Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Dani funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Hmong funeral traditions and Ukrainian funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
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Where They Are From
The Dani tribe lives in the western region of Papua New Guinea, which is an Indonesian province. With about 25,000 people, the Dani people are one of the most populous and well-known ethnic groups in Papua. Like all cultures, they have their own unique and traditional customs for daily life and significant events, like funerals.
Finger Amputation Ritual
Although banned today, the ikipalin, or traditional finger amputation ritual, was a Dani funeral tradition. To the Dani people, fingers represent harmony, unity, and strength — and they work together to perform tasks, like a family. So, the finger amputation ritual represented the pain of grief and prevented more misfortune from occurring to the deceased’s family. It also pleased their ancestor’s spirits and stopped the deceased’s spirit from lingering.
Usually, a close family member performed the finger amputation ritual. The women in the family were typically the ones to have their fingers amputated. Sometimes men would do it if it was their spouse or another close family member who passed away.
To amputate the finger, the Dani would tie the upper half of it with string to numb it and cut off circulation. Then, the designated family member removed the finger with an axe and treated it with traditional herbs to prevent infections. The Dani would then dry the leftover finger and either burn it into ashes or store the leftover finger in a special place.
Even though the ritual is now banned today, older members of the Dani tribe are still sometimes seen with amputated fingers.
Smoking the Bodies
Although this ritual also is no longer practiced today, another Dani funeral tradition was smoking the bodies instead of burial. By smoking their ancestor’s bodies, it preserved them as mummies and they sometimes displayed them in the village. Today, they still take care of the mummies to preserve them and show respect for their deceased ancestors.
Other Dani Funeral Rituals
Traditionally, sometimes instead of the finger amputation ritual, they cut off an ear instead of a finger. Though the finger amputation was more common, and neither ritual is still practiced today. Also, another way the Dani people express their grief is by smearing their faces and bodies with ashes and clay. They also may decide not to bathe for several weeks following the death.