When it comes to Halloween, you have to admit that - by dressing up as a ghoul, a ghost, a gremlin, a Ghostbuster, or (if you're female) a sexy cat, a sexy witch, a sexy vampire, or any number of mildly arousing but equally lame variations on the same costume which doesn't involve any effort, imagination and utilises your "little black dress" - we're pretty tame when it comes to celebrating the dead. The best we manage is by stockpiling on a sack-load of cheap plastic crap from ASDA, cutting grinning faces into a root vegetable, and dunking our "little darlings" head into a bucket of apples (which, if we're honest, is the only time that most kids go anywhere near fruit).
Thank God, we live in a weird and wonderful world where celebrations of the dead are truly bizarre. Obviously most people know about Mexico's infamous "Day of the Dead", but here's a few celebrations and rituals that you may not have heard of.
'Cleaning of the Corpses' festival - In Rantepao, on the remote highland island in Sulawesi (Indonesia) death isn’t seen as the end of a life, but the beginning of a long journey in which the relatives honour the dead by keeping the mummified remains of the recently deceased in their homes, for weeks, months and even years after their death. Upon death being established, the corpses are injected with Formalin (a mixture of formaldehyde and water) to ensure that the body doesn’t putrefy, but will slowly mummify over time. During this period of tribute, the dead are routinely washed, fed, dressed and celebrated, with – in some houses – relatives taking it in turn to converse, entertain and share a bedroom with their deceased relative, as it considered disrespectful to leave a dead relative alone before their burial. Read this great article from National Geographic here or better still watch this video.
‘Frozen Dead Guy Day’ - In 1993, Trygve Bauge transported the corpse of his recently deceased grandfather - Bredo Morstoel – to the leafy, snow-covered town of Nederland, Colorado, having previously shipped him all the way from Norway, packed in ice. Unfortunately before his homemade cryogenic facility could be finished, Trygve was deported, leaving Aud (Bredo’s daughter) caring for her frozen father in a shed. The local authorities made plans for a proper “burial” of Bredo – as Section 7-34 of the municipal code prohibits the keeping of "the whole or any part of the person… upon any property", but following local interest in the news reports, an exemption to the code was created, and Bredo’s cryogenic chamber was completed with public donations.
Annually, Frozen Dead Guy Day takes place on the first full weekend in March, including tours of Bredo’s frosty resting place, coffin races, slow-motion parades, polar plunges, dances, and “Frozen Dead Guy” look-a-like contests, screenings of the documentary “Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed”and even a special “Frozen Dead Guy” ice-cream in his honour, made with blue ice, fruit, crushed Oreo cookies and sour gummy worms. Join the festival here or take the tour.
Post-Mortem Photography - In Victorian England (as well as Iceland, and Syria), following the invention of the daguerreotype (an early form of photography where the image would be processed onto sheets of copper), it became fashionable to commemorate the dead by recreating naturalistically styled portraits, with the recently deceased, depicted as either asleep, sitting or sometime standing alongside the living, in poses which seemed almost lifelike. Although morbid by today’s standards, this practice was seen as high status as well as a last chance to see the deceased in a way they’d prefer to remember them. It proved incredibly popular in the early 1800’s, but with the development of photographic techniques and the life expectancy of children and mothers (owing to the control of measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever and rubella) steadily increasing, it fell out of favour. Examples of post-mortem photography can be seen here on this BBC News article, or there's a slideshow.
Endocannibalism - Also known as the “feast of the dead”, endocannibalism is a death ritual by which the recently deceased are consumed by the living, either as a final act of remembrance, to aid the transference of the deceased’s spirit, knowledge and energy into those who are left behind, or simple, as a meal. Although no longer practiced, evidence of endocannibalism has been found in many indigenous cultures including the Amahuaca Indians (Peru) who drank the crushed bones of their relatives as a form of gruel, and the Wari’ (Western Brazil) who consumed the entire corpse. If you were offered a piece of their dead relative to eat, it would be considered highly offensive to reject it.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks.