If one of your beloved passes away these days, you don’t have many options as to what happens to the body. Time magazine wrote in 2016 that in the USA, around half of the dead were cremated and the other half buried. If it’s the former, an oven is heated from somewhere between 1,400 and 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (760 Celsius – 871 Celsius). The body is turned to ashes and then the grieving friends and family can throw them off a cliff and hope the wind doesn’t blow dear Uncle Joe all over their sad faces.
If you are buried, generally about 6 feet (1.8 meters) under, the body will usually become all but skeleton within about 8-12 years without a coffin, and with one, up to 50 years or even more. It wasn’t always that simple though, and that’s what we’ll look into today, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Burial and Funeral Traditions Throughout History.
So, there isn’t really much you can do with a body. You can burn it, which seems to be the most common thing throughout history, or you can bury it. You could also eat it, a practice called “Endocannibalism”, which according to some scholars, was common in prehistory. It has also been recorded as happening with the Aghoris of northern India, the Amahuaca Indians of Peru, the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, and also in other parts of South America and Africa.
They didn’t eat the dead because they were hungry; this was mostly a sign of respect, and to some extent gaining the powers of those that passed. If it was a matter of hunger, it didn’t happen often, and was more likely starving people just surviving, as happened to those Uruguayan guys whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972, and that group of American pioneers that got lost in Sierra Nevada in the 1800s. That wasn’t a tradition, however, but as we say, eating the dead has been a tradition in some cultures and supposedly back when we were hunter/gatherers.
But we also know that we were burying our friends up to 100,000 years ago. We know this as we have the evidence. There is something that was found in Israel called the Qafzeh Cave, and there the remains of the dead were thought to have been ceremoniously buried – not just accidentally in the ground. We know this because the site is decorated. As for tradition, well, archeologists found that some of the skulls were painted red. It’s an ongoing argument between scholars, but it’s thought we may have been burying our dead as far as 300,000 years ago.
The only reason we know that there was ceremonial burying is because things like animal bones and tools were usually in the grave when the remains were found. The Neanderthals, some scholars tell us, practiced something called excarnation, which means taking off the flesh and taking out all the organs and just burying the skeleton. It may have been so those tasty parts could have been eaten, but it could also have been out of respect, or just so animals wouldn’t dig up the dead person and have a feast. But let’s move on a few years.
Later we got these things called tombs, and if you’ve heard of any famous tombs, then you’ve heard of the Egyptian pyramids. These feats of engineering and human will power were mostly burial sites for the great pharaohs. The most famous of those is no doubt the Giza pyramid complex, built around 2560–2540 BC. Anyhow, the people back then believed that if you embalmed a body and buried it, then one day it would rise again in the next world. Not everyone got to go into this magnificent tomb, so the Egyptians also had what was called mastabas, which were not as fancy as pyramids. The slaves didn’t get any kind of tomb and were probably lucky if they got so much as a goodbye and thanks for carrying those heavy stones.
But not as many people talk about the burial mound of Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland, which is said to be the world’s oldest building that is pretty much intact. Built in 3300 BC – 2900 BC, it has underground passages that lead to magnificent tombs.
The Vikings, on the other hand, mostly cremated their dead, but burying happened a lot too. If you are thinking everyone was sent off on a funeral boat smacked with fiery arrows, you are wrong, this was only for very special people. What’s more interesting is where you went after you died. If you sat on your backside and were a lazy sob, you went to a place called Helheim. A dark place, we are told, and not a great location to spend eternity.
Apparently, even if you were just sick and died in bed, you went there. If you were a brave warrior, you went to Folkvangr or Valhalla, the place of the blessed. Yes, this was old school propaganda, and the best way you could get poor folks to die so rich folks could have more money. Honor and the afterlife isn’t a thing that has completely died out, even today. The Vikings were often buried with their belongings, their axes and swords and things they treasured, and sometimes even a horse.
Ok, you’re thinking, we get it, the people of the past buried their important folks with their precious things and sometimes the truly powerful were buried deep in magnificent buildings as a sign of respect and the hope they would rise again. But come on, tell us something we don’t know.
Ok, well, what about the Bo people in Southwest China, who laid out their dead on ledges on cliffs. You can still see evidence of that today. It’s like burial for people into X-sports. In fact, Asia is the most interesting place regarding burial traditions.
In many parts of Asia, burial or funerals aren’t anything like what happens in the west. Have you ever been to a funeral in Thailand? The Thais believe it takes days for the spirit to leave the body and move on, so the ceremony lasts a while as the soul gets its bags packed. Sometimes this is not a sad event, and people actually set-up mini-casinos, start 5-day long card games, and drink incredible amounts of booze, at the place where the body is kept. It may sound cold, but the Thais believe the soul just moves on, so death is not the end. Once the soul has travelled, the body can be cremated.
Over in India, there once was a tradition known as Sati. When those marauding Brits found out about this, many said it wasn’t exactly ethical and they wanted it banned. What was it? Well, if a woman’s husband died, the wife was expected to jump on the funeral pyre and burn with him, in rather more pain, we should say. Why? No one really knows, maybe because she could be with him in the afterlife, and some even say it existed to prevent women from killing their own husbands. It was a sign of respect, anyway, but there’s often more to strict traditions than meets the eye.
Sometimes it’s said they had a choice, but much of the time they were kinda passionately encouraged by the locals, and sometimes even dragged to the fire. It wasn’t only in India that this happened, with Egyptian culture, Greek culture, as well as Goth and Scythian culture, sharing the same disturbing cultural trait. The Times of India said in 2009 that Sati was pretty much dead and buried, but in the late 20th century, there were a few instances in which women tried to do it of their own accord, and a few other times they were forced by locals who didn’t want to let go of the tradition.
It seems death can be a bummer not only for the dead. In West Papua, New Guinea, there was a ritual – thought to be banned now – in which any women related to the dead guy, as well as children related to him, had to cut off their fingers after the geezer died. They were lopped off with an axe, and it’s thought this warded off bad spirits.
One of our favorites, and you can see some pretty great pictures online of this, is Famadihana. This is a funeral tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. In this tradition, you must wait a long time until the dead body is completely decomposed, and as you know, this can take many years.
You then exhume what’s left and sometimes wrap it in sheets, or even clothes, and walk about the village with it. “For us, death after the bones are decomposed will take us to a second life — a life that is similar to the living life,” explained one person to CNN. There is drinking and music and dancing, but sadness is completely forbidden. When the party is over, and hangovers are already latent, the body is returned to the grave. In some ways, it’s kind of like coming out of retirement and playing that one last game of football.
As for dancing, we love the expression “La Danse Macabre”, which means the dance of death. It can be used in a poetic way for relating to someone flirting with death, but it originated in the Middle Ages as a way of coping with dying. It was a way of celebrating the fact that we are all the same, commoner or king, all united on the other side. You must remember this was a time of plagues, droughts, famines, and God knows what else, so death with a dance made a crumby existence more palatable. So when someone was buried, you did this dance.
A kind of Dance Macabre is the Irish wake. While funerals in many parts of the world can be sorrowful affairs in which no one is allowed to smile, the Irish, as The Guardian said in 2017, often do things a totally different way. They enjoy the dance macabre – not always we might add. The women may wail, and the blokes may hide their tears, but the Irish wake shows us that we are brave, that we are equal, that we are together, that we fight on and accept our mortality.
It is courageous to laugh in the face of death and to be resilient when a friend dies. Some people talk about the “Western Death Machine,” in that we have made too much of death, spend too much money on it, think too much about it, are even narcissistic about how good our own funeral will be. The Irish to some extent meet death head on and don’t pussyfoot around it.
Have you ever been to a Chinese funeral? It can be like other funerals we have mentioned, in that it takes some days for the dead to pass onto the next stage. Like in some other parts of Asia, people generally stay with the dead body as it passes, and this can actually be fun. Like Thailand, this might mean a very simple casino being set up, but as CNN reported in 2017, it might also mean strippers being hired to dance. If you have experienced something like this, it might shock you as a westerner, but in the Far East, it is seen as fair game. You just have peel back your western eyes and get your head around it.
Death should be fun, we should respect our loved ones by seeing them go with a bang. And if you didn’t have many friends, and your family want to save face, you can actually hire professional funeral mourners who will turn up and cry a river of tears for a few dollars. It’s not just China, either. Professional mourners, also known as moirologists, can be found all over Asia. And if you have ever been to one of these Asian party-funerals, you’ll also know that in the boondocks, it’s not unusual for strangers to turn up and pretend they knew the dead. Their reason? Because there is so much free food and booze on offer.
Well, these are just a few weird burial and funeral traditions. We also know that Jews tear their clothing, cover their mirrors, and sit on the floor for a week, in a tradition known as shiva. Can you think of other bizarre burial and funeral traditions? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called What happens when you die?! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!