Bodies sliced in half, people buried upright, corpses fed to the vultures: clearly through the ages different communities have disposed of their dead in more ways than you could possibly imagine.
Burial customs often reflect the world view of the communities in which they take place. They also reflect financial status, geographical realities and religious beliefs, and have done so for at least 60 000 years. In Bulgaria, there is a town where it appears the wealthy were sliced in half and buried from the pelvis upwards. The poor were not.
Belief or non-belief in an afterlife, belief in the return of the soul, fear of ghosts and evil spirits are all things which influence burial rites.
Rituals and ceremonies often accompany burials: these have many functions such as remembering and honouring the deceased, ‘sending off’ the soul of the deceased to another place and safeguarding the living against any evil.
Dead bodies decay, so in most communities, ways are found to dispose of the remains in such a way that they do not cause unpleasantness for those who remain behind.
In the animal kingdom carcasses are just left where they are and nature takes its course – ants, larvae, vultures and so forth, and pretty soon all is reduced to a skeleton. But in densely populated communities that are settled in one place, that is clearly no option.
But if you thought simple burial in the ground or cremation was what everyone did, you are in for a surprise.
But before you express surprise at any of the customs below, know that many of the funeral rituals that you might see as perfectly run-of-the-mill, others might see as distinctly weird and creepy. Think of open caskets in church funeral services or burials that may take place weeks after someone has died.
Here are some of the more out-of-the-way methods in which different communities have dealt with their dead over the centuries:
The hanging coffins of Bo. In South West China the Bo people (now extinct) dangled the coffins of their deceased on the side of a 300m cliff, where they can still be seen. They hammered wooden stakes on the side of the mountain and lowered the single-piece coffins down on ropes. Mountains were regarded as sacred places, and this practice also protected the bodies from scavengers.
Sky burial. This term is a bit misleading as bodies are cut up and left on top of a mountain or near a temple, where they are picked clean by vultures. Very soon, all that is left are clean, dismembered skeletons. Some sites suggest that this may be a practical way of doing things in areas where the ground is rock-hard or frozen solid, and there is almost no firewood around for cremation.
Sea burial. According to international law, the captain of any ship has the right to conduct an official burial service at sea. The reason for this is fairly obvious: in a small boat or ship, a decaying body is not only unpleasant, it also holds health risks. A burlap bag, used to carry cargo, is usually the burial shroud. The deceased is sewn inside, and sometimes a flag of their country is draped over the bag. A service is held on deck, and the bag dropped into the sea.
Viking burials. It is generally believed that Vikings were buried/burned in their longboats, but as these were very expensive, it was more likely to have been a much smaller replica of a boat. But they were buried with their armour, and sometimes reportedly also with their horses, in case they had to fight a battle on the other side.
Sati – an outlawed practice. In certain parts of India it was common practice for a widow to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre to demonstrate her grief and presumably to promote her husband’s well-being in the afterlife. Some gender activists believe this practice was encouraged to remove a person who might be a financial burden on the community now that her husband was gone. It is now illegal for anyone to encourage or coerce someone to commit sati, but despite its being outlawed several times, it still happens in rural areas from time to time.
Co-burial. In several ancient cultures the deceased was honored by having relatives, wives or servants/slaves killed and buried with them. This happened in ancient China, Egypt and Fiji. Pets were sometimes also buried with the body, as were several treasured objects. This last custom made grave-robbing a lucrative pursuit in ancient times.
Mummification. The ancient Egyptians are most famous for this. In order to do this, they would remove the brain and the organs from a body and pack the cavities with aromatic spices. It was then soaked in a salt bath for more than two months. It was then wrapped in a gummed cloth and placed in a sarcophagus. This method of preservation didn’t always work, but in some cases, it worked so well, that mummies discovered 2500 years after their deaths still had flesh on their bones.
Catacombs. The burying of church members underneath churches in consecrated ground became popular about 1000 years ago. Churches often accepted money for these burials, even after cemeteries and catacombs/ossuaries were full to overflowing. This was a health hazard in many mediaeval cities, whose principal source of water was wells. It was not uncommon for the churches to smell really awful, and at times it was almost impossible to use them for church services. Lime was used to speed up the decaying of the flesh, and often the remaining bones would be packed tightly into ossuaries that can still be viewed today. The catacombs of Paris are thought to hold the remains of over six million people.