Disposing of the dead - Exposure

Exposure of the body to the elements or to be consumed by animals achieves skeletonisation quickly and efficiently. Exposure is natural, efficient and 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.

Solomon Islands - Skull shrines

 © Australian Museum Archives

Solomon Islands

In the Solomon Islands, society is organised along clan and kinship lines. Pre-Christian religion focused on the ancestors and spirits, and the importance of treating ancestors with appropriate respect, in life as well as death. Deceased Islanders could be interred, cremated, exposed or thrown into the sea, or a combination of these methods.

When a person died, the body was taken a few yards away from the house and was placed in a net in a sitting position ... it was kept for a few weeks before the skull was removed, thoroughly washed in the sea and later taken to the burial site. Lawrence Foanaota, Director, Solomon Islands National Museum.

In the Solomon Islands, society is organised along clan and kinship lines. Pre-Christian religion focused on the ancestors and spirits, and the importance of treating ancestors with appropriate respect, in life as well as death. The ancestor spirits inhabit both places and things, and can be invoked for protection or assistance with agriculture, hunting, fishing and relationships. Death was regarded with suspicion and was never seen as accidental, but the result of angry or evil spirits.

Pre-Christian funerary rituals were complex and varied throughout the Islands. Deceased Islanders could be interred, cremated, exposed or thrown into the sea, or a combination of these methods. Exposure involving leaving the body to decompose, either placed on the rocks, or in a canoe, string bag or tied to a post was very common. In some areas, bodies were weighted with bags of sand or stones, and thrown into the sea.

The skulls of important people, such as chiefs or priests, were collected after initial disposal and stored in wooden effigies, model canoes or in mortuary huts or on stone altars. These then became sites of worship and sacrifice. Relics of commoners could also be stored in wooden figures in a private house.

Tibet

Tibetan Buddhists believe in life as a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. One method of disposal is exposure of the body to carrion-feeders such as vultures, but cremation is also practised and, in the past, some monks were preserved.

After death, the person has left their body and their mind or consciousness has travelled. This body is just a guesthouse in which our mind lives ... The body can't be serviceable without consciousness. So once the mind has left, the body becomes rotten like a dead tree. Dead trees are only useful for burning. Thupten Tashi, former Buddhist monk.

Death is not something to fear. You should be prepared for death. After death, the consciousness remains in an intermediate stage, known as bardo, a state between death and rebirth, for up to 49 days.

The deceased's body is attended by monks or qualified practitioners who chant and read from the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead). Lamps are lit and offerings of food and drink are made. Only certain people are allowed to handle the body as it is prepared for disposal. The method and timing of the disposal of the body is determined using astrology. One method of disposal is exposure of the body to carrion-feeders such as vultures, but cremation is also practised and, in the past, some monks were preserved.

On the designated day, the body is taken to the cemetery or cremation ground, depending on the method of disposal selected. The funeral procession includes mourners, monks and nuns who recite mantras.

If the body is exposed to the elements, then it is taken to the cemetery, tied to a stake and undressed. Corpse-cutters throw pieces of flesh to the vultures. The bones may be buried or pounded up and mixed with meal and fed to the vultures as well.

The form of Buddhism practised in Tibet includes the study of tantras - specific ritual texts. It differs from other forms of Buddhism in that it professes the accelerated passage to enlightenment through specific ritual practices.

Imagery of skeletons and the use of human bones and skin in key rituals help to dispel fear about death. In the past, human femur (thigh bone) trumpets and skull drums were used for creating the necessary sounds during important rituals. These objects are ritual items which were used and worn by some Tibetan monks.

Zoroastrians, Iran and India

Zoroastrians are from pre-Islamic Iran and are followers of the prophet Zarathushtra (known to the Greeks as Zoroaster), who lived and preached around 3500 years ago. The preferred body disposal method for Zoroastrians is by exposure to sunlight and birds of prey.

 

Once a person has died, the body is of no value or importance. It is a shell to be disposed of as soon as possible, preferably to be returned to nature from whence we came. Purviz Kolsawalla, Sydney.

Zoroastrians are from pre-Islamic Iran and are followers of the prophet Zarathushtra (known to the Greeks as Zoroaster), who lived and preached around 3500 years ago. Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Iran for over 1000 years, until the arrival of Islam in the 7th century. In the 10th century, some Zoroastrians settled in India, becoming known as the Parsis ('Persians').

Zoroastrians believe in a cosmic dualism: that life is a battle between good and evil. It is their duty to preserve the 'seven creations' - the sky, waters, earth, plants, cattle, man and fire. Fire is particularly powerful, being the source of light, warmth and life, as well as the intermediary between themselves and God.

The body of a deceased person, believed to be contaminated by nasu (decomposition), must only be prepared and transported by special people called nassesalars. The corpse must be disposed of as quickly and efficiently as possible, and preferably without coming into contact with fire, water or the earth.

The preferred disposal method for Zoroastrians is by exposure to sunlight and birds of prey, but this method is only permitted in India, through the use of the dokhma. In Iran, where the dokhmas were banned in the early 20th century, people are sometimes buried in concrete-lined tombs, and in Australia, most Zoroastrians are cremated. In India, severe reductions in the vulture population in recent years, has prompted debates over alternative methods of disposal.

The dokhma is a circular stone tower which is open to the sky to allow sunlight and birds of prey to enter. The design allows for the drainage of body fluids and rain through the central well, which only the corpse-bearers are permitted to enter. Large bones are disposed of in the central pit, and covered by a layer of lime to aid their decomposition. The funeral ceremony of the Guebres', from Dr William Hurd, [1788] A new universal history of the religious rites, ceremonies and customs of the whole world. Printed for Alexander Hogg, London.

During a Zoroastrian funeral ceremony in India today, a dog is brought in to view the deceased. The purpose is not to receive the deceased's soul, but to confirm that the person really is dead.


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