Body Disposition in Cross-Cultural Context: Prehistoric and Modern Non-Western Societies

Keith P Jacobi. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The method of disposal of human remains varies from culture to culture, prehistorically and historically. For those archaeologists who study the prehistory of cultures, the method of body disposal offers important insight for understanding both tangible and intangible aspects of cultural systems. In prehistoric mortuary practices, the location of the bodies, the skeletal material, and some of the inclusions within the burial crypt are the only artifacts that remain after the culture is gone. Gone are the words said and actions performed around the body. Gone are the people who witnessed the burial. Brad Bartel (1982) equates this with the classic psychological example of the black box. In the classic black-box example, there is a known input into the black box containing an unobservable object, which results in an observable output. With prehistoric mortuary practices, we have an unobservable input, such as social relationships, views on death, and premortem behavior of the participants. These mortuary preparations produce an observable input—namely, the corpse disposal unit with possible remaining inclusions (such as skeletal remains, clothing, and other material goods), location, and crypt construction material—leading to an unobservable output; that is, postmortem-related behaviors among survivors include events before, during, and after the body is interred (Bartel 1982:53-55).

Through ethnographic research, it is possible to determine the placement of the body and associated burial inclusions and to record the input and output behaviors that surround death. For example, Bendann ([1930] 1969) found that each society had certain criteria of how, where, and if an individual will be buried. These criteria were often based on rank, sex, age, and segmental office within the clan. The criterion of rank existed in Melanesia where commoners were thrown into the ocean, but a chief’s body was buried (Bendann [1930] 1969:197).

Although it is impossible to positively establish the details of prehistoric mortuary behavior, ethnographic examples offer some insight into mortuary practices of prehistoric people (Brown 1971). Care must be exercised, however, in selecting ethnographic material for inference. For example, material derived too far geographically from the region of focus may not be applicable. One must also realize that the ethnographic material used for inferences is not necessarily an exact replica of the prehistoric mortuary behavior. The variation among prehistoric, historic, and modern societies on the subject of mortuary practices and views on death are so great that cultural and historical surveys render difficulty to any effort to classify, categorize, and generalize (Bloch and Parry 1982; Brown 1995). In Metcalf and Huntington’s (1991) Celebrations of Death, the authors note that

corpses are burned or buried, with or without animal or human sacrifice; they are preserved by smoking, embalming, or pickling; they are eaten raw, cooked, or rotten; they are ritually exposed as carrion or simply abandoned; or they are dismembered and treated in a variety of these ways. Funerals are the occasion for avoiding people or holding parties, for fighting or having sexual orgies, for weeping or laughing, in a thousand different combinations. (P. 24)

Views on death and mortuary behavior can range from the very personal to societal. Death beliefs and accompanying mortuary beliefs are dynamic.

Early Hominids and Death

Most of the early fossil hominids that have been found do not offer insight into the beliefs on death and accompanying mortuary practices. The process of fossilization precludes that. Remains are fossilized when the individual incurs a rapid burial by sediments soon after death. This is evident in the preservation of the “First Family” found in the Hadar region in Ethiopia, in which the famous “Lucy” Australopithecus afarensis skeleton was discovered (Johanson and Edey 1981). The First Family remains are a collection of bones that represent at least 13 Australopithecus afarensis individuals dating back some 3.0 to 3.4 million years. A catastrophe of some type rapidly buried all these individuals (Johanson and Edey 1981). Similarly, the remains of the “Turkana Boy,” a Homo erectus specimen dating to 1.5 million years ago, found at Nariokotome in Kenya, is so well preserved because it is believed that a marshy environment aided in the quick natural burial after death of this boy, thus preventing predators and bacteria from destroying tissue (Walker and Leakey 1993).

At Bodo in the Middle Awash area of Ethiopia an “archaic” Homo sapiens cranium, dating to approximately 600,000 years ago, gives insight into early man’s beliefs on death. The Bodo cranium includes the unmistakable cut marks of a sharp implement just under the left eye orbit, inside the orbit, in the nasal region, and on the cranial vault (White 1986, 1992). The appearance of these cut marks created perimortem by a stone tool on bone suggests the possibility of interpersonal violence or the intentional defleshing of a hominid for probable human consumption. It is not known if cannibalism was performed, but it is clear that defleshing of the cranium of the Bodo individual did take place. One could evaluate the handling of these remains several ways. After death, the Bodo individual was either viewed as a vanquished enemy or a fellow sapien relation who represented a food source. Reasons for why the dead were treated in this manner or whether “archaic” Homo sapiens held beliefs on death remain unknown.

Debate occurs among scholars as to whether or not the Neandertals ritualistically buried their dead. It is not yet known if burials were the result of planning that involved spiritual mortuary procedures or whether such burial was a practice intended to prevent disturbance by animals or other sapiens. Paleoanthropologists focus on one Neandertal individual, a child who may have been buried at Border Cave in Africa up to 80,000 years ago, and a number of other Neandertal individuals thought to have been buried in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia as the current corpus of data available for discussion of the pros and cons for ritualistic disposal of the dead (Stringer and Gamble 1993).

The Neandertals did consciously “dispose” of their dead. At Atapuerca in northern Spain, hills are riddled with caves. Excavation in the deposits (called the Gran Dolina) of one of these caves yielded a site known as Sima de los Huesos or pit of bones (Arsuaga, Bermúdez de Castro, and Carbonell 1997). Located by descending a 13-meter chimney into a cave from which small tunnels lead approximately 500 meters into the cave system, this pit of bones yielded both animal and hominid bones. Approximately 166 separate bear remains and 32 hominid individuals have been found in what is believed to be a mortuary disposal of remains left by Neandertals (Arsuaga et al. 1997; White 2000). Dating to approximately 300,000 years ago, the site is also thought to hold evidence of cannibalism.

At La Ferrassie in France, eight excavated graves of the Neandertal provide some evidence of the deliberate disposal of the dead. Although no clear burial pits were found, all the individuals are buried in a relatively close grouping, and two adults were buried head to head. Another individual was buried under a triangular stone. At the Neandertal sites of Tabun (Israel: 138,000-178,000 years old), Shanidar (Iraq: 60,000-80,000 years old), Kebara (Israel: 60,000 years old), and Amud (Israel: 45,000-60,000 years ago) in the Middle East, there is definite burial of the dead (Tattersall and Schwartz 2000). Clearly, the individuals are interred in a common burial position called a flexed position, which involves placing the body into the burial pit with arms and legs drawn toward the chest (Klein 1989). It was noted that the flexed mode of interment was found in 16 of the 20 better-documented Neandertal burial contexts (Klein 1989).

Stringer and Gamble (1993) relate the burial of Neandertals to carnivore behavior, stating that burials

appear when and where they do because of local shifts in carnivore behavior away from using caves and rockshelters, and not as a consequence of the birth of symbolic behaviour…. the preservation of complete bodies in open sites during the Upper Palaeolithic indicates a deliberate custom, closer in concept to what we regard as a burial than the Neanderthal practice, which was probably more akin simply to corpse disposal. (P. 160)

The “flower burial” at Shanidar Cave, a site located in Iraq, serves as another example of deliberate burial with the addition of perishable mortuary offerings. At this site, an elderly male was unearthed, and palynological or pollen studies of the soil recovered from the burial context indicate that the individual was probably covered in flowers at the time of interment (Trinkaus and Shipman 1992). The findings suggest that a spring interment may have taken place in which a Neandertal symbolic concern was expressed over a recently deceased individual. Pollen contamination of this burial could have taken place, however, with postdepositional processes such as rodent burrowing or wind activity moving the pollen from other areas into the burial pit.

Skeletal analysis of Neandertals indicates that they lived a short, harsh life during which healed fractures were not uncommon. One Shanidar individual was found to have experienced many debilitating injuries such as blunt trauma to the head; a fractured eye socket; a damaged right arm with resultant atrophy of the shoulder blade, collar bone, and upper arm; a missing lower right arm and hand caused by either atrophy or amputation; a fractured foot and lower right leg; and advanced degenerative disease of the ankle and big toe (Trinkaus and Shipman 1992:340).

These devastating healed injuries indicate that the individual was taken care of by others. Such compassion undoubtedly would have carried over into treatment that prevented animal tampering, human dismembering, or defleshing of the body.

The African Continent

Ancient Egypt

Egypt and its pyramids and mummies serve as a primary example in which the ritual surrounding death and subsequent body disposition were a major focus of early Egyptian people. The complexity of the hieroglyphic language and religion; the magnificence and seemingly unending number of pyramids, pyramid fields, and tombs emerging from the shifting sands; the longevity and effects of its culture; and the beautiful and gruesome preparation of the corpse after death all combine to create a mystical, enigmatic, and fascinating scene that attracts scholars to study this ancient population. Countless scholarly archaeological studies, as well as popular works, report on the tombs and mummies of Egypt.

One recent study conducted by Meskell (2001) summarizes ancient Egyptian death practices. Ancient Egyptians lived in a “mausoleum culture,” and they held dual views on death (Baines and Lacovara 1996; Meskell 2001:32). Meskell (2001:29) describes that much of the focus in the daily lives of the ancient Egyptians was focused on preparation for the time they would die. Texts and tombs of these ancient people describe and provide visual evidence of the virtues of an afterlife, indicating that the state of death is only a transitional condition. One should be complete or perfect for the afterworld, and therein lay the real view of the Egyptian attitude toward death. But a pervasive fear existed because tombs were looted and bodily desecration occurred, thereby making mummies and mortuary items incomplete. The Egyptians believed missing body parts represented the loss of the body itself, in the words of Meskell (2001), “the loss of one meant the loss of all” (p. 29). This loss included spiritual parts of the individual that would become manifest only after death (Meskell 2001). Early Egyptian mortuary literature emphasized the propriety of wholeness. If dismembered, decapitated, or burned, such incompleteness of the body, it was believed, would relegate the soul to a state of limbo, never to arrive in the afterworld. Such a liminal phase thus symbolized a second death (Faulkner 1994:154).

Fearing the condition of incompleteness, Egyptians also feared the influence of the ancestors who were thought to be in the liminal phase. Thus early Egyptians behaved in a pious and pure manner toward the gods and they honored the dead. A portion of text written by one Egyptian demonstrates the need to seek favor from a deceased relative.

“Let (me) petition for my brother,”
so that I may make […] in [their] hearts,
whether they are great or small.
It is you who will speak with a good speech
in the Necropolis.
Indeed, I did not commit an abomination
against you
while you were on earth,
and I hold to my behavior.
Swear to god in every manner,
saying “What I have said will be done!”
I will not oppose your will in any utterance
until I reach you.
[May you act] for me (in) every good manner,
if one can hear.
— (as quoted in Meskell 2001:31)

The Personalized Coffins of Modern Ghana

During the past 100 years, three generations of coffin makers produced some of the more interesting coffins found throughout the world. Ata Owoo (1904-76), Kane Kwei (1922-92), Sowah (born in 1954), and Paa Joe (born in 1945) are master carpenters who create funerary art in an area that includes seven Ga villages on the coast of Ghana. Palanquins and coffins are made into the shape of eagles, lions, leopards, antelopes, cocoa pods, pirogue, fish (red fish, striped fish, mauve fish, sardine), butterflies, whales, canoes, crayfish, cows, corn cobs, onions, peppers, sport boots, crabs, doves, elephants, fishing nets, houses, airplanes, boats, cars (Chevrolets, Mercedes), buses, oil drums, books (Bibles), trowels, saws, planes (the tool), campers, drums, and even a chicken (Secretan 1995). These colorful coffins are intended to depict the “success in life” or occupation of the deceased (Secretan 1995:9). For example, a fisherman would have a coffin made into the shape of a fish, and the type of fish selected is based on characteristics that define the nature of the person. A boxer was buried in a sports boot. A garage owner was buried in an oilcan. Academics are buried in a parrot-shaped coffin with a pen in its mouth. An eagle coffin is solely a distinction for chiefs (Secretan 1995). Although coffins illustrate the dynamic nature of mortuary ritual practice and views pertaining to “the self” in a small area of Ghana, the practice of making coffins also is a business, as noted by Secretan (1995:21).

The Kurgans of the Ancient Scythians of the Ukraine

One of the more unique mortuary treatments of the dead involves the Scythians who inhabited the central and southern portions of what is currently known as the Ukraine during the period 6th century B.C. through the 3rd century A.D. The Scythians are known for their superior military tactics, horsemanship, stamina, and savagery in battle as well as for the practice of placing exotic and gold artifacts in their burials. The Scythians also were quite ceremonial in their burial practice.

In the area north of the Black Sea known to have been inhabited by the ancient Scythians, thousands of kurgans or burial mounds create a “grave landscape” (Rolle 1989: 19-20). Usually, the Scythian kurgans rise the highest on the landscape. One such kurgan is especially interesting in its burial content. In 1898, in the northern Caucasus, N. I. Veselovski, a Russian archaeologist, excavated a burial mound at Aul Ul’ known as kurgan 1. What was uncovered is a snapshot of Scythian life recorded in the context of a mortuary site. It is thought that the remains found in the kurgan represent the “last council meeting” (Rolle 1989:44-45). In the center of the mound is a burial chamber that had been disturbed by looters, but on two sides of the burial chamber the remains of 360 slaughtered horses were found. Adjacent to the burial chamber are the remains of slaughtered cattle. The slaughtered horses were carefully placed on two sides of wooden barriers or ringed around 12 posts, 6 posts to each side of the burial chamber. The posts have pegs and notches suggesting that the horses were tied to the posts and then killed. The entire burial scene depicts a probable arrangement of what a Scythian council meeting would have looked like with all its members participating. The slaughtering of 360 horses indicates a great honor bestowed on the individuals buried in the central chamber, for horses were very important to the Scythians (Rolle 1989).

Twentieth-Century Russia

Russians survived most of the 20th century by being silent. World wars, revolution, murderous purges, political repression, Siberian slave labor camps, postwar famine, more murder and mass execution, earthquakes, a war in Afghanistan, and Chernobyl—all were responsible for creating a culture of death. Because death is so pervasive in the Russian society, the citizens proceed through life with what is described as a casual attitude toward death, and they appear to be outwardly numb to the death that surrounds their daily lives.

Catherine Merridale (2000) recounts that bones were everywhere, a part of the landscape, especially in the former Gulag. She cites Adam Hochschild’s (1994:xxiv) account of a visitor to the former Gulag who observed that bones lay all over the place and “in the summer children used human skulls to gather blueberries” (Merridale 2000:300). It wasn’t until Glasnost in the late 1980s and the early 1990s that Russians began to break their silence about their memories of death. They began to make futile attempts to identify the bones of the past. They attempted to memorialize individuals who died in the past and who had once caused them to remain silent for fear of retribution. Merridale’s conversations with average citizens focus on daily life patterns, but these interactions include discussion of death no matter where the exchange takes place. As Merridale (2000) observes, “Somewhere in the conversation come the dead” (p. 339).

At a gravesite at Butovo near Moscow, Russian archaeologists found burial pits, “each one of which is three meters wide and several kilometers in length. The pits run under apple trees, beneath an orchard that was planted in the 1960s and 1970s as deliberate camouflage” (Merridale 2000: 301-2). It is possible that upward of 100,000 people were killed and buried at Butovo from the late 1930s to the 1950s (Merridale 2000). Findings like these did make it into the newspapers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, breaking the silence that had been in place throughout the 20th century. Kitchen conversations among family members and friends would no doubt be vocal when viewing newspaper photographs showing young volunteer workers at gravesites.

Beside them were fresh trenches and box upon box of femurs and vertebrae, sharp rib cages, and bits of pelvis. Used Soviet bullets were lined up on sacking for the camera, and there were always rows of skulls, hundreds of them at a time, fractured, blackened, anonymous, the ones in the front row chosen carefully so that each showed its single, jarring, neatly symmetrical hole. (Merridale 2000:302)

Despite their contemporary efforts to discuss and memorialize death, when it comes to dying, Russians are still caught in the mortuary procedures of the past. Their bodies might be allowed to be taken to the morgue after a bribe has been paid to transport them in a “battered-looking bus” (Merridale 2000:341). Funeral ceremonies are drab and cemeteries are bleak. The Khovanskoe Cemetery located in Moscow is 500 acres of land that is difficult to access. Graves are difficult to locate, given the thousands of monuments, and the cemetery is prone to flooding, so Russians generally visit this cemetery only during the winter months when the ground is frozen. There are “tables for the ritual food, the pictures of dead parents engraved into the stones, gilded words and dates, plastic flowers, real flowers, lengths of ribbon, bold red stars” (p. 279). The cemetery is dirty with trash, cigarette butts, graffiti, and dead birds (p. 279).

Some Russians desire to create a new culture of death. They desire to bring death “back its artistic quality” and “to make it beautiful, serious, to make it something to consider” (Merridale 2000:280). There is even a movement to include burial architecture that harkens back to the kurgans of the Scythians (Merridale 2000).

The Ladders of Turkmenistan

The Turkish people of Turkmenistan follow Islamic traditions. The deceased individual must be buried within 24 hours, and care is taken to ritually cleanse the body with specially prepared water from “special pans” (Blackwell 2001:78). It is believed that the living should attempt to free themselves from sin by participating in the ritual of cleansing the bodies of the dead at least seven times during their lifetimes. Thus there is a duality of ritualistic cleansing of sins that involves both the dead individual and the bather.

While the body is being prepared, the news of the death of the individual is transmitted to interested parties. Relatives attend funerals and if unable to do so, this fact is verbally conveyed to members of the immediate family of the deceased. The presence of a large number of people at the funeral procession is indicative of the degree of respect the deceased held among community members. The body is laid on a ladder and carried to the burial site. On the basis of traditional belief, the corpse is carried headfirst to allow the decedent to view well-wishers in attendance at the funeral. The ladder supporting the body plays an important part in the burial landscape as well. Once the internment occurs, the ladder is partially interred, extending upward out of the grave (Blackwell 2001), thereby serving as a grave marker.

A division of labor begins to function upon the death of an individual. As a bearer of life, women are not involved in the interment of the body; this is a task for males. But older women are included in the mortuary ceremony through the singing of lamentations known as agylar. These lamentations are sung on the day of the burial as well as on the 3rd, 7th, and 40th day after burial when the dead are honored through the sharing of food among friends (Blackwell 2001).

The ultimate destination for the dead is paradise, but the process is a rough journey, as described in one agylar.

For a man.
He who goes there won’t come back,
He’ll not return as he was before.
Those paths have adversities,
An iron fence surrounds the path,
If we want to go there, we cannot,
If we want to see him, we cannot. (Blackwell 2001:161)

Such rituals remain in force even during a period of crisis. During World War II, for example, women sang songs for the dead each day after working in the fields to ensure that Turkmen dying in battle received respect through songs of mourning. This ritual occurred even though war dead were not quickly buried, as is the Islamic tradition.

India and the Towers of Silence

The method of body disposal among the Parsis of India and in some areas of Tibet is quite distinctive from that of other cultures. The Parsis of India are descendants of Iranians who follow the Zoroastrian religion. To continue practicing their religious beliefs, these individuals migrated to India where they became known as the Parsis.

The Zoroastrian method of body disposal involves the practice of excarnation. The body is left to be acted on or defleshed by the elements. As a part of the funerary ritual Dakhmenashini, practiced by early Iranian Zoroastrians, the Parsis used excarnation after migrating to India. Changes to the mortuary process, however, were introduced that are distinctively Parsi (Palsetia 2001).

The Parsis built dakhmas. Commonly known as “towers of silence,” two of the earliest towers of silence were built in India toward the end of the 13th century and during the first decade of the 14th century to service individuals residing in and around Broach in Gujarat. Between 1670 and 1675, the first tower of silence was built in Bombay. Towers of silence are circular brick towers, usually constructed atop the highest hill. The structure is wider than it is high with a structural interior that is open to the sky. When viewed from above, the tower’s interior appears similar to an amphitheater with a circular pit or well at its center. The interior has three concentric circles of stone coffins with walkways between them surrounding the open well in the center of the structure. When a Parsi dies, he or she is brought to the tower of silence by nasesalars, a caste of corpse bearers who are charged with the responsibility of handling the dead. Parsis believe that to touch a corpse is to become physically polluted given that Zoroastrians believe the corpse to be “extremely impure, and should not defile any of the sacred ‘elements,’ such as Earth or Fire” (Kreyenbroek 2001:8). The nasesalars place the body in one of the open concentric circle stone coffins; males are placed in the outer circle, females in the middle circle, and children in the interior circle. The following description comes from and article by Monier Williams (Times of London, January 28, 1876):

Two [corpse] bearers speedily unlocked the door, reverently conveyed the body of the child into the interior, and, unseen by any one, laid it uncovered in one of the open stone receptacles nearest the central well. In two minutes they re-appeared with the empty bier and white cloth; and scarcely had they closed the door when a dozen vultures swooped down upon the body, and were rapidly followed by others. In five minutes more we saw the satiated birds fly back and lazily settle down again upon the parapet. They had left nothing behind but a skeleton … In a fortnight, or at most four weeks, the same bearers return, and with gloved hands and implements resembling tongs place the dry skeleton in the central well. (quoted in Iserson 1994:388)

All Parsis end up in the central well of the tower, indicating equality in death (Palsetia 2001). The Parsi method of excarnation is considered to be ecologically essential to avoid polluting the environment (Kreyenbroek 2001).

Modern Tibet and Excarnation

In modern Tibet, rebirth is believed to occur through a type of body disposal know as sky burial (also known as air burial). Sky burial includes excarnation of the deceased. Burial in Tibet is difficult for a variety of reasons, such as the permafrost, the high altitude of the country in which wood is a precious commodity (thereby eliminating cremation of bodies), and because disposal in water is unsanitary. Thus body handlers dismember the remains and break the bones into smaller bits (Iserson 1994). A Tibetan sky burial is described by Kerr (1993):

When the sun hit the rock, the body breakers stopped drinking chang and began to hack flesh from the corpse. They chopped the body into small pieces and crushed the bones. Vultures waited patiently at the crest of the hill. Clotted blood spilled onto the rock and over the hands of the body breakers, who worked quickly, without pause, to prepare their celestial offering…. Once the flesh and bones were mixed with barley flour, the sky became dark with enormous black wings as the vultures descended upon their corporeal feast. (P. 129)

After the remains are prepared for vultures and the vultures partake of these remains, the bone breakers eat a meal. By partaking of food without washing their hands, the attendants believe the deceased is pleased that bits of the human body are taken up and incorporated within their bodies without repugnance (Iserson 1994). While, spiritually, the Tibetans are embarking on their rebirth, aided by the body handlers or body breakers, the disposal of the body by scavenging vultures provides an avenue for physical rebirth through natural recycling.

Taiwan and the Cult of the Dead

In northern Taiwan in a village called Ch’inan, inhabitants live in fear of the dead. A “cult of the dead” exists with its mortuary procedures and rules surrounding burial of an individual and subsequent ancestor veneration (Ahern 1973). According to Ahern (1973:163-66), one close to death is brought into a hallway, for it is believed this provides an advantageous location from which the dying may meet their ancestors. During this period, the family prepares for visitors and makes clothes to wear during the mourning process. When the person dies, a relative is generally present to participate in the placement of the deceased into a coffin. The mortuary ritual includes Taoist priests who chant, hit gongs, and play bells while moving around the dead body. After the ceremonial transfer of the body to a coffin, relatives maintain vigil over the body until the funeral is held. This entire ritual may involve several days, during which time the family consults with a geomancer (a diviner) who provides the family members with an auspicious day considered safe for holding the funeral ceremony. Certain days are inauspicious, with monsters believed to be on the loose that might harm the body because a proper burial has not yet taken place (Ahern 1973:163-64).

The funeral may last up to five hours, during which time mourning occurs around the coffin, incense is burned, food offerings take place, and relatives pay their respects. Nails are used to seal the coffin, and the funeral party, accompanied by musical bands, proceeds to the graveyard. At the graveyard, a geomancer ensures that the coffin is placed in a shallow pit with the proper linear orientation after which the coffin is covered over with dirt. The gravesite is visited a few days later to make sure nothing has been disturbed. Thereafter, relatives visit the grave once a year for 7 years during springtime to weed and to make offerings (Ahern 1973:165). After the 7th year, the coffin is exhumed and opened, and the bones are cleaned and arranged in a ceramic pot, which is then placed in the grave (Ahern 1973:165). But the individual is not forgotten, and the individual’s grave continues to be venerated.

Ahern (1973) describes the folklore basis on which this tradition became established:

A long time ago an emperor wanted to build a great wall around his kingdom. To provide a labor force, he conscripted thousands of young men. Conditions were so terrible for the workers that many men died and were buried under or within the wall. When one young worker had not returned home for some time, his wife set out to find him. When she learned that he was dead, she cried until the entire wall fell down. Then in order to find her husband’s bones, she bit off her finger tip and let the blood flow onto the ground. Whenever the blood hit one of her husband’s bones, that bone came up and joined together with the others until the skeleton was complete. People told her to carry the skeleton in her arms so that her tears would fall on it, making veins of blood on the bones, and resulting perhaps in a return to life. Just then, Tho-te-ma [the wife of Tho-te-kong, the earth god] offered different advice. She said it would be better if the woman were to carry the skeleton on her back. But as soon as the wife did this, for she readily accepted the advice of a goddess, the skeleton fell apart. Tho-te-ma gave this bad advice because she was feeling evil-hearted and thought that there were enough people in the world already. After the bones fell apart, the woman put them in a pot and buried them, marking the place with a stone. Thereafter, people continued doing this. Today, our picking up of the bones is equivalent to the wife’s using her bleeding finger to find her husband’s bones. We pick up the bones in order to let the dead live again. (Pp. 203-4)

The Long Wait of the Toraja of Indonesia

On an Indonesian island called Sulawesi there live a group of Christianized people known as the Toraja or Toradja, meaning “men of the mountains” (Dumarçay and Smithies 1998:93). The Toraja are known for their distinctive architecture and skill in building, including houses with large, heavy roofs that appear similar to saddles. These people are also recognized for their mortuary ritual (Keay 1995). Indeed, the Toraja funerary rite is so well-known, according to Keay (1995) that “there is even talk of Torajan rituals being scheduled and staged more for the visitors’ convenience than the deceased’s safe passage to Puya, homeland of Torajan souls” (p. 245).

The Toraja’s passage to Puya evolves after a long mortuary ritual. The body is laid out in a hut separated from the village while a slave guards the remains from abduction by witches. This slave cleans the fluids of decomposition from the body and continues to reside in the hut maintaining watch over the remains for the entire process of decomposition. After the body has become skeletonized, the bones are gathered and placed in a wooden box for placement in the tomb. The slave is then allowed to leave, and for his service, the slave is freed from the slave status. This individual, however, is forever marked by death and is from that point on avoided by the villagers.

While the body decomposes, the former wife endures an uncomfortable period of mourning during which time she is “walled up in mats, deprived of good food, and forbidden to stretch out her legs” (Metcalf and Huntington 1991:99; see also Downs 1956). An effigy, called a tautau, of the deceased is created out of bamboo and current in-style cloth (Keay 1995). The tau-tau may be draped in the clothes of the deceased (Dumarçay and Smithies 1998). The effigy, like other tau-taus created for deceased tribal ancestors, is placed at the entrance to the Toraja tomb (Keay 1995).

The Toraja place their dead in tombs that are hand hewn out of limestone cliff walls. Some tombs are located 60 to 100 feet up a precipitous cliff wall thereby making difficult the task of depositing the heavy coffin in a final resting place (Dumarçay and Smithies 1998; Keay 1995). The tombs from below look like “rectangular verandahs” with some balconies even furnished with a railing from behind which tau-tau look off into the distance (Keay 1995:246).

Mortuary Feasts of the Sursurunga of Papua New Guinea

On the island of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea lives a group of people known as the Sursurunga. The Sursurunga participate in feasting ceremonies that surround the individual’s death. If an individual dies while in the community, a gong or bell is sounded three times alerting the community that an event known as “tataun” or a “to bury” mortuary feast is about to begin (Bolyanatz 2000:84). The deceased is usually buried within two days of death. If the decedent is a male, the title of “diar mokos” or “those two who are widowed” is given to two individuals (Bolyanatz 2000:85)—namely, the widow and the oldest child, each of whom is expected to participate in all the phases of the mortuary ceremony. Diar mokos eventually becomes di mokos (all those who are widowed), thus marking the phase in which all children of the deceased are allowed to participate (Bolyanatz 2000:85). Some di mokos wear a braided necklace or a sawat made of black cloth strips. This sawat is said to represent the internal organs of the father who has died. The di mokos make themselves black, dress in black, and dye their hair black (Bolyanatz 2000).

A kinsman from the mother’s side of the family is designated the “kálámul a tataun” or “man who buries” (Bolyanatz 2000:86), and this individual is placed in charge of the tataun mortuary feast. Pigs, called bingbingpul, are placed by the feast sponsor at the entrance of the bang or men’s house where the deceased is located, while other bangs may be placed next to the cemetery. These pigs serve as payment for the time and energy expended by the deceased in raising his offspring (Bolyanatz 2000).

Friends, relatives, and individuals from other villages view the body in the bang while the di mokos stay with the body. As noted by Bolyanatz (2000), “The stench of the corpse can become nearly intolerable inside the crowded bang, so some mourners bring aerosol air fresheners and fragrances which are used generously on the bedsheet-wrapped corpse” (p. 87). Women from other village groups line up to cry for the deceased, gathering around the body resting in the bang to wail and cry in a “high-pitched nasal howl” for two to three minutes (Bolyanatz 2000:87). Some women remain longer to console the di mokos. For the most part, the wailing is genuine, although other women may shed what could be described as crocodile tears. Those who do not wail or are perceived to insufficiently wail will not be rewarded at the next mortuary feast. Wailing ends by midday, at which time several hundred people are gathered for the funeral (Bolyanatz 2000).

The kálámul a tataun makes sure that the body is properly buried, enlisting the assistance of others who are members of a moiety other than that of the deceased. These men place the body in a coffin, dig the grave, and then bury the deceased. The kálámul a tataun picks an individual to cook the pigs. There is even an individual who is given the prestigious job of “cutting the pigs” (Bolyanatz 2000:88). The pig carver cuts the cooked pig in a ritualistic way with magic words recited to prevent too much feasting by participants. The large chunks of the pig that are cut off for distribution, according to Jackson (1995) “make the host clan appear ‘big’ in their ability to provision” (p. 196). Participants witness this ritualistic carving and are thus a part of the feasting ceremony. The participants in the tataun mortuary feast eat quickly, finishing in 15 to 20 minutes. The remaining food is then distributed, after which the men smoke and chew betel nut. The pig jawbones are hung up in the bang as a remembrance of the deceased individual, thus signifying the tataun mortuary feast is over (Bolyanatz 2000).

The next mortuary feast, called “ngin i pol” or “drinking a (green) coconut,” begins a week or two after the mortuary feast. At the onset of this feast, a coconut is broken and the pieces thrown into the cemetery where the body was buried. The ngin i pol feast rewards the men who helped bury the individual at the tataun and rewards the women who wailed at the bang. Payment comes in the form of this feast. Also, pigs are carved up, and the pork is distributed to men and women in baskets. A list is consulted and the women who were not observed wailing will not receive a portion of the pork. The jawbones of the pigs of the ngin i pol feast are then hung in the bang (Bolyanatz 2000).

Two other mortuary feasts “táptápir” (to make a feast for or last feast or the deceased has already turned into soil), and “suka bim” (step on the ground) also are a part of mortuary feasting (Bolyanatz 2000:93). These feasts take place within a few months to a few years after the death of an individual. For some Sursurunga, the táptápir is a part of the mortuary feasting sequence, whereas other Sursurunga do not give a táptápir feast (Bolyanatz 2000:93). The suka bim feast currently seems to be a feast in memory only and is not given. At táptápir, bananas are eaten along with pork, and the ritual distribution of pork, on a smaller scale, is made to the participants. Remembrances of the suka bim feast describe a very large amount of feasting on pork. This last feast completes the mourning of the individual and implies that the corpse is no longer with flesh and is entirely decomposed. The grieving process is at an end (Bolyanatz 2000).

Australian Reburial

Unique perspectives on death and burial exist among the Australian Aborigines. Groups such as the Warramunga practice funerary mutilation, a ritual in which mourners cut the muscles of the thigh, thereby becoming immobile as a symbol of their grief (Pearson 2000:45-46). For the Pintupi Aborigines, the specific location where a person dies and where that person is buried become places vacated by the rest of the group. They do not revisit the area for over a year because death has marked the land (Pearson 2000:124). This “marking” of the land by burial bonds that portion of land to Pintupi successors. It becomes a possible location for burial of the dead in the future (Myers 1986; Pearson 2000).

The Australian Aborigines believe their relationship to the land, as marked by the dead, has created a different type of burial, a burial method shaped not only by tribal ideology but within a political context that cuts across differences in culture. Prehistoric Aborigine skeletons are currently housed in museums and universities around the world where scientists use these for study. Such skeletal remains are also in private collections. Aborigines seek the return of these remains with the intent of reburial on ancestral tribal land. Remains such as those previously housed at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, have been returned to the tribes (Pearson 2000). Ancient skeletal remains from Talgai, Willandra Lakes (Mungo), Kow Swamp, Coobool Crossing, and Keilor located in Australia that can provide important insights of a historical picture of the ancestry of Australian Aborigines dating to 35,000 years ago (Wolpoff 1999) are in danger of reburial. There is, however, a possible compromise, with early skeletal remains “being curated by Australian Aboriginal groups in ‘keeping places,’ sacred locked stores to which scholars may be admitted” (Pearson 2000:177). Although the importance of such material to members of the scientific community cannot be overemphasized, Australian Aborigines desire to rebury the remains of their ancestors.


The human relationship with death and cultural burial practices should be considered within the context of change; that is, such practices do not remain static. Cultural beliefs change because the attitudes and values of people change. Belief systems are transformed, and this transformation affects social concepts of death and burial. The variability in burial practices is great, and the dead are placed in a variety of resting places. Mortuary behavior of individuals who participate in ceremonies dedicated to the dead, including the disposition of the body, involves more than the simple placement of a body in the ground. Body disposition is affected by cultural ideology and geographical and environmental factors. Cultural adaptation includes creating mortuary practices compatible with the natural habitat and environmental conditions.

Among early hominids, accidental death, scavenging, cannibalism, and carnivore behavior influenced the disposition of a body. The burial disposition of Ancient Egyptians was directly affected by the status, spirituality, and completeness of an individual. In Ghana, among the Ga villages, an individual’s vocation, success in life, and the personal characteristics that define who an individual is determine the artistic coffin that encases the deceased. The Scythians buried a whole political re-creation of a leader’s last council meeting. Frozen in time, this event makes a statement about the wealth of the leader as depicted through the burial of hundreds of horses. On the other hand, the dead of modern Russia might not be secured in a recognized burial pit. Poverty, war, political purges, and natural disasters are factors that provide a disposition of a corpse dictated by external individuals or forces outside the immediate family. In Turkmenistan, the Islamic religion directs that the dead be buried quickly with respectful lamentations accompanying the mortuary ritual. Spiritual purity among the Parsis of India and the religious beliefs of Tibetans, as well as environmental resource limitations and climatic conditions, make excarnation by vultures the avenue for corpse disposition. Multiple feasts celebrated among the Sursurunga allow for social gathering to mourn the deceased and the distribution of food provisions. Finally, a cultural ideology that was transformed into a political issue by Australian Aborigines has provided a new final resting place for reburial of their ancestors.

The cultural groups discussed in this chapter dispose of their dead in unique ways. Such mortuary ritual and behavior are influenced by many factors, some of which change through time. Thus it can be anticipated that social and cultural needs will eventually lead to new and perhaps even more creative methods of burial disposition. Each cultural perspective of death and burial is unique, however, and this uniqueness adds to the intriguing tapestry of mortuary customs throughout the world.