Burial, also called interment and inhumation, is the act of placing a person or object into the ground. This is accomplished by excavating a pit or trench, placing an object in it, and covering it over.
The remainder of this article discusses human burial.
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Intentional burial, particularly with grave goods may be one of the earliest detectable forms of religious practice since, as Philip Lieberman suggests, it may signify a "concern for the dead that transcends daily life." Though disputed, evidence suggests that the Neanderthals were the first hominids to intentionally bury the dead, doing so in shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones. Exemplary sites include Shanidar in Iraq, Kebara Cave in Israel and Krapina in Croatia. Some scholars, however argue that these bodies may have been disposed of for secular reasons.
The earliest undisputed human burial dates back 130,000 years. Human skeletal remains stained with red ochre were discovered in the Skhul cave at Qafzeh, Israel. A variety of grave goods were present at the site, including the mandible of a wild boar in the arms of one of the skeletons.
Prehistoric cemeteries are referred to by the more neutral term grave field. They are one of the chief sources of information on prehistoric cultures, and numerous archaeological cultures are defined by their burial customs, such as the Urnfield culture of the European Bronze Age.
Reasons for human burial
After death, a corpse will start to decay and emit unpleasant odors due to gases released by bacterial decomposition. Burial prevents the living from having to see and smell the decomposing corpse, but it is not necessarily a public health requirement. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the WHO advises that only corpses carrying an infectious disease strictly require burial.
Human burial practices are the manifestation of the human desire to demonstrate "respect for the dead". Among the reasons for this are:
- Respect for the physical remains is considered necessary. If left lying on top of the ground, scavengers may eat the corpse, which is considered highly disrespectful to the deceased in many (but not all) cultures.
- Burial can be seen as an attempt to bring closure to the deceased's family and friends. By interring a body away from plain view, the pain of losing a loved one can be lessened.
- Many cultures believe in an afterlife. Burial is often believed to be a necessary step for an individual to reach the afterlife.
- Many religions prescribe a "correct" way to live, which includes customs relating to disposal of the dead.
In many cultures, human corpses were usually buried in soil. The act of burying corpses is thought to have begun around 200,000 years ago during the Paleolithic period by homo sapiens, before spreading out from Africa. As a result, burial grounds are found throughout the world. Mounds of earth, temples, and underground caverns were used to store the dead bodies of ancestors. In modern times, the custom of burying dead people below ground with a stone marker to mark the place is used in almost every modern culture, although other means such as cremation are becoming more popular in the west (cremation is the norm in India and mandatory in Japan).
Some burial practices are heavily ritualized; others are simply practical.
A growing trend in modern burial is the concept of natural burial. Popularised in the United Kingdom in the late 1990s, natural burial is being adopted in the United States as a method for protecting and restoring the natural environment.
With a natural burial, the body is returned to nature in a biodegradable coffin or shroud. Native vegetation (often a memorial tree) is planted over or near the grave in place of a conventional cemetery monument. The resulting green space establishes a living memorial and forms a protected wildlife preserve.
The practice of natural burial dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Sir Francis Seymour Hayden proposed "earth to earth burial," in a pamphlet of the same name, as a less gruesome alternative to either cremation or the slow putrefaction of encased corpses. The earth to earth burial movement was part of the short-lived cremation controversy of the 1870s.
Muslims also practice natural burial, with the deceased's body covered in shroud and with his\her face facing Mecca.
Natural burial grounds are also known as woodland cemeteries, eco-cemeteries, memorial nature preserves, or green burial grounds.
Prevention of decay
Bodies are often buried wrapped in a shroud or placed in a coffin (also called a casket). A larger container may be used, such as a ship. Coffins are usually covered by a burial liner or a burial vault, which prevents the coffin from collapsing under the weight of the earth or floating away during a flood.
These containers slow the decomposition process by (partially) physically blocking decomposing bacteria and other organisms from accessing the corpse. An additional benefit of using containers to hold the body is that if the soil covering the corpse is washed away by a flood or some other natural process, the corpse will still not be exposed to open air.
In some cultures however the goal is not to preserve the body but to allow it to decompose—or return to the Earth — naturally. In Orthodox Judaism embalming is not permitted, and the coffins are constructed so that the body will be returned to the Earth as soon as possible. Such coffins are made of wood, and have no metal parts at all. Wooden pegs are used in the place of nails.
Inclusion of clothing and personal effects
The body may be dressed in fancy and/or ceremonial clothes. Personal objects, such as a favorite piece of jewellery or photograph, of the deceased may be included with the body. This practice, also known as the inclusion of grave goods, serves several purposes:
- In funeral services, the body is often put on display. Many cultures feel that the deceased should be presented looking his/her finest.
- The inclusion of ceremonial garb and sacred objects is sometimes viewed as necessary for reaching the afterlife.
- The inclusion of personal effects may be motivated by the beliefs that in the afterlife a person will wish to have with them what was important to them on earth. Alternatively, in some cultures it is felt that when a person dies, their possessions (and sometimes people connected to them such as wives) should go with them out of loyalty or ownership.
- Though not generally a motivation for the inclusion of grave goods with a corpse, it is worth considering that future archaeologists may find the remains (compare time capsule). Artifacts such as clothing and objects provide insight into how the individual lived. This provides a form of immortality for the deceased.
Burials may be placed in a number of different positions. Christian burials are made extended, i.e., lying flat with arms and legs straight, or with the arms folded upon the chest, and with the eyes and mouth closed. Extended burials may be supine (lying on the back) or prone (lying on the front). Other ritual practices place the body in a flexed position with the legs bent or crouched with the legs folded up to the chest. Warriors in some ancient societies were buried in an upright position. In Islam, the head is pointed toward and the face is turned toward Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Many cultures treat placement of dead people in an appropriate position to be a sign of respect even when burial is impossible.
In nonstandard burial practices, such as mass burial, the body may be positioned arbitrarily. This can be a sign of disrespect to the deceased, or at least nonchalance on the part of the inhumer, or due to considerations of time and space.
Historically, Christian burials were made supine east-west, with the head at the western end of the grave. This mirrors the layout of Christian churches, and for much the same reason; to view the coming of Christ on Judgement day (Eschaton). In many Christian traditions, ordained clergy are traditionally buried in the opposite orientation, and their coffins carried likewise, so that at the General Resurrection they may rise facing, and ready to minister to, their people.
For humans, maintaining an upside down position, with the head vertically below the feet, is highly uncomfortable for any extended period of time, and consequently burial in that attitude (as opposed to attitudes of rest or watchfulness, as above) is highly unusual and generally symbolic. Occasionally suicides were buried upside down, as a post mortem punishment and (as with burial at cross-roads) to inhibit the activities of the resulting undead.
They bury their dead with their heads directly downward, because they hold an opinion, that in eleven thousand moons they are all to rise again; in which period the earth (which they conceive to be flat) will turn upside down, and by this means they shall, at their resurrection, be found ready standing on their feet. The learned among them confess the absurdity of this doctrine; but the practice still continues, in compliance to the vulgar.— Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, Part I, Chapter VI
Swift's notion of inverted burial might seem the highest flight of fancy, but it appears that among English millenarians the idea that the world would be "turned upside down" at the Apocalypse enjoyed some currency, and there is at least one attested case of a person being buried upside down by instruction; a Major Peter Labelliere of Dorking (d. June 4, 1800) lies thus upon the summit of Box Hill. Similar stories have attached themselves to other noted eccentrics, particularly in southern England, but not always with a foundation in truth.
Burial among African-American slaves
In the African-American slave community, slaves quickly familiarized themselves with funeral procedures and the location of gravesites of family and friends. Specific slaves were assigned to prepare dead bodies, build coffins, dig graves, and construct headstones. Slave funerals were typically at night when the workday was over, with the master present to view all the ceremonial procedures. Slaves from the nearby plantations were regularly in attendance.
At death, a slave’s body was wrapped in cloth. The hands were placed across the chest, and a metal plate was placed on top of their hands. The reasoning for the plate was to hinder their return home by suppressing any spirits in the coffin. Often, personal property was buried with slaves to appease spirits. The coffins were nailed shut once the body was inside, and carried by hand or wagon, depending on the property designated for slave burial site. Slaves were buried east to west, with the head facing east and their feet to the west. This positioning represented the ability to rise without having to turn around at the call of Gabriel’s trumpet. Gabriel’s trumpet would be blown in the eastern sunrise. East-west positioning also was the direction of home, Africa.
Burial in the Bahá'í Faith
Bahá'í burial law prescribes both the location of burial and burial practices and precludes cremation of the dead. It is forbidden to carry the body for more than one hour's journey from the place of death. Before interment the body should be wrapped in a shroud of silk or cotton, and a ring should be placed on its finger bearing the inscription "I came forth from God, and return unto Him, detached from all save Him, holding fast to His Name, the Merciful, the Compassionate". The coffin should be of crystal, stone or hard fine wood. Also, before interment, a specific Prayer for the Dead is ordained. The formal prayer and the ring are meant to be used for those who have reached fifteen years of age.
Where to bury
Apart from sanitary and other practical considerations, the site of burial can be determined by religious and socio-cultural considerations.
Thus in some traditions, especially with an animistic logic, the remains of the dead are "banished" for fear their spirits would harm the living if too close; others keep remains close to help surviving generations.
Religious rules may prescribe a specific zone, e.g. some Christian traditions hold that Christians must be buried in "consecrated ground," usually a cemetery; an earlier practice, burial in or very near the church (hence the word churchyard), was generally abandoned with individual exceptions as a high posthumous honour; also many existing funeral monuments and crypts remain in use.
Royalty and high nobility often have one or more "traditional" sites of burial, generally monumental, often in a palatial chapel or cathedral; see examples on Heraldica.org.
Marking the location of the burial
Most modern cultures mark the location of the body with a headstone. This serves two purposes. First, the grave will not accidentally be exhumed. Second, headstones often contain information or tributes to deceased. This is a form of remembrance for loved ones; it can also be viewed as a form of immortality, especially in cases of famous people's graves. Such monumental inscriptions may subsequently be useful to genealogists and family historians.
In many cultures graves will be grouped, so the monuments make up a necropolis, a "city of the dead" parallelling the community of the living.
Another sort of unmarked grave is a burial site with an anonymous marker, such as a simple cross; boots, rifle and helmet; a sword and shield; a cairn of stones; or even a monument. This may occur when identification of the deceased is impossible. Although many unidentified deceased are buried in potter's fields, some are memorialized, especially in smaller communities or in the case of deaths publicized by local media.
Many countries have buried an unidentified soldier (or other member of the military) in a prominent location as a form of respect for all unidentified war dead. The United Kingdom's Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is in Westminster Abbey, France's is buried underneath the Arc de Triomphe, Italy's is buried in the Monumento al Milite Ignoto in Rome, Canada's is buried at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Australia's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, New Zealand's Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is in Wellington and the United States' Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located at Arlington National Cemetery.
Many cultures practise anonymous burial as a norm, not an exception. For instance, in parts of eastern Germany, up to 43% of burials are anonymous. According to Christian Century magazine, the perspective of the Roman Catholic Church is that anonymous burials reflect a dwindling belief in God, but others claim that the practice relates more to the exorbitant cost of grave markers and the solitary nature of German life.
In rare cases, a known person may be buried without identification, perhaps to avoid desecration of the corpse, grave robbing, or vandalism of the burial site. This may be particularly the case with infamous or notorious figures. In other cases, it may be to prevent the grave from becoming a tourist attractions or a destination of pilgrimage. Survivors may cause the deceased to be buried in a secret location or other unpublished place, or in a grave with a false name (or no name at all) on the marker.
When Walt Disney was cremated his ashes were buried in a secret location in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, California. Some burial sites at Forest Lawn, such as those of Humphrey Bogart and Mary Pickford, are secluded in private gated gardens with no public access. A number of tombs are also kept from the public eye. Forest Lawn's Court of Honour indicates that some of its crypts have plots which are reserved for individuals who may be "voted in" as "Immortals"; no amount of money can purchase a place. Photographs taken at Forest Lawn are not permitted to be published, and their information office usually refuses to reveal exactly where the remains of famous people are buried. Although the cemetery's owners state that this is meant to deter gravesite tourism, some critics say that the cemetery wishes visitors to purchase memorabilia at the funeral home's numerous gift shops instead of taking photographs for free, especially in the case of grave markers notable for their beauty.
Multiple bodies per grave
Some couples or groups of people (such as a married couple or other family members) may wish to be buried in the same plot. In some cases, the coffins (or urns) may simply be buried side by side. In others, one casket may be interred above another. If this is planned for in advance, the first casket may be buried more deeply than is the usual practice so that the second casket may be placed over it without disturbing the first. In many states in Australia all graves are designated two or three depth (depending of the water table) for multiple burials, at the discretion of the burial rights holder, with each new interment atop the previous coffin separated by a thin layer of earth. As such all graves are dug to greater depth for the initial burial than the traditional six feet to facilitate this practice.
Mass burial is the practice of burying multiple bodies in one location. Civilizations attempting genocide often employ mass burial for victims. However, mass burial may in many cases be the only practical means of dealing with an overwhelming number of human remains, such as those resulting from a natural disaster, an act of terrorism, an epidemic, or an accident. This practice has become less common in the developed world with the advent of genetic testing, but even in the 21st century remains which are unidentifiable by current methods may be buried in a mass grave.
Individuals who are buried at the expense of the local authorities and buried in potter's fields may be buried in mass graves. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is believed to have been buried in such a manner. In some cases, the remains of unidentified individuals may be buried in mass graves in potter's fields, making exhumation and future identification troublesome for law enforcement.
Naval ships sunk in combat are also considered mass graves by many countries. For example, U.S. Navy policy declares such wrecks a mass grave and forbids the recovery of remains. In lieu of recovery, divers or submersibles may leave a plaque dedicated to the memory of the ship or boat and its crew, and family members are invited to attend the ceremony.
Sites of large former battlefields may also contain one or more mass graves. Douaumont ossuary is one such mass grave, and it contains the remains of 130,000 soldiers from both sides of the battle of Verdun.
Catacombs also constitute a form of mass grave. Some catacombs, for example those in Rome, were designated as a communal burial place. Some, such as the catacombs of Paris, only became a mass grave when individual burials were relocated from cemeteries marked for demolition.
Judaism does not generally allow multiple bodies in a grave. An exception to this is a grave in the military cemetery in Jerusalem, where there is a "kever ah-chim" (Heb. "grave of brothers") where two soldiers were killed together in a tank and are buried in one grave. As the bodies were so fused together with the metal of the tank that they could not be separately identified, they were buried in one grave (along with parts of the tank).
There are several common alternatives to burial. In cremation the body of the deceased is burned in a special oven. Most of the body is burnt during the cremation process, leaving only a few pounds of bone fragments. Bodies of small children and infants often produce very little in the way of "ashes", as ashes are composed of bone, and young people have softer bones, largely cartilage. Often these fragments are processed (ground) into a fine powder, which has led to cremated remains being called ashes. In recent times, cremation has become a popular option in the western world.
There is far greater flexibility in dealing with the remains in cremation as opposed to the traditional burial. Some of the options include scattering the ashes at a place close to the heart of the deceased or keeping the ashes at home. Ashes can also be buried either underground or in a columbarium niche.
Live burial sometimes occurs, in which individuals are buried while still alive. Having no way of escaping interment, they die in place, typically by asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation, or (in cold climates) exposure. People may come to be buried alive in a number of different ways:
- An individual may be intentionally buried alive as a method of execution or murder. In ancient Rome, Vestal Virgins who broke their vows were punished in this way.
- A person or group of people in a cave, mine, or other underground area may be sealed underground due to an earthquake, cave in, or other natural disaster or accident. Live burial may also occur due to avalanches on mountain slopes.
- People have been unintentionally buried alive because they were pronounced dead by a coroner or other official, when they were in fact still alive.
Writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote a number of stories and poems about premature burial, including a story called "The Premature Burial." These works inspired a widespread popular fear of this appalling but unlikely event. Various expedients have been devised to prevent this event, including burying live telephones or telemetry sensors in graves.
Burial at cross-roads
Historically, burial at cross-roads was the method of disposing of executed criminals and suicides. At the cross-roads a rude cross usually stood, and this gave rise to the belief that these spots were selected as the next best burying-places to consecrated ground. The real explanation is that the ancient Teutonic peoples often built their altars at the cross-roads, and as human sacrifices, especially of criminals, formed part of the ritual, these spots came to be regarded as execution grounds. Hence after the introduction of Christianity, criminals and suicides were buried at the cross-roads during the night, in order to assimilate as far as possible their funeral to that of the pagans. An example of a cross-road execution-ground was the famous Tyburn in London, which stood on the spot where the Roman road to Edgware and beyond met the Roman road heading west out of London.
Superstition also played a part in the selection of cross-roads in the burial of suicides. Folk belief often held such individuals could rise as some form of undead (such as a vampire) and burying them at cross-roads would inhibit their ability to find and wreak havoc on their living relations and former associates.
Burial of animals
In addition to burying human remains, many human cultures also regularly bury animal remains.
Pets and other animals of emotional significance are often ceremonially buried. Most families bury deceased pets on their own properties, mainly in a yard, with a shoe box or any other type of container served as a coffin. The Ancient Egyptians are known to have mummified and buried cats, which they considered deities.
By other animals
The digging up of a buried body is called exhumation or disinterration, and is considered sacrilege by most cultures that bury their dead. However, exhumation can occur in the following circumstances:
- If an individual dies under suspicious circumstances, a legitimate investigating agency (such as a police agency) may exhume the body to determine the cause of death.
- Deceased individuals who were either not identified or misidentified at the time of burial may be reburied if survivors so wish.
- Remains may be exhumed in order to be reinterred at a more appropriate location. For example, the remains of Nicholas II of Russia and his family were exhumed from their resting place near Yekaterinburg so that they could be reinterred in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
- The remains of the Venerable or the Blessed are sometimes exhumed to see if they are supernaturally Incorruptible and thus a Saint. This type of exhumation is generally not considered sacrilege.
- Remains may be exhumed and reburied en masse when a cemetery is relocated.
- In rare cases (such as those of Pope Formosus or Oliver Cromwell), a body may be exhumed for posthumous execution, dissection, or gibbeting.
- Notable individuals may be exhumed to answer historical questions. Tutankhamen's remains were exhumed in 2005 in order to determine his cause of death.
- Once human remains reach a certain age, some cultures consider exhumation acceptable. This serves several purposes:
- Cemeteries have a limited number of plots in which to bury the dead. Once all plots are full, older remains may be moved to an ossuary to accommodate more bodies.
- It enables archaeologists to search the remains to better understand human culture.
- It enables construction agencies to clear the way for new constructions.
Frequently, cultures have different sets of exhumation taboos. Occasionally these differences result in conflict, especially in cases where a culture with more lenient exhumation rules wishes to operate on the territory of a stricter culture. For example, United States construction companies have run into conflict with Native American groups that wanted to preserve their ancient burial grounds from any form of modern construction.
In folklore and mythology, exhumation has also been frequently associated with the performance of rites to banish undead manifestations. An example is the Mercy Brown Vampire Incident of Rhode Island, which occurred in 1892.
Alternatives to burial
Human bodies are not always buried. Alternatives to burial include the following:
- Ash jump: skydivers may elect to have their cremated remains released during freefall.
- Burial at sea is the practice of depositing the body in an ocean or other large body of water instead of soil. It may be disposed in a coffin, or without one.
- Funerary cannibalism is the practice of eating the remains. This may be for many reasons: for example to partake of their strength, to spiritually "close the circle" by reabsorbing their life into the family or clan, to annihilate an enemy, or due to pathological mental conditions. The Yanomami have the habit of cremating the remains and then eating the ashes with banana paste.
- Cremation is the incineration of the remains. This practice is common amongst Hindus and is becoming increasingly common in other cultures as well. If a family member wishes, the ashes can now be turned into a gem, similar to creating synthetic diamonds.
- Ecological funeral is a method of increasing the rate of decomposition in order to help fertilize the soil.
- Excarnation is the practice of removing the flesh from the corpse without interment. The Zoroastrians have traditionally left their dead on Towers of Silence, where the flesh of the corpses is left to be devoured by vultures and other carrion-eating birds. Alternatively, it can also mean butchering the corpse by hand to remove the flesh (sometimes referred to by the neologism "defleshing").
- Gibbeting was the ancient practice of publicly displaying remains of criminals.
- Hanging coffins are coffins which have been placed on cliffs. They can be found in various locations, including China and the Philippines.
- Resomation involves disposal through an accelerated process of alkaline hydrolysis.
- Sky burial involves placing the body on a mountaintop.
- Space burial is the practice of firing the coffin into space. The coffin may be placed into orbit, sent off into space, or incinerated in the sun. Space burial is still largely in the realm of science fiction as the cost of getting a body into space is prohibitively large, although several prominent figures have had a sample of their ashes launched into space after cremation.
In most cases these alternatives are still intended to maintain respect for the dead, but some are intended to prolong the display of the remains.
Cryonics is often mistakenly assumed to be an alternative interment method, but is in fact a medical procedure carried out to physically preserve the body in the hope that it will one day be technologically possible to revive the individual. See also information theoretical death; clinical death.
Notes and references
- Uniquely Human. 1991. ISBN 0674921836.
- Evolving in their graves: early burials hold clues to human origins - research of burial rituals of Neanderthals
- Uniquely Human page 163
- Simpson, Jacqueline (August 2005). "The Miller's tomb: facts, gossip, and legend". Folklore.
- Simpson, Jacqueline (Jan.—Mar 1978). "The World Upside down Shall Be: A Note on the Folklore of Doomsday". The Journal of American Folklore. 91 (359): 559–567. Check date values in:
- The Sky Burials of Tibet
- Centre for Natural Burial Resources and Information supporting the Natural Burial Movement