Despite its morbidity, death is often seen as a sacred rite. Most religions outline specific preferences and prohibitions. The process of mourning and caring for the deceased is as varied as humans themselves. These three styles of death rituals have been observed throughout time, geographical location, class, culture, and religion.
Cremation, or burning the body, is one of the oldest death rituals, dating back to the Stone Age. Archaeological records find this practice in at least 20,000 years of human history, tracing the oldest known example back to the “Mungo Lady” found in what is now Australia. Pagans saw this as a spiritual purification. Cremation urns, also called funerary, cinerary, or burial urns, span most ancient cultures, including Chinese, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and Pre-Columbian. In Bavarian tradition, the hearts of kings were placed in cremation urns, a notable example being King Otto in 1916. Hindus believe in reincarnation and that the cycle of life and death reflects that of the universe. As an orthopraxic religion, Hinduism reveres rituals and correct conduct over metaphysical faith, and the death rite “Antyesti” literally means the “last sacrifice.” The immortal soul, or “atman,” is released in this process. The historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama was Hindu and cremated, thus setting the precedent for Buddhists. Ceremonies marking death are a reminder of the impermanence of life, which is a cornerstone of Buddhism. Jainism observes a simple ceremony called a “Mahotsav,” or using a funeral pyre. Since they believe that reincarnation is immediate, prolonged mourning, wailing, or anniversary observances are not appropriate.
Inhumation, or burial in warm earth or a grave, began in several indigenous cultures and became the preferred method of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Caskets, as with cremation urns, range from cardboard boxes to ornate wooden works of art. Most Indigenous African tribes buried the dead as soon as possible to reunite them with their ancestors. As described in the Herodotus as early as 4,000 BCE, ancient Egyptians saw the afterlife as the common destination for all people. Bodies were mummified and placed in a sarcophagus to preserve the soul for the afterlife, which they believed mirrored life on Earth. Jewish burial is mandated, and cremation is forbidden. Funerals take place a day after death, followed by a week mourning period, or “shiva,” and finally burial. Early Christians buried their dead in catacombs and cemeteries. Despite some Christians’ concerns about resurrection after cremation, most modern theologians maintain the relative insignificance of the physical body after death. Islamic funerals, or “Janazah” in Arabic, begins with “ghusi” or bathing and shrouding the body, followed by “salah” or prayer, and finally burying the body. Islamic Sharia law calls for burial with the head facing toward Mecca, and forbids cremation.
Exposure of the corpse, or excarnation, is to leave the body to be scavenged by animals. The Herodotus describes exposure by Zoroastrians of mid-fifth century BCE, then notably with the Tower of Silence beginning in the 9th Century. Zoroastrians saw the deceased as unclean, and earth and fire as holy, so exposure prevented such contact. Some Buddhist cultures practice exposure, particularly the Tibetan Sky Burial. The body is wrapped in a ceremonial white shroud. Afterward, they collect relic bones to be cremated, buried, or placed in a “stupa.” Survivors reflect in meditative circumambulation, or slowly circling the structure. Some Native American cultures practiced exposure, traveling with the wrapped body on the back of a horse to the destination, and the body continues the cycle of life.
Considering the last wishes of the deceased-such as scattering the ashes, burial in a family plot or mausoleum, or donation to science-is an important way to honor the individual, culture, and religion, as well as to create closure for their loved ones.