Death has always filled humans with a sense of awe. Much of what we know about history comes from examining the remains of the dead and how they were disposed of.
Over the course of history, death was interpreted in many ways by different cultures: as a horror to be avoided, a fulfillment of a lifelong goal, and even a last great adventure in this world before departing for ethereal realms.
Death has always held great symbolic meaning for humanity, and the ability to think in symbols is the precursor of many other important human traits, such as the ability to think in the abstract, make plans, and solve problems.
Prehistoric Burials And The Origins Of Mysticism
The first burials may have taken place as long as 50,000 years ago, but the oldest known intentional burial site is Qafzeh in Israel, which dates back almost 10,000 years.
These early humans buried their dead very deliberately in a cave. The remains were placed in coffins with various burial items, such as garments, trinkets, and food.
Ochre residue suggests that the remains were painted ceremonially before being positioned in the coffins, and a huge feast was prepared to celebrate the passing.
Although most people were buried in groupings such as families, some sites have separate areas set aside for children. These remains suggest elaborate social behavior, such as hierarchy and emotional attachment, but they also had their practical side.
Coffins were stacked, remains would be pushed aside to make room for new ones, and sometimes, the coffins on the bottom collapsed under the weight of those above.
A definite recognition of the spiritual significance of death can be found in the tendency to place graves in hidden areas where neither full light nor full darkness can truly reach.
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- Qafzeh Cave, Israel: Evidence for Middle Paleolithic Burials
Mesopotamian And Egyptian
The people of Sumeria and Babylonia believed that the souls of the departed went to the Underworld, which was beneath Earth’s surface. As a result, the dead were buried in the ground so they could have easy access to their next home.
They were also buried close to where they had lived so their survivors could bring offerings, such as food and beverages, to the site. This was thought to appease the gods and ensure the deceased a good afterlife.
They were also buried with belongings they might need in the afterlife. The Egyptians used almost the exact same practices, but there were a couple of notable differences.
The first was that Egypt was hot and arid, necessitating mummification of the dead to prevent them from rotting and drawing disease to the living. The second was the use of pyramids, which were tombs where pharaohs were buried.
These were used only by royalty and only for a brief period of Egyptian history. Burial sites for most people were on the western side of the Nile, with large funeral processions featuring mourners dressed to represent deities associated with death, such as Isis.
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- Death in the Mesopotamian Period
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- Ancient Egyptian Burial Practices
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Greeks believed that the spirit left the body as a breath of air, so the important thing was to get the body to the underworld as quickly as possible, so the spirit could get there safely.
The body was anointed in oil and wrapped in a shroud, and a coin was placed under the tongue to be given to Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, the boundary between our world and the underworld.
Here in our world, the body would be laid out for mourning by friends and family, a part of the ritual known as prothesis.
Before dawn a day or two after the death, a funeral procession called the ekphora would take place, carrying the deceased to either their final resting place for burial or a funeral pyre for release to the Olympian gods.
Grave sites were marked by tombs, columns known as steles, or statues, which were brightly painted.
Greeks placed high value on immortality and believed that the preservation of their memory served this purpose. Great works of Greek art have resulted from the desire to preserve the memory of the dead.
Family and friends were encouraged to grieve, although not too violently, and leave offerings at the site. Public funerals featured great orators who eulogized the deceased with rousing speeches.
The Romans carried these traditions on, but with more ceremony and flash.
The social mobility of Roman life allowed many people, even former slaves, to become wealthy, and they celebrated their abundance and freedom with lavish funerary art depicting crowded funeral parades.
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The Celtic world spanned the British Isles as well as most of what is now France and even some parts of Germany. The earliest Celtic culture is referred to as the Urnfield culture, so named because they were cremated and then buried in urns.
As the Bronze and Iron ages progressed, Hallstatt culture developed, followed La Tene culture, both of which show the roots of the burial practices of the Celts.
Both the Hallstatt and La Tene traded with Greece and buried their dead with personal items, some very valuable, obtained through this trade.
The Hallstatt culture laid their dead out in carts with earthly valuables and even food, then had a large feast in honor of the dead. A place for the deceased was laid out, and songs and poems, called elegies, were sung in their honor.
Often, the body would be burned after the feast, and the remains would be placed in urns and buried. Afterward, friends and family would memorialize the dead by placing a stone at the site.
Over the years, these built up into grave markers called cairns. Most of these practices continued in Celtic culture even through the Roman occupation, although eventually, only warriors were buried in carts.
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Ideally, a Hindu funeral takes place almost immediately: by dusk or dawn, whichever comes first. However, Hinduism is a broad term that covers a lot of regional practices with common threads.
No importance is placed on the body, which is seen as merely a vessel for the soul. Early in the development of these funeral practices, when a person died, one of their heirs would preside with the priest over the preparation of the body for cremation.
This included anointment with oils, incense, and water from the sacred Ganges River as well as chanting mantras over the body. The body was bathed, wrapped in a cloth, and presented with offerings to be cremated.
At some times in Hindu history, these included the wives and servants of male deceased. Bodies were burned on a pyre at a sacred site (ideally the bank of the Ganges) with everything they might need to meet the gods.
The ashes were collected and thrown into the Ganges on the third day after cremation, and the family would enter a mourning period of about 12 days, during which they were considered impure.
After the mourning period was a feast commemorating the dead. Other less common ways the Hindus disposed of their dead included leaving the body in an open-air structure atop a hill, called a tower of silence, so it could be eaten by carrion predators.
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East And Southeast Asia
Many ancient spiritual beliefs in Eastern Asia centered upon ancestors. To many cultures in East and Southeast Asia, the spirits of the deceased still held influence over events in this world and needed to be appeased, lest they become mischievous.
For most of eastern Asia, the primary religious beliefs were based on the teachings of the Buddha, which stated that suffering was a natural state brought upon by our desires and that meditation and self-knowledge helped alleviate suffering.
As a result, many cultures in southeast Asia helped guide those who were dying into a peaceful death by whispering Buddhist scripture in their ear.
After death, the body would be bathed and placed in a coffin with flowers and burial items, waiting for cremation.
This would take place as soon as possible (like the Hindus, little value was placed upon the body after death) but could be delayed so relatives and long-distance friends could pay respects.
There were numerous ceremonies to ensure a good place in the afterlife, and cremations could be postponed for these, too. The important thing was to make sure the spirits of the dead were happy.
Early Cambodians believed in reincarnation, and so did the Indonesians, so they had ceremonial funeral pyres with special structures built for the occasion.
China had a lot of elaborate rituals not only for a funeral but for after, as it was believed in Confucianism that children owed a duty to their parents and that the dead could still influence the living.
In fact, feng shui was developed in part to help identify the best places for burials. Although the Chinese would send burial offerings ahead of the spirit of the deceased by burning, they buried the body after performing funeral rituals.
Representations of earthly belongings might be buried with them, as in the case of the famous terra-cotta soldiers buried with Qin Shi Huangdi, first emperor of China.
In Japan, bodies were placed in barrels or clay pots and buried. However, Japan is an island nation, so funeral processions often carried the deceased on a cart shaped like a boat.
In Osaka and other areas of Japan, grand tombs called keyhole mounds house the remains of important people and their possessions. All over Asia, white was and still is worn at funerals, as this is the color of mourning in the East.
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- Buddhism and Burial: Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan
North and South America developed their own funeral practices, some of which are still in use today. The Native American nations in North America generally believed that the soul would leave the body with help from rituals.
The prevailing belief was that it takes four days for the soul to ascend to happiness. A variety of regional practices emerged based on traditions and locale:
For instance, the Sioux waited a year to bury their dead, storing the bodies in their finest clothes inside hollow trees, but Chippewa immediately buried their dead.
The Iroquois had “mourning wars” for warriors lost in battle, where they would raid the enemy and take one of their number captive to replace the life lost.
Central America was dominated by the Maya and Aztec cultures and their precursors. Aztecs had beliefs similar to the Egyptians, sending items, livestock, and even slaves to the afterlife with their dead in tombs at the bottom of vertical shafts dug into the ground.
The Maya buried their dead under their dwellings, but important people had elaborate tombs with masks, gems, food, and slaves offered with them.
The rites performed depended on the manner of death, which also determined which afterlife the deceased would go to, as both cultures had many reserved for different kinds of people.
Even the direction the corpse was facing was determined by these factors. A green stone was placed in the mouth because it represented the heart, where the soul was believed to reside.
Further south, the Incas, living in frigid high altitudes, mummified their bodies and brought them out for special occasions, especially if they were important people.
A person wasn’t truly dead unless they were forgotten or somehow rendered irrelevant, so the mummified remains were treated as advisers and confidantes.
Due to the high altitude, they accomplished mummification by desiccation, or drying them out in the cold. Travelers, such as llama herders and merchants, would strip the flesh from the corpses of their dead to make them easier to carry with them.