Caring for the Dead

Each culture determines its own standards for funerary practices. Image by Jeff Greenough/Blend Images/Getty Images

In many countries in the modern world, the practice of burying the dead is common. However, it's a relatively new concept by some standards, and in some places, it's almost a novelty. In fact, many of today's contemporary funeral practices might be considered a bit strange by our ancestors. There is such a wide variety of funeral practice throughout history that it's worth taking a look at - in fact, archaeologists have learned that studying the treatment of the dead can actually give them a clue to how a culture lives.

Every society, throughout history, has found some way to attend to the proper care of their dead. Here are some different methods in which various cultures have said farewell to their loved ones:

  • On the island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, newborn infants who die are buried in the trunks of giant trees. The people there believe that the child's soul will rise up into the heavens through the tree.
  • Many cultures, such as the Mayans and the Egyptians, buried their dead in tombs that were part of ceremonial centers. Multiple burials were often contained in the same pyramid or plaza. Earlier burials were often built over by later generations, making these sites a bit of a puzzle for researchers.
  • The ancient Chinese buried their rulers in suits of jade before interment.
  • Archaeologists have unearthed the tombs of Neanderthal man dating back to 60,000 b.c.e. at the Shanidar Cave in Iraq. The graves included animal antlers placed on the body, and flower detritus nearby. This may indicate some sort of ritual took place, even that long ago.
  • Modern-day women of a New Guinea tribe, the Gimi, have a ritual that involves eating the flesh of deceased men. Gillian Gilson, author of Between Culture and Fantasy - A New Guinea Highlands Mythology indicates that this is partly because eating the body prevents it from decomposing, but there are some other, more complex, cultural reasons as well. In some ancient societies, the dead were cremated and then their ashes consumed.
  • The burial of a Norse chieftain included all the things the man might need in the afterlife -- a ship, weapons, horses, and food. In an account given by the 10th century Muslim writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan, he describes a scene in which a slave girl is sacrificed in a chieftain's funeral. A fictionalized version of ibn Fadlan's tale appears in Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead.
  • In some customs, funeral services consist of simply leaving the dead to rot, or be consumed by wild beasts. In Tibet, and in some Native American cultures, it was believed that those who were eaten by dogs were better off in the next world.
  • Covering the face of the dead comes from the ancient belief that the soul escaped the body via the mouth. In some African tribes, it was common to tie the mouth shut. Many practices also come from the idea that evil spirits were hovering around the body to steal the soul immediately after death -- this is where we get the ringing of bells, firing of weapons, and the holding of a wake.

    Additional Reading

    For more information on burial customs and practices around the world, be sure to check out some of these resources.

    • Aiken, Lewis: Dying, Death, and Bereavement, Psychology Press
    • Kerrigan, Michael : The History of Death -Burial Customs and Funeral Rites, from the Ancient World to Modern Times, Lyons Press
    • Matsunami,┬áKodo: International Handbook of Funeral Customs, Greenwood Press