Would you bury a loved one using one of these unusual methods?
For many generations, humans have acknowledged the death of loved ones in a variety of ways. Despite the different death rituals used in the past, all of them attempt to serve both the needs of bereaved family members and the deceased’s perceived needs.
A person’s death is usually acknowledged through a multistep public process that moves the person from the land of the living to the realm of the dead. Simultaneously, grieving loved ones are also making their own transition, as they accept the new normal and come to accept their loss.
Two Basic Rites of Passage
While dying is a biological fact, there are opposing views about what happens next to a deceased human being. Some people believe there is an afterlife, and other people do not believe in an afterlife. Typically, this belief is reflected in their culture’s customary death ritual.
Some anthropologists describe rites of passage as a three-step process for the living and the dead. Those steps are the separation, the transition, and the incorporation. While these three steps are present in most death rituals, their emphasis differs — dependent on the belief in an afterlife.
For instance, cultures that believe in an afterlife emphasize incorporating the deceased person into the realm of the dead as its rituals’ primary purpose. Conversely, cultures with no such belief in the afterlife will focus more on the separation of the deceased from the living.
Now let us examine the five death rituals that have been used throughout history.
Burial is the oldest and perhaps the most popular method of disposing of a human corpse. There is even evidence that burial was used by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, as revealed by burial sites discovered in Israel, France, and northern Iraq.
One unique form of this practice is a two burial ritual that has been used by many cultures, where each burial has its own purpose. The corpse is initially buried in a first burial, and then it’s later removed for reburial several years later. The second burial is viewed as the final end where the deceased arrives in the world of their ancestors or the dead.
The first burial addresses the flesh, the portion of the body that makes us appear unique. The second burial is where the bones are reburied after the flesh has left. While the flesh represents individuality, the bones represent the community as the dead joins the collectivity of those departed before them.
Burial at sea is another unique form of burial that has been practiced by mariners for many years. The U.S. Navy performs this method by sliding a shrouded corpse off the side of a ship. Many years earlier, the Vikings often buried their dead at sea by placing a corpse in a ship surrounded by valuables and then covered all of this with dirt³. The ship was set afire and set adrift, which allowed earth, water, and fire to be involved in the ritual.
Another death ritual involved the preservation of the deceased while burying and entombing the corpse. The ancient Egyptians are among the most notable cultures to have used this ritual. The Egyptians’ goal was not to protect these bodies for the sake of the living; instead, it was to assist the deceased on their journey into the afterlife.
The Egyptians discovered that the real key to preserving bodies is dehydration. The bacteria responsible for breaking down the body must have moisture to survive, so blood and fluids must be removed to preserve the human body. This also means that all the organs must be removed. Therefore, the Egyptians put organs of the departed into jars for safekeeping so they could reunite with the body in the afterlife.
The Egyptians and many other cultures believed that all thinking took place in the heart. This meant the deceased would need their heart to function in the afterlife. This is why they placed amulets over the heart.
While cremation is becoming more popular in modern society, it is actually another ancient death ritual. The cremation process requires that a corpse be subjected to extreme heat — around 1400–1800 degrees Fahrenheit for over 2 hours — which will reduce it to bones and minerals.
Many Christians, Muslims, and Jews believe that a corpse’s burning is a form of desecration. Those that believe in the resurrection claim that bodies should be kept intact in anticipation of being restored back to life. The earliest Christians believed that burials should depict the burial of Jesus, which they believed was followed by his resurrection.
The very first modern crematories were built in Germany, England, and Italy during the 1870s. While cremation faced enormous resistance, the opposition was very intense within Catholic countries. In England, they attempted to prosecute the man who conducted the very first cremation, but they were unsuccessful.
Oddly enough, cremation is chosen by most people in England today, where it is even subsidized, as well as in Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. A driving force behind cremation’s popularity is based on logistics rather than faith, as land for cemeteries has gotten scarce.
One very rare death ritual is known as excarnation. This is where the corpse is left exposed outdoors, to be eaten by animals, or consumed by the elements. This process usually leads to a swift removal of the body’s flesh — leaving only bones behind.
While this death ritual disturbs many people who view it as the body’s abandonment, some recommend excarnation from an ecological perspective. It leaves a much friendlier footprint on the environment than any other corpse disposal method — especially those used in the West.
In Tibetan society, the ritual of exposing corpses is referred to as “sky burial.” Bodies there are eaten by vultures that gather where these rituals take place. The Tibetans do not view corpse consumption as desecration; rather, they see it as a way of returning the deceased to the cycle of nature.
Consumption is among one of the most grisly death rituals. There are several cultures throughout history who eat the dead of their own village or tribe. To better understand what motivates this practice, we can examine one such tribe who used consumption until the mid-20th century. This tribe is known as the Wari, who resides in the western Brazilian rainforest along the Bolivian border.
Until the 1960s, the Wari disposed of all their deceased members by consuming their corpses. This is known as endocannibalism — which means consuming the flesh of one’s own group instead of exocannibalism, which is consuming flesh from an outsider.
The Wari believed that consuming their deceased allowed them to better deal with the loss. Powerful vocal expressions of grief characterized the Wari death rituals. They claimed their grief reached its emotional peak during the dismemberment of the body. They believed severing of social attachments to the deceased was most keenly felt during dismemberment.
Any body parts that were not eaten were then burned. The personal belongings of the dead person were also destroyed.
The Wari considered the consumption of their dead as the most honorable way to dispose of them. Furthermore, those living in the Wari culture wanted their dead bodies to be eaten, as they saw it as a way of living within the tribe through the living bodies of their kin.