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Photo by Dale Harrison

Not all cultures believe in burying the dead in the ground. Here are 10 unique ceremonies from around the world.

THE MODERN DICTIONARY defines the word ‘burial’ as placing a body in the ground.

But burying the deceased was not always the case.

Just as primitive man has long worshiped the four elements of Earth, Sky, Water, and Fire, so too have these elements taken their place in burial practices as diverse as the different tribes of the earth.

The way mankind deals with its dead says a great deal about those left to carry on.  Burial practices are windows to a culture that speak volumes about how it lives.

As we are told in Genesis, man comes from dust, and returns to it. We have found many different ways to return. Here are 10 that I found particularly fascinating:

Air Sacrifice – Mongolia

Lamas direct the entire ceremony, with their number determined by the social standing of the deceased. They decide the direction the entourage will travel with the body, to the specific day and time the ceremony can happen.

Mongolians believe in the return of the soul. Therefore the lamas pray and offer food to keep evil spirits away and to protect the remaining family. They also place blue stones in the dead persons bed to prevent evil spirits from entering it.

No one but a lama is allowed to touch the corpse, and a white silk veil is placed over the face.  The naked body is flanked by men on the right side of the yurt while women are placed on the left.  Both have their respective right or left hand placed under their heads, and are situated in the fetal position.

The family burns incense and leaves food out to feed all visiting spirits.  When time comes to remove the body, it must be passed through a window or a hole cut in the wall to prevent evil from slipping in while the door is open.

The body is taken away from the village and laid on the open ground. A stone outline is placed around it, and then the village dogs that have been penned up and not fed for days are released to consume the remains.  What is left goes to the local predators.

The stone outline remains as a reminder of the person.  If any step of the ceremony is left out, no matter how trivial, bad karma is believed to ensue.

Sky Burial – Tibet

Pounding the bones. Photo by Rotem Eldar

This is similar to the Mongolian ceremony. The deceased is dismembered by a rogyapa, or body breaker, and left outside away from any occupied dwellings to be consumed by nature.

To the western mind, this may seem barbaric, as it did to the Chinese who outlawed the practice after taking control of the country in the 1950s. But in Buddhist Tibet, it makes perfect sense. The ceremony represents the perfect Buddhist act, known as Jhator. The worthless body provides sustenance to the birds of prey that are the primary consumers of its flesh.

To a Buddhist, the body is but an empty shell, worthless after the spirit has departed. Most of the country is surrounded by snowy peaks, and the ground is too solid for traditional earth internment. Likewise, being mostly above the tree line, there is not enough fuel for cremation.

Pit Burial – Pacific Northwest Haida

Haida carvings. Photo by Turbulent Flow

Before white contact, the indigenous people of the American northwest coast, particularly the Haida, simply cast their dead into a large open pit behind the village.

Their flesh was left to the animals. But if one was a chief, shaman, or warrior, things were quite different.

The body was crushed with clubs until it fit into a small wooden box about the size of a piece of modern luggage.  It was then fitted atop a totem pole in front of the longhouse of the man’s tribe where the various icons of the totem acted as guardians for the spirits’ journey to the next world.

Written history left to us by the first missionaries to the area all speak of an unbelievable stench at most of these villages.  Today, this practice is outlawed.

Viking Burial – Scandinavia

Viking’s ashore. Illustration Long Beach City College

We have all seen images of a Viking funeral with the body laid out on the deck of a dragon ship, floating into the sunset while warriors fire flaming arrows to ignite the pyre. 

While very dramatic, burning a ship is quite expensive, and not very practical. 

What we do know is most Vikings, being a sea faring people, were interred in large graves dug in the shape of a ship and lined with rocks.  The person’s belongings and food were placed beside them.  Men took their weapons to the next world, while women were laid to rest wearing their finest jewelry and accessories. 

If the deceased was a nobleman or great warrior, his woman was passed from man to man in his tribe, who all made love to her (some would say raped) before strangling her, and placing her next to the body of her man.  Thankfully this practice is now, for the most part, extinct.

Fire Burial – Bali

Fire consumes all. Photo by Barnacle Bikers

On the mostly Hindu Isle of Bali, fire is the vehicle to the next life. The body or Mayat is bathed and laid out on a table where food offerings are laid beside it for the journey.

Lanterns line the path to the persons hut to let people know he or she has passed, and act as a reminder of their life so they are not forgotten.

It is then interred in a mass grave with others from the same village who have passed on until it is deemed there are a sufficient number of bodies to hold a cremation.

The bodies are unearthed, cleaned, and stacked on an elaborate float, gloriously decorated by the entire village and adorned with flowers. The float is paraded through the village to the central square where it is consumed by flames, and marks the beginning of a massive feast to honor and remember the dead.

Spirit Offerings – Southeast Asia

Row of spirit houses. Photo by Marc Aurel

Throughout most of Southeast Asia, people have been buried in the fields where they lived and worked. It is common to see large stone monuments in the middle of a pasture of cows or water buffalo.

The Vietnamese leave thick wads of counterfeit money under rocks on these monuments so the deceased can buy whatever they need on their way to the next life

In Cambodia and Thailand, wooden “spirit houses” sit in front of almost every hut from the poorest to the most elaborate estate.  These are places where food and drink are left periodically for the souls of departed relatives to refuel when necessary.  The offerings of both countries also ask the spirits of the relatives to watch over the lands and the families left behind.

Predator Burial – Maasai Tribe

No after life. Photo by Demosh

The Maasai of East Africa are hereditary nomads who believe in a deity known as Enkai, but this is not a single being or entity.

It is a term that encompasses the earth, sky, and all that dwells below.  It is a difficult concept for western minds that are more used to traditional religious beliefs than those of so-called primitive cultures. 

Actual burial is reserved for chiefs as a sign of respect, while the common people are simply left outdoors for predators to dispose of, since Maasai believe dead bodies are harmful to the earth.  To them when you are dead, you are simply gone.  There is no after life.

Skull Burial – Kiribati

Chilling out. Photo by aargh

On the tiny island of Kiribati the deceased is laid out in their house for no less than three days and as long as twelve, depending on their status in the community.  Friends and relatives make a pudding from the root of a local plant as an offering. 

Several months after internment the body is exhumed and the skull removed, oiled, polished, and offered tobacco and food.  After the remainder of the body is re-interred, traditional islanders keep the skull on a shelf in their home and believe the native god Nakaa welcomes the dead person’s spirit in the northern end of the islands.

Cave Burial – Hawaii

Cave burials. Photo by Extra Medium

In the Hawaiian Islands, a traditional burial takes place in a cave where the body is bent into a fetal position with hands and feet tied to keep it that way, then covered with a tapa cloth made from the bark of a mulberry bush. 

Sometimes the internal organs are removed and the cavity filled with salt to preserve it.  The bones are considered sacred and believed to have diving power. 

Many caves in Hawaii still contain these skeletons, particularly along the coast of Maui.

Ocean Burial

The open sea. Photo by Spirit of Albion

Since most of our planet is covered with water, burial at sea has long been the accepted norm for mariners the world over.

By international law, the captain of any ship, regardless of size or nationality has the authority to conduct an official burial service at sea.

The traditional burial shroud is a burlap bag, being cheap and plentiful, and long in use to carry cargo.  The deceased is sewn inside and is weighted with rocks or other heavy debris to keep it from floating.

If available, the flag of their nation covers the bag while a service is conducted on deck. The body is then slid from under the flag, and deposited in Davy Jones locker.

In olden days, the British navy mandated that the final stitch in the bag had to go through the deceased person’s lip, just to make sure they really were dead.  (If they were still alive, having a needle passed through their skin would revive them).

It is quite possible that sea burial has been the main form of burial across the earth since before recorded history.

The Final Frontier

Today, if one has enough money, you can be launched into space aboard a private commercial satellite and a capsule containing your ashes will be in permanent orbit around the earth.

Perhaps this is the ultimate burial ceremony, or maybe the beginning of a whole new era in which man continues to find new and innovative ways to invoke spirits and provide a safe passage to whatever awaits us at the end of this life.

Any other death ceremonies you’ve encountered? Share your thoughts in the comments!

ReligionSpirituality

 

About The Author

James Michael Dorsey

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author and photographer who has traveled off the beaten path in 35 countries. He lives among indigenous peoples and records their cultures. His work has appeared in Christian Science Monitor, BBC Wildlife, WEND, Sea Kayaker, and TravelersTales. Visit his website www.jamesdorsey.com

  • Daniel Harbecke

    Fascinating material! Thank you, James – quite an insight into how people view the Afterworld, the nature of life, one another… but now you’ve got me thinking…

    If I were going to have a burial ritual, it’d be called the Ice Cream Offering. Much like an Irish wake, the departed’s remains are tied to a 2-wheel dolly, fixed in a genial pose (like a friendly wave of greeting) and carted to Dairy Queen. Funeral attendees order whatever they like, all the while gesturing over their shoulder to the Late Lamented and saying the ritual words: “He’s buying.” The last mourner in line should be expected to have fast legs and a cover on his or her Peanut Buster Parfait.

    Erm, now that I think of it, it’s less of a wake and more like “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Though not as cool as Hunter S. Thompson’s ceremony, I just have this to say about my ceremony: “Free ice cream.”

  • Tanya

    When you say Pacific Northwest Indians, you mean Native Americans right? Because Indians means from the origin of India which these people clearly are not.

  • http://www.RememberWell.net heather

    Fantastic! So interesting. I’m lucky to have StumbledUpon it.
    Thank you so much.

  • http://stumble Ostichrecliner

    How about taking a lesson from the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, where Mom or Dad’s bones are cremated then ‘inhaled’ by all the family members over Thanksgiving dinner!

  • http://www.misscellania.com/ Miss Cellania

    I know this is picky, but it’s the perfect opportunity to use the poem.

    The one-l lama,
    He’s a priest.
    The two-l llama,
    He’s a beast.
    And I will bet
    A silk pajama
    There isn’t any
    Three-l lllama.*

    – Ogden Nash

  • Julie

    Really interesting; thanks, James. Though it’s not quite so dramatic or infused with tradition as any of the burial rituals you describe, I’ve been fascinated by the emergence of “pod burials,” in which the deceased is put in a biodegradable pod and buried, either in traditional Western fashion or–depending on local laws–in a patch of land that held special significance for that person. Certainly seems to be more environmentally sustainable than coffins, though I’ll admit that I don’t know very much about the practice.

  • Michaela Lola

    Ooohhh! very interesting…The Philippines also has some unusual burial practices. The Hanging coffins of the Philippines is one of these..

    http://www.gooya.us/photos/2007/11/hanging-coffins-of-sagada-philippines.php

    Some are extremely high up and hidden at the top of a mountainside and to this day, how people got the coffins up there remains a mystery.

    Thanks for a cool read…

    http://michatheperegrine.googlepages.com/home
    http://lookingforlola.wordpress.com/

  • Tom Swirly

    In Bali, a cremation is a huge party, these days with custom T-shirts for friends and family. It costs a bundle, so it’s very common to temporarily bury your relative while you save the money for the cremation, there are quite a few little graveyards with temporary markers.

    One of my big regrets in Bali was that I was invited to one of these and passed it up (I was under the weather but I could have made it…)

  • K Young

    There are so many terrific options to consider. If you would like to better the earth and the sea at the same time, please consider permanent ocean monuments with Twin Rocks Undersea Memorial. http://www.twinrocksunderseamemorial.com. Monuments are permanently placed in the Pacific Ocean, GPS located and have niches for sea life. A really great option for those choosing cremation.

  • Debra Joy

    This is a great article. Really interesting. I think it's interesting to learn about the different relationships we have with death and dying.

  • Viveka

    Very interesting article, I liked it a lot. Just wanted to comment on this little bit (without being rude, I just felt this needed to be mentioned):

    "If the deceased was a nobleman or great warrior, his woman was passed from man to man in his tribe, who all made love to her (some would say raped) before strangling her, and placing her next to the body of her man. Thankfully this practice is now, for the most part, extinct."

    Scandinavians (because Viking "tribes" ceased to exist quite a while ago) do not strangle their women as part of a burial ritual, as we happen to be normal people like the rest of you. So no, the practice is not "for the most part" extinct. It is. Permanently. If the Vikings did it, it was a long, long time ago, and as Vikings technically don't exist anymore, their Scandinavian ancestors do not necessarily follow the same customs.

  • Daniela

    Oh, that was interesting!
    If anyone has a particular interest in exotic burial ceremonies, please check a tradicional Bororo (Brazilian indians) funeral. They are incredible.

  • Erin

    The whole Viking human sacrifice thing has very minimal evidence to support (there’s some, mind you, but it’s a very rare occurance). And only a snall portion of Viking burials included boats, ships, or boat-shaped stone settings. Viking burial practices are fascinating though, particularly because they were so varied.

    Burials could occur in chambers, boats, wagons, coffins or simple pits. They could involve cremation or simple inhumation. Grave goods ranged from simple things like knives and beads to very elaborate collections of items such as weapons, jewellery, everyday tools, imported objects etc. Animals were sometimes sacrificed, particularly horses and dogs. Very rarely, there may be evidence for human sacrifice (such as the grave at Balladoole on the Isle of Man). Individuals were usually buried alone, although in some instances more than one person might be included in the grave (as at Scar, Orkney), without evidence for sacrifice. Also, sometimes graves were opened and a second individual was added, perhaps a spouse who died later?

    The Ibn Fadlan account upon which your information is based is fascinating, but flawed for a number of reasons. Not saying it is completely false, but it does not seem to represent typical Viking burial, not even for a chieftain.

  • David

    Being PC is so yesterdays fad. You know what Indian means.

  • mamad

    wow…………..
    that was astonishing meanwhile very cruel anyway i think anybody should decide himself how would be his funeral,i myself would like to denote all parts of my body and then be buried underground respectfully.
    anyhow thanks for the information

  • karen

    fantastic from a nursing student :)

  • Reji Mathew

    Very good and Interesting.
    Thanks.

    Reji Mathew, Al-Ain, U.A.E.

  • Liz Despeaux

    Thanks for information! I’m currently working on a research project exploring the possibility of doing a theatrical performance in cemeteries and this was a great way to see non-western burial traditions.
    If anybody has anything they would like to mention about the aforemention topic, please feel free to write to:
    maatpresearch@gmail.com
    Would you see a performance in a cemetery? How do you feel about the use of the space?
    Again, thanks so much for the great article :)

    • isheh

      loved this. thank you. also love the idea of a performance in a cemetery.

  • http://heavenandhell.ws mona hajj

    I thank you for pointing out the individual ways people have been trying to hang on to their bodies
    Fact is we are from earth and to earth we return
    actually our bodies are just a loaner from the earth which we have to give them back to earth after our soul returns to god
    we are allowed to occupy these bodies and to grow them from birth till maturity and then no matter what we do our bodies have expiration, cause our life is limited and it is just a test that we sit for
    if we dont give back our bodies to the earth that loaned them to us then it is a guilt we have to pay for . Please also talk about some christian sects in the middle east that dont burry their dead in the ground they preserve them in rooms and what happens is the souls of these bodies stay around and become zambi’s and they dress them in nice expensive clothes
    EWhere is the vatican
    and what happened to the teachings of jesus we are from earth and to earth we shall return
    ??????
    Please travel to lebanon and show this barbaric non christian burrial done in the name of christ
    We have to give back the bodies to earth without even a wooden box I think we can save the woods by stopping people from using wood boxes for burrial,
    as the sooner the body disinteegrates the faster the soul will rest

  • Sarah

    I attended a viking funeral two days ago. Obviously, the man who died was not a viking, but he was in love with everything norse, so his family wanted to honor him in a way that best suited him. Because the death was a surprise, and a boat takes time to build, he was cremated beforehand. His friends and family built the boat and sail, both of which were decorated with the head of a boar, because it was the animal he felt the most connected with.during his life. His family put in some of his clothes, some of his favorite books, a plate of his favorite food, some bowls and boxes he made, and other people were encouraged to put letters and items inside as well. Then the boat was put out on the ocean and lit up with a torch. It was one of the most beautiful and powerful experiences I’ve ever witnessed. Everyone stood on the beach, watching the burning boat rocking in the waves, casting orange flames across the reflective surface of the water. It burned for hours, but hardly anyone moved.

    • Bigmac9787

      You didn’t pass his woman around and then choke her to death and lay her beside him???

  • Evodave

    American aborigines(original people) is the correct term. Indians come from India. Native Americans are all people from the Americas.

  • Dave

    “Just as primitive man has long worshiped the four elements of Earth, Sky, Water, and Fire… ”

    …so modern primatives worship their god.

    “As we are told in Genesis, man comes from dust, and returns to it. We have found many different ways to return.”

    …and Genesis is a work of fiction, as we clearly do not come from dust. Can’t argue that we return to it though.

  • http://www.southworld.net Joseph Caramazza

    I found this site by chance, and I was interested in the maasai section ….. sorry for the author, too many mistakes:
    1) Enkai is God, the fact that the same word means also heavens has nothing to do with the meaning. In many languages (even English) heaven(s) is a synonim of God.
    2) there are NO CHIEFS among the Maasai. The only person that has got a paramount power is the ol-Oibon (the man of the sacred), and only on ritual/spiritual matters. Each group is governed by a council of the elders, and what they say it is not always binding …..
    3) burial …. yes, 200 years ago they did abandon the corpse to the hyenas. Today very few do that.
    4) after life … Maasai believe that after life is only for a few, those who were able to live a special relationship with God. Clearly, the majority of people would not qualify. However, today, this belief is not that of the majority of Maasai people.

  • Lirael

    I really liked this article as it served to point out that everyone is still allowed to be different, no matter how homogenized we may seem.
    Also, I’d like to add that another strange new burial is the practice of being cremated and then having your ashes turned into a diamond.

  • Fuzzygreen

    I thought this was very interestin read. Of course a lot of what he talks about probably doesn’t hold true today but in the end this is just a commentary on where we have come from, where we might still be now andwhere we will go. I feel som peple took this article a little literally and provided unnecessary omments. As I was reading I saw yes there might have been some inor mistakes but I understood the point he was trying to make and avoid getting caught up in unnecessary semantics.
    A) Whether or not Genesis is a work of fiction it is a refernce point that he uses to understand what his subjects (it would be like someone of the Maasai tribe or Buddhist quoting their own text or ideaology when referencing other cultural practices.
    B) PC is so annoying at this point. The high hose s long sine buried and dead.

    wonderful article by the way…

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  • Rajasthan Tours Operator

    these cerimonies are so beautiful

  • EllieAnn

    great post, I’m researching death ceremonies for my blog and this was very helpful. Thanks!

  • Rajasthan Tours

    Excellent post its very informative post i like it

  • http://www.facebook.com/abiral.nidhi Abiral Nidhi

    Buying Fire: In Hindu culture… mostly followed in the Ancient Videha Kingdom…now modern day Janakpur, Nepal… the fire used to light the body is bought from a  “dom”(an untouchable in the Hindu Caste hierarchy). The one who performs the final rituals for the deceased(usually the eldest son) bargains with the “dome” until a agreeable price is accepted by both parties…(usually money, clothing and in case of the rich, land)…

  • Halo_fan101

    I like the fact that this is a new purpose for a zombie apocolypse

  • Carlo Bathan

    -CoL

  • Darkz Angel

    ang panget

  • Raggedy Ann

    great article!

    • Charlene Mae Reston

      ate mae ann c bb ito..anak n papa joseph.

    • Charlene Mae Reston

      ate asa ka dapit dre sa davao?

    • Charlene Mae Reston

      taga CALINAN MAN ME TE.

  • Andrew Bennett

    Ann Davies Romney father Edward Roderick Davies aka Edward Richthofen father was a high ranking nazi in world war II ” Wolfram Freiherr Von Richthofen”!

  • Rina Mikaela BLanco

    hmm

  • Gerald Navarro

    unusual really hehehe ♥.

  • JaneD

    Spirit houses in Southeast Asia have nothing to do with the spirits of family members. They are put out to entice mischievous spirits to live in the spirit house instead of your home where they might cause problems.

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