Disposing of the dead - an introduction

The treatment of the dead through burial, cremation, preservation, and exposure of the body to carrion-feeders or the elements reflects a diversity of attitudes and beliefs about death and what it means. It is also a practical way of controlling the decomposition of the corpse.

Toraja burial site near Londa

 © Australian Museum Archives

There is perhaps nothing else so distinctive of the condition and character of a people as the method in which they treat their dead. William Tegg, 1876.

While there is evidence that some animals are aware of death and even mourn their dead, humans are the only species who mark the event. This can be the simple placement of the body in a shallow grave or far more elaborate rituals associated with honouring the dead that can last years.  

Burial

The word burial comes from the Anglo-Saxon word birgan, meaning to conceal. The earliest archaeological evidence for the deliberate treatment of the dead is in the form of ancient burials. In some cultures, the dead were buried in cemeteries as it was illegal to bring the dead into cities.

Obviously the smell of decaying flesh might alone be impetus to bury their dead, but when Neanderthals first started to bury their dead, they began by placing the body in the grave in either of two formalised ways; the flexed, or 'foetal' position; or the extended, or recumbent position. Neanderthals did not just cram the bodies into holes and cover them over. Pardi, M. Death an anthropological perspective.

Neanderthal burials

Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) dug holes to bury their dead. At Qazfeh in Israel, some 115,000 years ago, there is evidence of the deliberate burial and positioning of bodies in caves. In one example, the left hand of a buried child had been placed on a deer skull and antlers positioned on the child's neck. Neanderthal burials have also been found in southern France, the northern Balkans, Syria and Central Asia.

In Atapuerca, Spain, where over 200,000 years ago early hominids lived, there is some compelling evidence for 'funerary caching', or the intentional placement or grouping of bodies in caves. At La Sima de los Huesos (the Pit of Bones) the remains of more than 32 individuals of the species Homo heidelbergensis, a close relative of the later species, Homo neanderthalensis, have been recovered. There is no evidence that these hominids lived in the caves and only the bones of teenagers and young adults have been found, indicating that the bones may have been intentionally placed in the pit.
Other types of burial

The word burial has also been applied to funerary practices other than interment, such as sea burial, or tree burial (which usually precedes later interment). Secondary burial frequently occurs to terminate a period of mourning.

Cemeteries

The word cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion and the Latin coemetrium, both words for sleeping chamber. In many cultures it was illegal to bring the dead into their cities. In ancient Rome only people of the highest ranks were allowed to be buried within the cities walls. Ancient Greeks on the other hand buried their dead within their homes.

Exposure

Let my carcass rot where it falls. Lord Byron

Exposure of the body to the elements or to be consumed by animals achieves skeletonisation quickly and efficiently. It is sometimes the disposal method used for executed criminals or other people who have died unnaturally. Prisoners who died while on the French penal colony of Devil's Island were thrown to the sharks each day at four o'clock. However, in many cultures it is the desired disposal method - one which is natural, efficient and which counters the waste and earthly contamination of other methods. It can also reflect the belief that the physical body is unimportant once the soul or breath of life has gone. It is often combined with other methods of disposal.

Some Indigenous Australian and Native American cultures used to expose the body on a platform or in trees for some time to decompose. Later, they would collect the bones for burial.

Tibetan Buddhists and the Zoroastrians of India and Iran feed the bodies of their dead to vultures. In areas of the Solomon Islands, bodies were left in canoes to decompose or placed on a reef to be consumed by sharks. The Masai of Kenya relied on hyenas to dispose of the dead and the Djurs of Sudan placed the body of the deceased on a termite nest so the flesh could be stripped from the bones.

Preservation

Well preserved bodies are often referred to as 'mummies'. The name mummy comes from the Arabic word, mumia, which means bitumen. It was first used to describe the preserved bodies of Ancient Egyptians. The resins applied to Egyptian mummies to assist in the mummification process were mistakenly thought to be bitumen and the word came to be used to describe the preserved body itself. It is now applied to bodies that are both naturally and artificially mummified.

Unlike a skeleton or fossil, a mummy retains some of the body's soft tissue (skin, organs and muscles) it had when it was alive. Mummification can be achieved naturally in some environments that prevent the growth of bacteria or fungi and the appearance of insects. It can also be achieved artificially through techniques such as embalming, smoking, or the removal of internal organs.

Many cultures practised the process of deliberate mummification for many different reasons - to keep the body intact and recognisable for the afterlife, as a memorial to the dead, or out of fear of the spirits of the dead. Mummification occurred in places and cultures as diverse at those from China, North and South America, Australia, Tibet, Africa and throughout the Pacific.

The earliest deliberately preserved bodies are those of the Chinchorro culture of northern Chile which date back about 7000 years. Today, the preserved bodies of famous political leaders, such as Lenin and Mao Tse Teung, demonstrate the continuing urge to defy death in some way.

Cremation

Cremation is the disposal of a corpse by fire. It is an ancient and widespread practice, second only to burial. Some ancient cultures believed that fire was a purifying agent, and that cremation would light the way of the deceased to another world, or to prevent the return of the dead.

The Greeks are known to have cremated their dead as early as 3000 years ago. Cremation was the predominant mode of corpse disposal by the time of Homer 2700 years ago.

In Rome cremation became such a status symbol that constructing and renting space in columbariums (vaults or similar structures with niches in the walls to receive the ashes of the dead) became a profitable business. But by about 100 years into the spread of Christianity, cremations in the Roman Empire were stopped. Although cremation was not explicitly taboo among Christians, it was not encouraged because of pagan associations and because of the concern that it might interfere with the resurrection of the body and its reunion with the soul. Another more practical reason for the decline of cremations is that they were threatening to bring about serious wood shortages, since so much timber was being felled for pyres.

Cremation was rare in western Europe until the 19th century, except in emergencies. During an outbreak of the Black Death in 1656, for example, the bodies of 60,000 victims were burned in Naples during a single week.


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