celebrated in many cultures. If you plan a visit during one, find out how you can best interact with celebrators and whether joining would be encouraged or offensive.

It’s natural for practices to seem unusual or spectacular to you. But remember that these celebrations are often expressions of heritage and identity. Take a “nine night” in Jamaica, a celebration held nine days after a loved one’s passing. It generally features food and music. While elements have changed over time, the nine night is rooted in African tradition. There’s also the Irish wake, a blend of joy and mourning following a death. Often filled with alcohol and dancing, it keeps people rooted in Irish heritage. Your worldview—and your relationship with your own heritage—can be enriched as you learn from others expressing theirs.

Support Ethical Displays

Grave robbing, looting archaeological sites, and the selling of skeletons, mummies, or preserved body parts are clearly problematic—and often illegal. Unfortunately, that’s how some museums’ artifacts have been acquired down the line. Additionally, some displays disregard the wishes of the dead themselves. For example, Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant,” requested before his death in 1783 that his body not be put on display. But it was stolen by an anatomist and featured for public eyes until 2023.

Consider researching the sites and museums you plan to visit, and lend your support to institutions using best practices. Choose sites that focus on educating through their presentation rather than capitalizing on shock value. Avoid visiting displays of bodies taken from indigenous groups or oppressed peoples without that group’s consent. Also, research whether the preservation and treatment of a body are consistent with cultural beliefs and traditions where it was found. By being selective about which institutions you support, you encourage the use of better practices. You also demonstrate your respect for the communities from which the remains were taken.

See People, Not Bodies

The bog bodies of Northern Europe, Ötzi the Iceman of the Alps, and the Ice Maiden of the Andes are fascinatingly well-preserved corpses. Mummies of Ancient Egypt are icons of pop culture, and skeletons feature in Halloween decor each October. But they’re still human remains.

Avoid treating displays of the dead like curiosity cabinets or old-time circus freak shows. Instead, remember that these were once people like you. Ask yourself what kind of life they might have lived. Through these discoveries, archaeologists have learned about ancient diets, religious and social practices, and technology. Find out from experts what we know, and try to imagine what we don’t. These dead were also the predecessors of some current-day groups. As you honor the people of the past, you honor the people of the present.

In some cases, you may not be able to find enough information to know what is appropriate for your particular situation. But as you seek to be open-minded and curious about other cultures’ relationships with the dead, you can more deeply connect with others around the world and across time.