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Cultural Spotlight: Republic of Kiribati Funeral Traditions

by | Aug 22, 2017 | Cultural Spotlight, For Families

Republic of Kiribati palms

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 Kiribati funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Chinese Taoist funeral Traditions and Thai funeral traditions, among others.

Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.

The Republic of Kiribati

The Republic of Kiribati is an island nation located in the central Pacific Ocean. It’s made up of 33 atolls and reef islands and one raised coral reef island called Banaba. As of 2010, the estimated population is 103,058 and the most dominant religion is Christianity.

Today, a Kiribati funeral typically follows Catholic or Protestant traditions. However, during the 19th century, these forms of Christianity didn’t approve of the Kiribati skull burial. The Kiribati people keep the skull at home so the native god Nakaa can welcome the deceased’s spirit to the afterlife.

The Wake

After someone dies, their body stays at home for three to twelve days for loved ones to pay their respects. To make the body smell nice, they burn leaves near it and put flowers in their mouth, nose, and ears. They also may rub the body with a coconut and scented oil mixture.

During the wake, loved ones say eulogies and offer food and coins to the deceased. Sometimes, they make a pudding from a local plant’s root as an offering. Afterward, the burial is at a local cemetery or somewhere near the deceased’s home.

Skull Burial

Several months after the burial, family members dig up the body and remove the skull. They put oil and polish on the skull to display in their home and may offer it food and tobacco. The deceased’s widow or child sleeps and eats next to the skull and carries it with them wherever they go.

When the teeth fall out, they make them into necklaces. Also, they may take bones from the body to use as fish hooks or other objects. After several years, they rebury the skull either with the body or in their yard with the top sticking out of the ground.


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