Funeral Rites Across Different Cultures: The Symbolism of Hair

Throughout history and across cultures, hair has functioned as a symbol with deep meaning.  The folicular signifer has different meanings in different contexts.  A widespread feature of funeral customs relates to the mourners’ hair.

People of Jewish faith observe strict mourning for seven days.  During shiva (the Hebrew word for “seven”), the week-long mourning ritual in Judaism, first-degree male relatives of the departed are forbidden to shave or cut their beards.  Abstaining from shaving or cutting hair is part of the restrictions typically practiced by mourners.  In a similar vein, men won’t wear new shoes, launder their clothes, or attempt to “look their best.”  As is the Jewish custom, mourners are prohibited from going to parties or festive occasions, listening to music, or enjoying any type of entertainment.  In the society of the clean-shaven, the mourner is expected to withdraw by allowing his hair and beard to grow.

For Hindus, there is an intense period of mourning immediately following the cremation or burial service which lasts a total of thirteen days.  The thirteenth and final day of mourning is known as terahvin, which literally means “thirteenth” in Hindi.   For the first 10 days of mourning, mourners are expected to not consume meat, salt, or alcohol; wear perfumes; or shave.  However, on the eleventh day, immediate male relatives of the departed typically shave their beards and heads.   Following the death of a family member, particularly an elderly family member, mundan, the practice of head-shaving, is one of the most prominent rituals observed in Hinduism.  Hindus are frequently seen with their heads shaved, which is a way for them to make sacrifice. Mundan is seen by mourners not only as a sign of respect but also a mark of shedding one’s ego.

In Buddhism, shaving the head and eyebrows is viewed as a renunciation of material desire.  A form of rigorous, self-denial, head shaving commonly takes place during Buddhist funerals.  Monks may preside over this tradition, which is performed on the departed and the attendant mourners.  While head shaving rituals vary between Buddhist cultures, Tibetan Buddhists, to commemorate the life of the departed,  are noted for waiting several weeks after the funeral to cut their hair.

Unique mourning traditions involving human hair comprise the diverse beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember and respect the departed.

Woodlawn continues to be a non-sectarian cemetery without a specific religious affiliation.