Cross Cultural Burial Rituals

I stumbled upon this list of 10 ‘extraordinary’ burial ceremonies that I want to pass onto you. Since we’re a anthropology focused community, it is very possible that you’ve heard of most of these rituals. I knew of several of them, but learned some new things as well.

The following are ones I found particularly noteworthy:

  1. Air Sacrifice – Mongolia
    The lama, the spiritual leader of the community is,

    “the only one allowed to touch the corpse, and a white silk veil is placed over the face. The naked body is flanked by men on the right side of the yurt while women are placed on the left. Both have their respective right or left hand placed under their heads, and are situated in the fetal position…

    …The body is taken away from the village and laid on the open ground. A stone outline is placed around it, and then the village dogs that have been penned up and not fed for days are released to consume the remains. What is left goes to the local predators.

    The stone outline remains as a reminder of the person. If any step of the ceremony is left out, no matter how trivial, bad karma is believed to ensue.”

  2. Sky Burial – Tibet

    “The deceased is dismembered by a rogyapa, or body breaker, and left outside away from any occupied dwellings to be consumed by nature…

    …The ceremony represents the perfect Buddhist act, known as Jhator. The worthless body provides sustenance to the birds of prey that are the primary consumers of its flesh.”

  3. Pit Burial – Pacific Northwest Haida
    The Haida of the American northwest coast,

    “…Simply cast their dead into a large open pit behind the village.

    Their flesh was left to the animals. But if one was a chief, shaman, or warrior, things were quite different.

    The body was crushed with clubs until it fit into a small wooden box about the size of a piece of modern luggage. It was then fitted atop a totem pole in front of the longhouse of the man’s tribe where the various icons of the totem acted as guardians for the spirits’ journey to the next world.”

  4. Predator Burial – Maasai Tribe
    The Maasai of East Africa, perform traditional burials but are reserved for only chief.

    “The common people are simply left outdoors for predators to dispose of, since Maasai believe dead bodies are harmful to the earth.”

  5. Skull Burial – Kiribati
    The inhabitants of the tiny island Kiribati, in the South Pacific, lay out the dead in the house for as long as twelve days, they then bury the dead.

    “Several months after internment the body is exhumed and the skull removed, oiled, polished, and offered tobacco and food. After the remainder of the body is re-interred, traditional islanders keep the skull on a shelf in their home and believe the native god Nakaa welcomes the dead person’s spirit in the northern end of the islands.”

Clearly, there’s a theme to the ones I found interesting. I’m very curious to with how others view the body as a vessel. In contrast to many Judeo-Christian burials, these ones I’ve outlined don’t adorn their dead with fancy gravestones and a $6,000 coffin. Instead, they believe the body should be returned into the ecosystem.

Some of the commenters in the original post added some more interesting burial practices not mentioned, such as the Hanging Coffins in the Philipines. I’ve got one to add that is similar with the ones I plucked from the Brave New Traveler post, the Zoroastrian burial rites.

Being Iranian, Zoroastrian culture is pretty deeply engrained. I’ve known for sometime that Zoroastrian people used to present the corpse to a dog, preferably a dog with a spot above each eye which is thought to have increased the efficacy of its gaze. This ritual is repeated five times a day. Since Zoroastrian religion revolves around light and fire, after the first rite, a fire is brought into the room and is kept burning until three days after the removal of the corpse to the Tower of Silence during daytime.

The Tower of Silence is composed of three areas, one for men, women, and children respectively. The corpses are exposed there naked and presented to vultures. Once the vultures do their thing, the remains are dried by the sun and then are buried into the central well.

I’m very curious to know the origin of this ritual, because of the remarkable similarity between the Mongolian and Tibetan practices. As you know the Mongols control Persia and Tibet for quite sometime, where I suspect these practices were exchanged, amongst other memes.

Do you have any interesting burial practices to share with us?

5 thoughts on “Cross Cultural Burial Rituals

  1. As for leaving your dead up high on a platform to be eaten and dry out these may be some reasons: Imagine that you are living in an area where you are unprotected by today’s modern buildings or walls. In this way, animals that I could go see in a zoo are free to run about your village. Your close friend dies and you bury her in a graveyard not to far from your home. The body begins to rot and maybe the soil you burried her in was kind of rocky so you couldn’t dig too far down and the soil begins to lift with the water. Wild animals race to the stench and consequently to your home, your family, your food and children. Now all of their lives are endanger. Maybe the body rots a while longer and the strench eventually reaches your homes. My solution would be to keep the platforms elevated downwind so predators couldn’t get to it, the stench would be more easily carried off and better yet the vultures would eat up the remains in no time. Plus maybe she had some religious beliefs and wants to be raised up closer to the gods as an offering? Who knows.

  2. In Samoa, apparently we buried our dead under our homes so that our ancestors stayed with us, but that the spirit travels to a place where the last of the sun sets, called pulotu – the underworld. It was probably the missionaries that discouraged this practice, but these days our relatives aren’t buried beneath us, but right beside our homes. So if you ever go to Samoa, you will see every extended family home has some pretty graves beside the houses. I read somewhere that the Mayans also buried the dead under their homes.

  3. Long ago, before I knew about sky burials and the like, I had decided my preferred disposal method would be to have my corpse propped up against a tree in the forest and let the creatures of all sizes feast on me. I figured that I had done enough eating in life that the least I could do was provide food for others, be a part of the chain. I’m happy to be reduced to nothing by the birds, beetles, bugs, and worms. Take me away, guys, and spread me everywhere.

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