Can there be a good death?

This resource is part of the Museum Snapshot collection - a collection of smaller resources perfect for starters, plenaries or spare moments to explore something fascinating.


The Dayak people of Borneo believe that a ship like the one pictured here carries the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Their traditional belief is that a 'good' death marks the beginning of the journey to join your ancestors, whose souls were with the bird gods. We can see these ideas in the model. 

The boat is in the form of a bird, and a hornbill bird sits on top of a tree of life on the boat. Inside the model, an orchestra plays, and warriors guard the souls of the dead to help them overcome a series of hazards that they face on the way. All this only happens if the death is 'good'. A 'bad' death leads the soul to remain on earth as an 'unquiet spirit'.

Young person's response to this object

The sheer detail on this ship is astounding, the vibrant colours really bring it to life. This is made even more significant as the ship contrasts greatly with the subject it is based upon; death. - Jordan Keighley

Teacher's response

This resource could be used as an introduction to death rituals at all key stages, as part of RE or PSHE lessons.  It is an interesting way to get pupils to start thinking and talking about the subject using the Ship of the Dead artefact as the centerpiece of the discussions.
- Ben Thompson, Deputy Headteacher.


Discussion ideas:

  • What would your idea of a 'good death' be?
  • What can prevent people from having a 'good death' today? 
  • What do you think is meant by an 'unquiet spirit'?
  • What cultures or religions do you know of that have the 'tree of life' as a symbol, and what does it mean?
  • There is an orchestra shown on this Ship of the Dead. It came from Borneo, so what kinds of instruments do you think would be in this orchestra?
  • Although it's a very long way off, what music would you like played at your funeral?
  • What other death rituals from different cultures involve boats? This resource on My Learning about the Egyptians might help.

Activity ideas:

  • We are not told what kinds of materials this Ship of the Dead was made from, but it was probably painted wood. Experiment with making a Ship of the Dead yourself - using paper, card, clay, plasticine or balsa wood. Think about scale, weight, proportion and detail. It could contain things that you would like to take on a journey, not necessarily a death one, but a 'joyful' one.

  • (KS4) Pupils can research other death rituals practised by different cultures across the world, and compare and contrast them. In groups pupils can choose to research a particular culture then present their findings to the class. After the presentations, the class can discuss the rituals and try to identify any common themes or trends.

  • Use the Google map below to see where the Dayak people of Borneo still live today.


A model of a Ship of the Dead from Borneo
Detail of a Ship of the Dead from Borneo
Detail of a Ship of the Dead from Borneo
Detail of a Ship of the Dead from Borneo