Societies have a wide variety of ways of disposing of their dead, ranging from exposure of the body on the ground or in the branches of a tree, to burial in boxes, tombs or graves, and cremation. In many tribal societies, a buried body is dug up after a certain time, cleaned, and reburied in a collective grave.
The various funerary practices are often accompanied by rites, which anthropologists have shown to have the important function of reuniting a society following the rift caused by the death of one of its members. The overt purpose of these rites, however, is different. They are intended to assist the safe passage of the deceased’s spirit to the land of the dead and to ensure that it will not turn into a malevolent ghost. In many societies, the rites also are intended to effect the Reincarnation in the society of one of the deceased’s souls or some part of his or her spirit.
A good deal of attention has been given to the problem of when in history the first burials occurred. The interest in this question derives from the assumption that burial implies an awareness of death and of mourning, and that the beginning of burial practices therefore implies the dawn of a religious sense. However, given the variety of ways of disposing of bodies, this assumption would seem to be unfounded. Anthropologists have studied societies in which burial was proscribed, because it was thought to make the soul’s departure from the body and ascension to the heavens more difficult. There is no reason to think that human beings had no religious sense—or did not care about the future of their dead—before burial practices became commonplace. The attention that has been given to burial is probably a consequence of the fact that burial is the norm in modern European and American society.
To some extent, the form of mortuary treatment favored by a society depends on factors such as environment and general lifestyle. Hunting-and-gathering peoples, particularly nomadic ones, are more inclined to practice exposure, whereas more settled people often prefer burial. No strict correlation of this sort has been discovered, however, and little can be concluded except that the preferred method of disposal is usually rationalized in terms of the society’s religious beliefs.
Fear of the dead is widespread. According to Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, it was this fear, rather than reverence for the dead, that inspired the entire range of practices associated with death in tribal societies. Many things are done to make it difficult for the ghost to find its way back home. If death occurs inside a house, a hole may be made in a wall for the carrying out of the corpse and then blocked back up again, even if doors or windows are large enough to transport the corpse. In the Solomon Islands, the funeral procession returns home by a route different from the one by which they carried the corpse to the grave, lest it follow them back home (see Charms AGAINST Ghosts). In many societies, the corpse is tightly bound, perhaps even mutilated, with the idea that this will keep the ghost from “walking.” In southeast Australia, the Aboriginal tribes of the Herbert River used to break both legs and bore holes in the lungs, stomach, and other organs, in order to render the ghost harmless (compare to VAMPIRE). Ghosts are particularly to be feared in the first days after death, for they have not yet begun their journey to their new home, and are at their most potent (see Ghost SICKNESS).
At the same time as things are done to prevent the return of the ghost, certain other things are done to start the spirit on its journey. The Herbert River tribes buried a man with all his personal belongings, and put food and water at the burial place. His personal belongings he would take with him, and the food and water would nourish him on his way. In other places, slaves or animals may be sacrificed and buried with the corpse, especially if the person had been of some stature in the community. The body may also be positioned with its face away from the village and toward the land of the dead. The motive behind all such practices is similar; to assist the spirit to reach the land of the dead safely and with dispatch. Muslims bury their dead facing toward Mecca; Christians generally toward the west; many tribal societies toward the land of their ancestors.
Gravestones praise the dead and express hope for their immortality. In some cases, magical objects or pieces of iron may be placed on a grave to prevent the soul from wandering (see IRON).
All cemeteries are sacred grounds. The term “cemetery” is derived from the Greek for “sleeping chamber.” Originally it was applied to the catacombs of the dead in Rome, then to the consecrated grounds of a church, and now to any place where the dead are buried. Certain trees are planted in cemeteries. For example, cypress and pine in China are believed to give the departed strength for their journey (see CYPRESS).
Animistic soul concepts are more complex than Western religious ones, and it is not uncommon to find beliefs in more than one soul or spiritual entity, each of which has a different destiny after death, or a spirit which divides after death (see ANIMISM). Thus, in addition to traveling to the land of the dead, a different soul or spiritual part of a person may be thought to reincarnate, and certain funerary practices are intended to facilitate this process. This is especially true with regard to the place of burial or abandonment. Although fear of ghosts sometimes leads to the destruction of the deceased person’s house, burials may also occur within houses, which then continue to be occupied. This is especially true in the case of infants or of young children, whose spirits are thought to be too undeveloped to cause harm. By burying children inside the house (or just outside it), it is believed that their spirits would have an easier time finding their way back to the same mother (see Reincarnation).
Not only the method of disposal of the body, but rites and rituals which accompany the disposal, are designed to serve this triple function—prevent the ghost from returning to harm the living, assist the passage of the spirit to the land of the dead, and facilitate the Reincarnation of the soul in the community. The nature of the rites and rituals varies, but everywhere a successful outcome is thought to be dependent on carrying them out properly; if anything goes wrong, it is typically blamed on not having done everything as prescribed. In many societies there are a series of rites, which may include feasts and other festivals (see Feasts and Festivals of the Dead).
Sometimes there is a lengthy period—of a year or more—between the funeral and the final ceremony. In such cases, the final ceremony is often held in conjunction with a secondary burial, during which the body of the deceased is dug up and the bones are cleaned and then reburied, often with others in the same family line, or lineage. The wait is because a part of the deceased’s soul resides in the flesh, and it is only released as the flesh rots away. The French sociologist Robert Hertz, who first drew attention to these practices, considered that cremation originated as a way of speeding up this process. In any event, it is only after the final service that the spirit of the deceased is believed to have passed on to the land of the dead, and only then may his successor be appointed, his belongings be passed to his heirs, and his former wife remarry.
Modern American beliefs about the fate of the soul and funerary practices make an interesting contrast to tribal ones. Although there are many varying and sometimes confl icting beliefs about the afterlife among the heterogeneous American population, funerary practices are similar throughout the country; some are mandated by health laws. The general features include a rapid removal of the corpse to a funeral parlor, embalming, institutionalized “viewing,” and disposal by burial. The difference is perhaps because there is no longer a direct connection made between how a person is buried and what will happen to him or her in the afterlife.
- Bendann, Effie. Death Customs: An Analytical Study of Burial Rites. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1930.
- Dickson, D. Bruce. The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989.
- Hertz, Robert. Death and the Right Hand. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960.
- Huntington, Robert, and Peter Metcalf. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. London: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
- Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried, eds. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.