A Discussion on Death Rituals

By Sarah Beste

Hey, y’all! I hope everyone had an enjoyable summer! Mine was pretty awesome if I do say so myself. It started with a week-long trip to Isle Royale National Park in early June. That week was full of hiking, camping, and sightseeing nature’s unsullied wonders. We were also able to go on tours of some prehistoric as well as historic sites. One place we didn’t get to see that was on my to-do list was a little island called Cemetery Island off the southern coast of Isle Royale. It’s literally a cemetery island with no other structures or evidence of other human use except for interring the dead. It would have been a kayak trip that I wasn’t prepared to do in 50º weather over the frigid waters of Lake Superior. However, on one of our historical site tours, we did get to see a lone tall wooden grave marker on another smaller island off the southern coast that was off the trail from Rock Harbor Lighthouse. The day we got back, my husband and I had our phones bombarded by all the past week’s news and messages as we got back into range of all the cell phone towers. That’s the day we found out about the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.

In the days that followed, the news kept on with Bourdain’s death and seemed to have left Spade’s death behind. Stories of death rituals started popping up adding an aspect of mysticism to the death of celebrity chef and journalist Anthony Bourdain. Being a fan of his, I’d like to think that he died as he lived – on his own terms. His suicide came as a great surprise to many. While the answers we search for after a suicide are answers only the dead can provide, I think the most sensational explanation came within two weeks of Bourdain’s death. In the stories that came up in the news about the circumstances was that he had recently been party to a death ritual whilst abroad in Bhutan. In this case, the conversation should not really be about culturally diverse celebrations of death, it needs to focus more on mental illness awareness (but I’m no doctor).

Because of this, I wanted to explore different rituals performed by different cultures in response to a death within the community. Rituals and celebrations following a death range from celebrating the life lost to cleansing the living people left behind. They go on for as short as 24 hours to as long as 30 days. Seeing all these differences makes one appreciate the range of thoughts and feelings an individual and community could have as a reaction to death and dying. The people of Bhutan are no different. According to the country of Bhutan’s tourism website, the people of Bhutan are some of the happiest people on the earth.   

As part of Buddhist practice, the faithful routinely meditates on death and decay visualizing what it would be like to die. This coincides with one of the Buddhist teaching points of material impermanence. The majority of people in Bhutan (according to www.bhutan.com) practice Mahayana (tantric) Buddhism. This is important to understand when looking at beliefs and rituals that shape daily life because this may illustrate why certain rituals exist for people who are unfamiliar with the practice. It also may offer some reasoning about why there is a death ritual that would be of interest at all to a journalist who made a living exploring the lifestyle and cuisine of foreign cultures.


Meditation of Death and Decay



Blogger Warren Charles Tanner wrote a beautiful piece on a Mahayana Buddhist funeral in Bhutan to which he was personally invited. I don’t want to give too much away because it’s a fascinating and enlightening read. The take away was that a that the ritual had little to do with the body and more to do with the soul of deceased. It could be described as a celebration of the life of the deceased and the next life the deceased soul will be born into. It’s a 49-day ritual to help the soul be okay with moving on to either Nirvana or reincarnation, and in turn, I would imagine it helps the family and community deal with the grief of the loss.

Landscape of Bhutan

The point I’m trying to make is that it is uncertain whether the suicide of the chef celebrity was brought upon by his own contemplation of death because of the culture in which he was immersed. What I can say is that sensationalizing a ritual into something mystic and quite possibly malicious is unconscionable. What should be addressed are mental health issues and being sensitive to the special circumstances that suicide may influence grief. My condolences to his family, and the family of Kate Spade.

To read the blog post on the Bhutanese funeral, go to this site directly below.


For further reading, please go to these sites below.

Anthropological Publications:




Journalistic Articles and Blogs:






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s