If there is one thing we all have in common, no matter what culture we live in or what our religious beliefs are, it is death. We all die some time and we all have lost some one. One of my favorite quotes from a movie is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where Captain Kirk tells a young cadet that “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” Cultures all around the globe and all throughout history deal with death and burial in a variety of different ways.
Much of how cultures bury the dead can tell us of what each culture possibly believes happens after death. From the book Death and Bereavement Across Cultures, Professor of Anthropology at St. Paul, Minnesota, Paul C. Rosenblatt is quoted as saying “It is important to note that, in most societies, death is not a transition into nothingness, but to some other state.” (Colin Murray Parkes) For instance some think that it is possible ancient people must have believed in some sort of afterlife because they have found tombs or graves containing items such as tools, ornaments and even food. It is interesting that some prehistoric bodies have been found with the legs in a curled up position laying on their side as if they were a baby in the mother’s womb. Three things to consider are that they believed in an afterlife or rebirth, they might have been afraid of the dead or maybe they just found it more convenient with limited tools to bury someone bound in a fetal position. (Colman)
Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt both had unique takes on the afterlife. The People of Egypt believed in Osiris a sun God who would grant immortality depending on how you lived your life while Mesopotamia feared the dead and that they went to a bad place called “The land of no Return.” Others had a better outlook on death as they believed in incarnation where a person is born, dies and reborn again. Hindu’s and Buddhist’s follow this life and death cycle and perhaps one of the earliest to believe in this was the Tlingit Indians off the Northwest Coast of North America before settlers came. (Colman)
Three of the larger religions on Earth are Christianity, Judaism and Muslim. The Jews and Muslims are awaiting their Messiah. Christians are looking for Jesus Christ to return one day. If they all have one thing in common on death it is that they all think the dead will rise again to be with God and judged according to the life you lived. If you did not live a good or Godly life you might end up in “Hell” or something the Greeks called “Hades”, the Minoans “Elysium.” But if you did live a good and Godly life, you would earn salvation, living in eternity with the one true God. (Colman)
For most of us, we have all attended a funeral at one time or another. Burial in the ground is the most common practice. Usually one has a wake or a vigil beforehand where family gathers to grieve and comfort one another hoping to focus on the good memories of the deceased. Eastern Orthodox Churches in such places as Russia there is usually an overnight vigil at the home of the deceased where they sing songs and read from the New Testament. At the funeral a cross is put on the casket and each person attending will kiss the cross. Once the casket is dropped down into the earth, friends and family move their hands making a cross as they drop dirt onto the casket. Roman Catholics will have a mass which is part of the funeral service. (Colin Murray Parkes)
There are many other forms and practices to burial. Another common one is cremation where the body is put in a coffin and burned in the matter of a couple hours to ashes. The ashes are then either kept in a container such as an Urn or scattered some place the family or deceased wished to be. The Tlingit Indians mentioned earlier, believed in burning the body to give the spirit warmth for the journey to the afterlife. Even the Romans and Greeks put bodies to flame thinking it would set free the soul. The Native American Indians sometimes left bodies on high platforms called “scaffolds” which helped speed up the decomposition and the spirit’s journey. (Colman)
One of the strangest ways of burial is actually faith in the future. Some people have chosen using cryonics which is the practice of freezing and preserving dead bodies. Either the deceased hopes to one day live again in hopes of a new body or perhaps they died of an incurable disease hoping one day they can be revived when a cure is found. We however do not know if even cures are found, will we one day be able to bring these people back from the dead? If there is a spirit world, where does your spirit go while your body is frozen? (Colman) This brings to mind a 1980’s horror, sci-fi movie called Chiller created by the late Wes Craven. About a young man who is cryogenically frozen in hopes of being revived one day. A decade later he is revived but something is very odd and evil about him. It seems he no longer has a soul or spirit. Or perhaps not his own anyway. (IMDB.com)
A common practice among many traditions in burials is leaving objects behind. Some are for the dead in the spirit world such as leaving food or tools. Perhaps even clothing or jewelry. But some are for the living. I have gone to cemeteries in the past and have seen more than just flowers left by a tombstone. I have seen framed pictures left on top of a grave of caring family members. One woman had lost a young child and put a small mini sized sand box on her son’s grave with some of his sandbox toys. A wife left pictures, a small United States flag and medal of her war veteran husband who had died.
Some people have special engravings on their tombstone done. My father for instance has already purchased a tombstone for himself and showed it to me. He has always been a farmer and he wanted something on his grave that told people something about him. A picture of a red Farmall tractor with a barn and cornfield in the background while the sun sets. My father has always loved farming and tractors since I can remember. My dad is just like those old tractors he collects, they just do not make them like that anymore.
Sources and citations
Colman, Penny. “Corpes, Coffins and Crypts: A History of Burial” published by Henry Holt & Company NY. 1997
Parkes, Colin Murray and Laungani, Pittu and Young, Bill. “Death and Bereavment across Cultures”. Published by Routledge Taylor and Francis Group 1997
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088912/ “Movie Chiller” 1985 Directed by Wes Craven