New Worlds: Funerary Customs

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Since October is, for many of us, strongly associated with Halloween, it seems like a ideal time to talk about things related to death! (I will make it clear in the introduction to each essay what the topic is, so people can avoid discussions that might be upsetting to them, e.g. if they’re currently grieving for a loved one’s passing.)

Let’s begin with funerary customs — which is to say, the question of what happens to the body of the deceased.

One option is to try to preserve the body as completely as possible. Mummification is most strongly associated with Egypt, but it’s found in many other places as well — pretty much anywhere that had an arid climate, whether hot or cold. (And then you also have bog bodies, which are essentially the inverse: waterlogged and acidic conditions dissolve the bones but preserve the soft tissue.) The earliest mummies were accidental, with the environment desiccating flesh before it could rot; then people saw that happening and started looking for ways to do it on purpose. Sometimes they mummified the whole body, while other times it was just the head, or another body part like a hand.

The modern iteration of this is embalming. Mostly that’s a temporary measure, designed to keep the body from decaying unpleasantly during the funeral arrangements, but not always; the remains of Vladimir Lenin are still on display in his mausoleum, as lifelike as modern chemistry can make them. As with ancient mummification, the truly elaborate treatments tend to be the domain of the rich and powerful, who can afford (or whose families can afford) the necessary materials and expertise. The average citizen rarely gets such elaborate treatment. And then, moving toward the science fictional end of the spectrum, we have cryonics: low-temperature preservation done, not merely to prevent decay, but to theoretically enable later resuscitation.

Some societies go in the complete opposite direction, using cremation to destroy the body as thoroughly as possible. This practice is found worldwide and throughout history; in modern times it’s strongly associated with Asia, due to the influence of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other major religions that advocate cremation. It’s also gained a fair bit of currency in the modern West, as a much less wasteful alternative to burial (which can be quite expensive and creates problems for both land use and hygiene). But some faiths disapprove strongly of cremation: the “religions of the book” generally forbid or at least discourage it, for reasons ranging from perceived disrespect for the dead to its possible interference with the eventual resurrection of the body. And according to a professor of mine, the Zapotec in Oaxaca dislike cremation because the period after death is supposed to be a gradual transition from a nayaa state (living, green, wet) to a nabidxi one (dead, brown, dry). Cremation short-circuits that process — kind of turning you into an Instant Ancestor.

Of course, cremation doesn’t unmake the body entirely. It reduces it to ash, and in most cases there will also be some bone fragments left. What do you do with these? Scattering them to the wind is a common image, but so far as I’m aware, it’s a relatively modern idea. More often the ashes would be placed in an urn or other container and then placed somewhere else, like a mausoleum, a place of pride in the house, buried, and so on. It depends a lot on how the living expect to interact with the dead, which is a topic for an upcoming week.

This brings us around to burial, the other major funerary practice. Obviously you can (and sometimes do) bury a mummy or ashes, but at this point I’m talking about direct interment. Archaeologists separate this practice into two types: primary burial and secondary burial. The latter describes situations where the remains are first placed in one location (the primary burial), and then later moved to a different one. This is often connected with excarnation, the practice of defleshing a skeleton; you initially deposit the corpse in a place such as a cave or on a platform, then gather up the bones and shift them elsewhere. It’s also considered secondary burial when, as happened in Europe, you had to relocate bones from a grave to make room for a new occupant, or whole cemeteries had to be uprooted and replanted elsewhere. (The catacombs of Paris are a famous example.)

How do people get buried? In any way you can imagine, and also in ways you probably haven’t, unless you’re an archaeologist. Directly in the ground, or with fabric wrapped around the body. In a mausoleum. In a large clay pot. In a Cadillac — admittedly, that one’s an unusual modern example. In a coffin or sarcophagus: prone, supine, curled on the side, standing, or head down (sometimes as a punishment). Sometimes the body is positioned so that the head points in a cosmologically significant direction. In Japan people avoid placing their beds with the head to the north, because that’s how bodies are laid out before cremation; in Christian tradition, the dead are often buried with the head to the west, so that they will be looking in the direction of Christ’s second coming.

Where do people get buried? Just about anywhere you can imagine ditto ditto. In the modern West we tend to assume that cemeteries are large swaths of land placed some distance away, but in the past churchyards were often local and small (hence the need to relocate bones). Important people got burials within the church itself, either in an above-ground tomb or the floor, with a paving slab to serve as a grave marker. In other parts of the world, the dead might be buried under the floor of an ordinary home. Crossroads burial, like head-down positioning, sometimes shows up as a punishment or way to trap a spirit. In ancient Rome the necropolis was customarily outside the city walls, while elsewhere it might be some distance away, either to keep the dead well separate from the living or because of geographical symbolism. Sometimes graves are individual; sometimes they’re shared by a whole family; sometimes they’re mass burials, though when it’s primary burial that’s usually because of a battle, a plague, a massacre, or some other atrocity that discourages or prevents more individualized treatment. As usual, rich people get fancier burial locations — ornate tombs or pyramids or what have you — while the common folk don’t.

Those are the most common ways to deal with the body of a deceased person, but not the only ones. Tibetan sky burial, for example, is an example of excarnation, but without actual burial afterward. And there’s one significant custom I’ve skipped over here, because it will get its own post next week — can anyone guess what it is?

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Funerary Customs — 7 Comments

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  2. >can anyone guess what it is?
    The captain going down with his ship? The body disappearing (whether due to grave theft or being taken by a supernatural being) ?

      • Burial at sea, either viking-style in a boat or wrapped in canvas and dropped overboard?
        Cannibalism? (Rare as a societal custom, but I remember reading about the rare prion disease people on Borneo island suffered from because of this practice, long before the mad cow disease epidemic).

        • We have a winner! It is indeed cannibalism — which, while rare, is not unheard of. And since it’s so frequently misunderstood, I figured it deserves its own post.