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Home | Meaning | Myths | Fear | Necromancy | Common Rituals | Sacrificies | Around the World | Celebrations of Death | Burial Grounds


Bodies were buried in shallow graves and then later exhumed. The bones were preserved and brought by relatives to a central burial following a mourning feast. The bodies were accompanied by presents for the spirits.



Like the pygmies, fear led them to destroy the house of the dead person, and then relatives burned the body. On their way back home, they were careful to take a circuitous route that prevented the spirit from following them and stood in smoke to purify themselves.



 The bodies were treated with spices, herbs and chemicals so that they became mummies rather than decomposing. The corpses were then placed in cotton cloth wrappings and put inside of a wooden case that was put inside of another case that was decorated with details of their life and a mask of their face. This was then placed in a coffin that was put in a sarcophagus. The largest and oldest monuments ate the pyramids that served as tombs for their kings. However, the bodies of poor people were treated less elaborately, but on the other hand cats, sacred animals, were mummified. The powder of mummies was sold in the Middle Ages by apothecaries. Mummies were also produced in Peru and Mexico.


Inca (Andes)

The Inca also mummified their dead, using ice, leading to a great deal of investigation. Priests would have surrounded the body in symbolic objects. The Inca also partook of human sacrifice.


Pygmies (African Congo)

The Pygmies appear to be sort of uncomfortable with death. When a person dies, they pull down his hut on top of him, and move their camp while relatives cry. Then the dead person is never mentioned again.


India: Here bodies are cremated on a pile of logs at a ghat, a flat area near the riverbank and temple. Ashes are thrown in the river, often the sacred Ganges.


Maoris (New Zealand)

The Maoris have an elaborate ritual. When people are dying they are placed in huts which are later burned. The corpse is sat up and dressed in nice clothes to be viewed by the public, and the mourners wear wear wreathes of green leaves, cry out and cut themselves with knvies. They chant praises and then have a feast where they give the dead's relatives gifts. After a few years, the bones are cleaned, covered in red earth and put in a special cave.


Chukchee (Nothern Siberia, Russia)

A three day silent watch was kept to insure the soul then departs. The dead were removed from their huts via special holes cut in the side and then immediately sewn to prevent the spirit from returning and bothering them. The bodies were burned or just taken to a seculded spot.


Muslim (esp. Middle East)

This religion has a very clear set of protocols for dealing with the deceased. The body must be placed on its sides and washed with warm water and soap, generally by a member of the same sex, with the final washing having scented water. There must be an odd number of washings (a trend against odd numbers is also visible in the Hindu faith), some of the stomach's must be pushed out, and the teeth and nose must be cleaned on the outside as a form of ablution (spiritual cleansing). Then the body is dried, perfumed, and wrapped in white cloth. Burial prayers are then said facing Mecca before a silent procession takes the corpse to its burial, where everyone shares in filling the grave with soil and a second pit with bricks while saying additional prayers. The body is to buried soon after the prayer. The wrapped body is to be laid directly at the bottom of the dug grave on its right side facing the direction of Makkah.  A ceiling is attached to the grave and then covered with dirt. A stone may be used to mark the location of the grave, but no writings are allowed. Buildings or other forms of structures are not allowed on top of the grave. Charity, fasting, prayers, and pilgrimage is often performed on behalf of the dead. Visiting the graves is recommended for the living to remember death and the day of judgment. 



A priest would deliver a formalized speech over the newly dead person, following a ritual to ease their path to the next level of existence. Water was trickled onto the head as during a baptism, and words of mourning pronounced. Papers were laid on the corpse which were intended to aid the person to pass through the hazardous journey they faced.


Mexicans are "seduced by death." To the American eye, their culture is steeped with morbidity: there's the life-death drama of the bullfight; the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos observances and folkart, replete with skeletons and bloody crucifixes; the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato; and the pervasive death themes within the works of such muralists as Orozco, Jose Guadalupe Posada,, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. This death-rich cultural tradition reflects the fusion of Indian and Catholic legacies, the former includes the heritage of human sacrifices practiced by the Mayans and Aztecs.

Such phenomena, despite their surface appearances, are not necessarily features of a death-accepting culture. In a country historically marked by unstable, corrupt, authoritarian regimes, it is interesting to note how honoring the dead has given individuals license to comment on the living. There is a satirical magazine that is published in even the smallest hamlet that owns a print shop. This publication, called LA CALAVERA (the skull), is filled with satirical poetic eulogies of living members of the community, ranging from the town drunk to the mayor's wife. The famous skeletal caricatures of Posada served to raise political consciousness in Mexico before the revolution. In sum, it is not simply the case that life is so miserable that death is preferable. In fact, the festive death rituals are neither positive nor negative, but rather "an existential affirmation of the lives and contributions made by all who have existed...(and) the affirmation of life as the means for realizing its promise while preparing to someday die" (Ricardo Sanchez, 1985, "Day of the Dead Is Also about Life," San Antonio Express-News, Nov.1). They reflect not only Mexico's cultural heritage but also its fusion with economic and political exigencies.


Australia: The Aboriginals of Australia left dead bodies in trees.


Solomon Islands

In the Solomon Islands the dead were laid out on a reef for the sharks to eat. At a different point in their history, they stored skulls in fish-shaped containers.


Intuit (Alaska)

Some Inuits covered the corpse with a small igloo. Because of the cold body would remain forever, unless it was eaten by polar bears.


Parsees: (India)

The Parsees of Bombay used leave their dead on top of towers to be eaten by vultures. This rite seems to persist at the Towers of Silence.



 European rituals, transmitted to the New World, began as early as Greco-Roman times. It includes the washing of bodies and wrapping them in cloths called shrouds. The bodies were then put inside six-sided, wedge-shaped coffins for burial. Sometimes the bodies were dressed up. preparing the body to be "laid out" for viewing  in the living room of her home–a custom left over from the nineteenth century. The funeral director cleaned, shaved, and embalmed the corpse, and dressed it in clothing provided by the family. He also ensured that a black floral wreath was placed at the door of the family’s home. On the third day following his death, Finlay’s body was laid out in the corner of the small living room and all furniture, except the sofa, was removed to make room for visitors. Floor lamps were placed on either end of the coffin.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, people were buried with little fanfare, although the whole community attended the funeral. People began bringing food and sending flowers at the first word of his death, and by the day of the funeral, the dining room was devoid of furniture and full of flowers.



According to voodoo belief, a human being is made up of five basic components:
the corps cadavre, or mortal flesh; 
the n'âme, or spirit of the flesh;
the z'étoile, or star of destiny; 
the gros-bon-ange and the ti-bon-ange, the two parts of the soul. 

The physical or mortal parts of a human being are the corps cadavre and the n'âme. The corps cadavre is the body that decays after death. The n'âme is the spirit that allows the body to function while alive and passes as energy into the soil after death.

The z'étoile is the person's destiny and resides in the heavens, apart from the body.

The gros-bon-ange means, literally, "great good angel” and reflect the part of the cosmic energy that turns into lifeforce; it could be possible to separate a person's gros-bon-ange from him or her, and store it in a bottle or jar, where the energy can be directed to other purposes.

The ti-bon-ange makes up the other half of a person's soul. Meaning "little good angel," it is the source of personality. The ti-bon-ange represents the accumulation of a person's knowledge and experience and is responsible for determining individual characteristics, personality and will. It can leave the body when dreaming, for instance, or when the body is being possessed by a loa. The ti-bon-ange is the part of the human make-up that is most vulnerable to sorcery, even more so than the gros-bon-ange.

Voodoo belief does not consider death to be a cessation of life. Rather, in death, activities are simply changed from one condition to another. The body, the shell for the lifeforce, simply decays while the n'âme that animated the body returns to the ground as earth energy. It is the soul, the gros-bon-ange and the ti-bon-ange, that endures in a different form. The gros-bon-ange returns to the high solar regions from which its cosmic energy was first drawn; there, it joins the other loa and becomes a loa itself. The ti-bon-ange hovers around the body for a time and then departs for the land of the dead, aided by rituals performed by the houngan.

Death rituals accomplish a number of functions in voodoo. The most important is to send the gros-bon-ange to Ginen, the cosmic community of ancestral spirits, where it will be worshipped by family members as a loa itself. If this is not accomplished, the gros-bon-ange can become trapped on earth, bringing misfortune on surviving family members.

The ti-bon-ange hovers around the body for a period of nine days, at which point a ritual called nine night is performed to ensure that the ti-bon-ange stays in the grave. If this is not done, the ti-bon-ange may also wander the earth and bring misfortune on others.
To banish the ti-bon-ange, it is first placed in a jar or govi. Sometimes it resides there as a worshipped spirit, as described above. At other times, the houngan burns the jar in a ritual called boule zen. This burning of the jars releases the spirit to the land of the dead, where it should properly reside. Another way to elevate the ti-bon-ange is to break the jars and drop the pieces at a crossroads.


The contemporary method of dealing with the deceased popular in other countries as well involves a minister being present at the time of death. Doctors will complete a death certificate, though sometimes coroners are needed to investigate deaths or act in lieu of a physician. A funeral director (or undertaker) is called then to take the body to a funeral home and arrange for burial. Often the body is embalmed, where chemicals are flushed through blood vessels with about a gallon remaining to help preserve the tissue as well as make the body appear better with pink coloring. Cosmetics are also used to make the body more lifelike and brighter. Caskets are used in place of coffins, with the difference being that caskets are simple rectangles. They range from simple to elaborate, wood or metal, and they have an inner lining. At a wake, the body is placed on display. Funerals entail prayer, praise of the dead person. The body is then carried to the hearse by pallbearers and bury the casket in the cemetery. Other times, the casket may be placed inside of a burial vault. Others may opt for cremation.



Estonians of eastern Europe who follow the old folkways like to throw banquets in their graveyards and eat with the departed. They put a few delicacies on each tombstone to share their food. On certain days when the dead return home for a visit, bathrooms are kept heated and food is laid out in festive array. In this way, bonds are preserved and strengthened between loved ones on both side of life's gate.



In keeping with Roman tradition, the first Christians were buried outside the city, often in catacombs. In time, the well-to-do sought burial inside a church, usually under the floor, or in a crypt, preferably close to the altar. As interior space became scarce, churchyards were created. The vast majority of people were simply wrapped in a shroud before burial in a wood coffin, but some were interred with objects symbolic of their esteemed rank. A fifth-century chieftain might be buried with his weapons, a bishop with his miter, or a king with some of his regalia.
By the thirteenth century, tomb sculptures themselves became elaborate status symbols. Carved effigies showed knights in full armor, kings with crown and scepter, architects with measuring instruments. Later tombs might show an entire family, carved in wood and brightly painted, kneeling in prayer. Brass tomb slabs were incised with figures and installed on church floors. Tomb sculpture both commemorated the deceased and invited prayers for his or her future life. Churches were often remodeled to display tombs prominently, or entire churches—such as Westminster Abbey in London or Saint-Denis near Paris—came to serve as royal necropoli.

Upon death, the soul was thought to leave the body through the mouth, awaiting the final Day of Judgment. At the end of time, the dead would rise up from their graves and Christ would either welcome them to heaven or banish them to eternal hell. The final days, described in the Book of Revelation, inspired commentary and vivid imagery in books, while scenes of the Last Judgment appeared frequently over church doorways, on church walls, or on small devotional objects.

In Byzantium, death was long regarded as the necessary and intermediary step to attaining salvation. Koimamai ("to sleep") designated the rest in death, a time when the soul separated from the earthly body and awaited the Last Judgment. As in western Europe, the living could offer prayers on behalf of the deceased and, in turn, the dead could intercede on behalf of the living. The Virgin was the primary advocate for mankind during the Last Judgment.

Byzantine burial attests to a wide range of funerary forms: burial in the earth in open-air cemeteries (the most modest form); within a church beneath the floor in unmarked graves; and in elite tombs within the church, distinguished by sarcophagi and funerary portraits. As in the medieval West, church architecture could be heavily influenced by the desire to build lavish burial monuments, as in the case of Constantine's imperial mausoleum, the fourth-century Holy Apostles Church; the twelfth-century Monastery of Christ Pantokrator; and the fourteenth-century Church of Christ in Chora, all in Constantinople.



A Buddhist priest comes to the deceased house house to recite a sutra. On the second day, members and close relatives burn incense sticks (called "senko") in front of the family altar (butsudan) all night long. The third day, they burn the body to ashes at a funeral hall and bring the ashes back to their house. Finally, funeral service is conducted. People burn incense by turns in front of the altar while the priest recites a sutra. After the service is over, family members and close relatives go to the graveyard and lay ashes to rest. "ko-den" (money) to either "otsuya" or funeral service and hand it to the person at the reception

The family who has a newly deceased member visits the family grave once in a week during seven weeks starting from the funeral ceremony. On the 49th day from the funeral, they offer feasts again to the close relatives and neighbors. The custom is called "Shiju-ku Nichi", which literally means "the 49th day" Most Japanese people visit their ancestors' grave at least four times a year, once in each "higan" (equinoctial), and twice in "obon" (Buddhist festival days).

Many Japanese families have a Butsudan (small family altar in front of which they pray their ancestors for safety and whatever they wish) and offer meals everyday to it. Most Japanese people believe that ancestors are always with them, watching, protecting and guiding them.



When a person dies he is immediately laid on the floor and a small flame is lit near the body. The body is laid out on the floor so that the germs that emanate from the corpse do not spread on the mattress. The Hindus believe that when a man dies his spirit comes out from the body and, because of his attachment to his family and material possessions, continues to inhabit his home. Since the spirit does not possess a physical form any more, the Hindus believe that it rests on the flame that has been lit near the dead body.

The Hindus cremate the body, symbolizing that all elements present in the body return to the elements present in the Cosmos. Then there is a period of prayers in the home of the deceased that last usually 12 days.
On the 10th day after the persons death the diya (flame) which had been lit in the house is carried to the sea, after night-long prayers.

The immersion of the diya into the sea is to inform the spirit that now he should truly break attachment with the former life, and start his progress in the world beyond.

So, once a year, the devout Hindu feeds a pandit (priest), what the departed soul liked to eat during his lifetime, believing that by feeding a priest the departed soul would get satisfaction. This system is called “Shradh” and is derived from the word ‘Shradha” which means faith and devotion.



Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible, following a principle of honoring the dead . Only if immediate relatives cannot arrive in time from abroad, or there is not enough time for burial before Shabbat or a holiday, are burials postponed for a day. Upon hearing about a death, a Jew recites the words, "Baruch dayan emet," Blessed be the one true Judge.

Men prepare men for the burial and women prepare women. They wash the body with warm water from head to foot and dress it white burial shrouds (tachrichim), which are purposely kept simple to avoid distinguishing between rich or poor. Men are buried with their prayer shawls (tallits), which are rendered ineffective by cutting off one of the fringes. From the moment of death, the body is not left alone until after burial. This practice, called guarding/watching (shemira), is also based on the principle of honoring the dead. A family member, a Chevra Kaddisha member, or someone arranged by the funeral parlor passes the time by reciting psalms (Tehillim) as this person watches over the deceased.

Traditional Jewish funerals are very simple and usually relatively brief. Before they begin, the immediate relatives of the deceased – siblings, parents, children, spouse – tear their garments to symbolize their loss.

Sometimes the rabbi will tear their garments for them and recite a blessing.

Instead, Reform Jews the rabbi tears black ribbons and hands family members a torn black ribbon to pin on their clothes to symbolize their loss.

At the cemetery, another custom in traditional funerals is to stop seven times – as the coffin is carried to the grave. Once the coffin is lowered into the grave, family and close friends cover the coffin with a few handfuls of dirt.

After the burial, it is customary for the family to sit Shiva (in mourning). This was traditionally done for seven days, although many Reform and other Jews now sit Shiva for three days, and some for one day. Traditional Jews cover all mirrors during this time and sit on Shiva benches. It is customary for friends and family of the deceased as well as friends of the deceased's relatives to pay a Shiva call to the designated location where people are sitting Shiva, usually at the home of a close family member. Being surrounded by family and close friends often helps mourners cope with the immediate loss. Often, family members find great solace from sharing memories of the deceased during the Shiva period.



Tibetan views, in synch with other Bhuddist views in Asia, on death are most cogently expressed in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Essentially, they feel that death must be confronted to truly achieve spiritual progress. In fact, knowledge of the steps occurring at the time of death is acquired through study, in the hopes that the confrontation will be so directed toward virtuous thoughts to allow enlightment, the achievement of Bhudda status rather than continuing the cycle of rebirth. Meditation occurs on the topic of death, event. Relatives present at the time of death attempt not to distract from this confrontation, and a lama may be present to offer advice and read sacred texts, helping the living as well as the dying. Tibetans reportedly even hacked up their dead for bird food because they had no respect for the body.



Although practices have changed, they still involve celebrating nine night, which is a celebration to support the relatives of the dead and provide for the body's safe journey to the next part of life. It is held in a veranda or a bamboo and coconut tent next to a house. Fried fish and, cake and bread sits on a central table and is left until midnight, so that the spirit of the dead can drop by for a snack. The ceremony also involves dancing, extensive singing and 100-proof rum. It ends nine nights after the death, though additional singing must occur 40 nights later, when supposedly the soul has ceased roaming and will no longer pester the living. Journey cakes ("johnnycakes") are also laid with corpses, and often obedah or vodoo ceremonies will occur to help put souls to rest. Previously, sexual images often were present on tombstones, and burial occured near homes.

copyright @ 2006 by AF