The ways that contemporary societies bury their dead are diverse and countless, ranging in method and meaning all over the world. As our global community grows increasingly technologically advanced and environmentally conscious, even our burials are shifting with new and sustainable burial practices. But do you ever wonder what kinds of traditions existed before the ones we commonly see today? What did the ancients do? Why did they do it? Well, wonder no more! Here are the most fascinating ancient burial rituals that we unearthed!
The Most Fascinating Ancient Burial Rituals
Peter Berger wrote that death, “presents society with a formidable problem not only because of its obvious threat to the continuity of human relationships, but because it threatens the basic assumptions of order on which society rests.” The care of bodies after death, including ritualized positions, cleaning and dressing of bodies dates back more than 100,000 years! Burial may have been a way for humans to ease anxieties after death, including the fear that improper ritual will lead to consequences for the deceased person in the afterlife. The anxieties over bodies and the afterlife gave religion its meaning for many communities and were inexorably connected to everyday life.
1. Egyptian Burial Rituals
Ancient Egyptians were typically buried in the ground: either directly in the earth (as was often the case for the everyday Egyptian), or in elaborate tombs. Either way, the deceased were buried with their personal belongings, so that they might have all that they needed in the afterlife. The burial ritual for all Egyptians involved a reading from the Book of the Dead, which was intended to help guide the spirit of the deceased to the Hall of Truth. There, the soul would be judged by the god Osiris, who weighed the deceased’s heart against the white feather of truth: the Ma’at.
If one’s heart was lighter than the feather, your soul would be guided to the Field of Reeds: the paradise of the Egyptian afterlife. However, if the heart was heavier, it would be thrown on the ground to be eaten by the god Amenti, causing the soul to die an eternal death.
2 – Persian Zoroastrian Burial Rituals
By the 5th and 6th century CE, Zoroastrians in Persia had developed intricate burial rituals and beliefs, including corpse exposure(sky burial). They believed that everyone was either good or evil and their funerary practices followed suit. In fact, bodies were considered so polluted that the land in which a body was buried was impure for fifty years! After death, a dog with two spots above its eyes was brought to the corpse as the dog would refuse to look at the deceased if any life remained. The corpse was stripped of all its clothing and placed onto a high rock.
After the vultures and dogs finished cleaning off the bones, the remains were collected and placed into a deep pit or ossuary and covered over. Fun fact: Chinese sources say that there were over 200 families in Sogdia who rented out packs of dogs to devour the dead!
3. Mayan Burial Rituals
The ancient Mayans regarded the afterlife as a perilous realm of existence. As a result, the way in which the dead were buried was done to make it easier for the soul to pass through the afterlife into paradise. The deceased would be buried with maize in their mouths as a symbol of the re-birth of their souls, as well as to nourish the soul on its journey through Xibalba (the netherworld of the afterlife). Bodies were positioned in their graves in the direction of the Mayan paradise, as this allowed the soul easier passage through the afterlife.
The bodies were then sprinkled with red mineral cinnabar: red being the colour of death. Wrapped in cotton, these markings acted as a disguise for the soul as it passed through the netherworld of demons. Everyone who died was believed to have to make this journey. Only in the cases of deaths due to childbirth, sacrifice, suicide, or battle did the soul pass directly into paradise.
4. Ancient Roman Burial Rituals
In ancient Roman culture, funeral processions always took place at night so as not to disrupt the daily activity of the city. The procession usually began in the city centre, and ended outside of the city limits at the cemetery. No one was allowed to be buried within the city so that the important barrier between the living and the dead would be maintained. Though corpses were commonly burned and had their ashes gathered in an urn, the more elite Romans usually opted for elaborate tombs.
The importance of proper burial was so high in ancient Roman society that individuals would pay fees to funeral societies known as collegia, who would ensure that when that person died, the burial rites would be properly conducted. This meant performing them in accordance with their status in society, as well as the traditions of the community.
5. Ancient Greek Burial Rituals
Like many ancient societies, the ancient Greeks believed that the afterlife existed underground. Corpses were buried, and carved stones marked their graves to remind the living of the identity of the dead. Though different greek city-states observed different burial rites, rites of remembrance were always considered important civic and religious duties. The central concept was the importance of remembering the dead, for if they were forgotten, their souls would cease to exist in the afterlife: a fate considered the worse than death itself.
6. Chinese Burial Rituals
Ancient Chinese burial burial rituals almost always included burying the deceased with their personal belongings. Like the Egyptians, there was the belief that the afterlife was much like the current world, which meant the dead needed their personal property with them in order to be prosperous. One of the most famous examples of ancient Chinese burial practices is the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, which was designed to represent a smaller scale of the kingdom he ruled over in life.
This naturally included all the things he would need to have with him to continue to rule in the next life. The most famous of his companions into the afterlife is his army of 8,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers, known as the Terracotta Warriors!