No one can possibly derive an exact date when early humans first began to bury their dead. Controversy continues on the question of whether or not certain skeletal remains found in the caves of Neanderthals indicate that some kind of burial ceremony was conducted for the dead around 200,000 years ago.
Neither can anyone pinpoint for certain when the concept of an afterlife first occurred to primitive humans. It might be conjectured that when early humans had realistic dreams of friends or relatives who were dead, they might have awakened convinced that the departed somehow still existed in some other world. Such an idea, whenever it first occurred, was undoubtedly taken as reassuring and comforting. The belief that there was something within them that survived physical death was an exciting promise that eventually spread to humans everywhere throughout the planet.
Anthropologists and other scientists of human evolution relate that the early humans' concept of the soul or the spirit was often that of either a miniature or a full-sized reproduction of the person who had died. The Huron, a Native American tribe, believed that the spirit had arms, legs, head, and torso just like the person from whom it had been released by death. The Nootka, a tribe that occupied Vancouver Island, British Columbia, conceived of the soul as a tiny person who lived within a person's head and who was set free when its host body succumbed to death.
Many native people in Peru, Brazil, and other South American countries think of the soul as a birdlike entity that can fly from the body at will and often does so during sleep. When the soul returns, the sleeper awakens. Should the soul neglect to return, the sleeper enters the long sleep of death.
As more members of the early human communities began to believe that the spirit was to continue in another life and might some day return to the body it had once occupied, it began to occur to many cultures that it was necessary to take every precaution to protect their dead from being desecrated either by humans or by animals. There have been many kinds of coffins, just as there have been many customs of burial. Clay, stone, wood, even iron coffins have been used to protect the body from predators and grave robbers.
One of the earliest types of coffin was a tree that had been cut down and hollowed out to accommodate the body. Depending upon the people and the environmental conditions under which they existed, tree coffins bearing the dead were sometimes set adrift in a river, sometimes left upon the ground, sometimes buried in the ground. For many ancient peoples, the custom of placing the dead in a tree trunk was symbolical of being returned to the Great Mother, the tree of life.
As the belief in a spirit and in an afterlife grew, people began to develop fixed concepts about where it was exactly that spirits went to dwell after their life on Earth was completed. In the ancient Greek afterlife beliefs, the dead were ferried over the river Styx by Charon, who charged a fee for his services. If the dead did not have the fee, they would be detained for a hundred years before being permitted to proceed. Therefore, when the Greeks buried their dead, they placed a small coin in their hands so they might be able to pay Charon. A similar idea of the dead needing some ready currency for their advent to the other world is found among the Chinese, who furnish the dead with paper money and passports.
The religious service associated with many modern funerals quite likely originated in the belief that death is but a journey to another world and that certain ceremonies may be performed by the living to expedite the spirit's travels and to lessen the dangers of the journey. Among the earliest type of structured burial observances are people dancing for purposes of stamping upon the ground to frighten away evil spirits and to keep them from harassing the soul of the dearly departed. Great feasts were given to please the spirit of the deceased, who watched over the lavish dinner given in his or her honor and who was able to absorb the energy of the food. Large fires were built around the place of feasting in order to present an additional barrier to evil spirits that might wish to seize the soul of the dead.
The fear of evil spirits also gave rise to the universal dread of cemeteries and the belief that burial grounds are haunted. As shall be shown in this section, many early funeral observances were transformed into aspects of religious ceremonies that still exist today.
Preserving the Body. As early religions began to teach that there was a spirit within each person who died that might some day wish to return to its earthly abode, it became increasingly important that efforts be made to preserve the body. Burial ceremonies, which had at first been intended solely as a means of disposing of the dead, came to be a method of preserving the physical body as a home for the spirit when it returned for a time of rebirth or judgment.
Today, in many countries such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and the European nations, bodies are embalmed and every effort is made to preserve the body as long as possible. Coffins are sold to the bereaved families as dependable containers that will be able to preserve and protect the body of their beloved for centuries. Crypts and vaults to contain family coffins are placed above ground and constructed of concrete or granite.
Embalming the body of the deceased was practiced in ancient Egypt where the warm, dry climate assured its success. The Egyptians anointed, embalmed, and buried their dead, and made mummies of the men and women of power, rank, and importance.
To mummify, the Egyptians extracted the brain and the intestines, cleaned out the body through an incision in the side, and filled the body cavities with spices. The body was then sewn up and set aside to lie in salt for a period of 70 days. Then it was placed in gummed mummy cloth and fastened into its ornamental case. The poorer classes were not mummified but merely salted.
In Africa, many native people smoke their corpses to preserve them. In the Congo, tribes build fires above the graves of the dead and keep the fires burning for a month. After that period, the bodies are unearthed, smoked, and wound in great swaths of cloth. The smoked corpse is placed upright in the hut where the person died and remains there for years.
Laying the Body to Rest. The followers of Tao, a Chinese belief system, envision the soul of the deceased crossing a bridge to the next life. Ten courts of judgment await the new soul, and if it passes this series of trials, it may continue on the path to heaven. If it fails because of bad deeds during the person's lifetime, the soul must be punished before it is allowed to go to a better place.
The family and friends of the deceased place the body in a wooden coffin and carry it to the graveyard. Well aware of the trials awaiting the soul of their friend or relative in the afterlife, they pound drums, clang cymbals, and shoot off fireworks to frighten away any evil spirits that might attempt to catch the soul even before it reaches the 10 courts of judgment. Beside the grave as the coffin is being lowered into the ground, paper representations of houses, money, and other material objects are burned, symbolically providing the soul of the deceased with property with which to pay the judges.
After 10 years have passed, the coffin is dug up, and the remains are cleaned and placed in an urn, which is then sealed. A Taoist priest assesses the home of the person's immediate family and decides the most harmonious spot for the urn of bones to be placed. It is of utmost importance that the priest find a place where the spirit of the deceased will be happy among its surviving family members, or the spirit may return to punish those it deems disrespectful of its physical remains.
For Buddhists, funerals are happy occasions, for they believe in reincarnation. Death in the present life frees the soul from Dukkha (worldly existence) and returns it to the path that leads to nirvana, where all misery and karma cease. The coffin of one who has died in the Buddhist belief system is taken to the funeral hall in a brightly decorated carriage. The coffin is carried three times around the Buddhist temple or funeral hall and then brought in where it is set down in the midst of the flowers and gifts that friends and family of the deceased have placed around it.
A Buddhist monk leads the people in a prayer known as the Three Jewels that helps the soul find refuge in the Buddha, the dharma (the true way of life that a devout Buddhist seeks to lead), and the sangha (the unified faith of the Buddhist monks). Together with the people in the funeral hall, the monk recites the Five Precepts, the rules by which Buddhists strive to live.
Throughout the ceremony, food is served and music is played. There are few tears of mourning, for the family and friends are reminded by the monk that the soul will be reborn many times in many bodies. After the service, the body is cremated, and the ashes are buried or kept in the temple in a small urn.
Because Christians believe that Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.) is the son of God who died on a cross on Good Friday and who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, the followers of this religion believe that if they have faithfully followed the teachings of Jesus, they, too, will be physically resurrected on a future day of judgment. Generally, the body of the deceased is embalmed in a funeral home, then taken in a coffin to a church for a religious service before burial or cremation. In many churches, the deceased is displayed for mourners to pay their last respects until the formal service begins.
The minister or priest conducts a service during which selections from the Bible that speak of the resurrection of the dead are read, prayers are offered, and hymns are sung. If it is a Roman Catholic funeral, the priest will celebrate the Mass in remembrance of the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion. After the service is concluded, pallbearers carry the closed coffin to a hearse, which carries it to the place of burial. Family and friends follow on foot or in automobiles in a funeral procession to the cemetery where the coffin is lowered into the ground.
During an earlier period of Christianity, the priest used to place a pass to the next world on the chests of those who had died in the faith as they lay in the coffin. Such a pass also provided the deceased person's Christian name, the dates of birth and death, and a certificate of baptism, piety of his or her life, and a testimonial that the person had taken the sacrament of communion before death.
There is an old legend that Jesus was placed in the tomb facing toward the west. While some Christian traditions bury their dead facing west, many other churches within Christianity place their dead looking toward the east, because of the old custom of facing the east when praying. Interestingly, the aboriginal people of Australia believe that the sun will rise late in the morning if the dead are not buried with their faces to the west. The people of the islands of Samoa and Fiji bury their dead with their faces directed toward the west, where, according to custom, their souls have preceded them.
Many scholars believe the Christian minister's tradition of throwing handfuls of dirt on the coffin lid while intoning "from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust," is a survival of a custom in ancient Egypt in which relatives and friends of deceased persons ceremonially cast sand three times upon the body before it was entombed or buried.
The coffin has taken many shapes and forms in its evolution as a final resting place for the deceased. Many authorities attribute the presence of trees in the churchyard or cemetery to ancient notions concerning a hollowed-out tree as a dwelling place for the spirits of the dead. In Babylonia, great boxes of clay were baked to form a kind of coffin in which the dead were buried.
The first actual coffins, as they are known today, probably originated in ancient Egypt where the people believed that the body of the deceased must be kept safe until a future time of resurrection. The Egyptian word for "coffin" is from kas, which means "to bury." Another form of the word became kast, indicating the receptacle into which the body is placed, the coffin.
In the Hindu faith, the deceased are given a ceremonial washing; then the body is wrapped in a burial cloth and placed in a coffin. If at all possible, within one day of death, the coffin is to be carried to a place of cremation by six male relatives. The coffin is placed on a stack of wood and covered with flowers. Melted butter is poured over the coffin to help it to burn, and the eldest son or nearest male relative of the deceased lights the funeral pyre.
Traditionally, the cremation takes place outdoors and the ashes are collected and scattered in the waters of a holy river, such as the Ganges. In other countries, Hindu dead are taken to a crematorium. Followers of the Hindu religion believe that the soul, the atman of each individual, is reborn many times in a cycle of spiritual evolution before it can become one with God.
Those who follow the path of Judaism bury their dead in a plain coffin after the body has been washed and dressed. If possible, the funeral takes place on the day after the death has occurred. The coffin containing the deceased is taken first to the synagogue and then to the place of burial. Mourners often cut a portion of their outer clothes as a sign of grief; but no flowers are allowed, for it is tradition that the service should be kept as simple as possible.
At the grave site, the rabbi says a few words of remembrance about the deceased, and the coffin is placed in the grave. The closest male relative of the deceased says a prayer called the Kaddish to help the soul travel to the Olam Ha'ba, the world to come, and the family of the dead person fill in the grave with earth.
Muslims prefer not to use coffins for their dead unless they are residing in a country that requires such a containment for the deceased. If it is possible to do so, the dead are buried on the day following their death. The deceased is washed, perfumed, and wrapped in three cotton burial cloths.
Those who follow the religion of Islam believe that the soul of the deceased is guarded by the angel of death in a place called Barzakh until the Day of Judgment. If at all possible, friends and relatives gather around a dying person and read verses from the Koran. With his or her last breath, the dying person always tries to say the Shahadah: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."
Large graves and headstones are not permitted to mark a Muslim burial site, but the grave itself is to be raised above ground level. As the body is being taken to the burial ground, the Salatul Janazah, a prayer for the deceased, is read. The body is buried facing Mecca, the sacred city toward which all Muslims turn when they pray.
In times of death, the human tendency seems to be to relieve in some way the tension caused by fear, superstition, and the dread of the unknown. Among the most well known of such traditions of holding a celebration to honor the deceased is the Irish wake. According to an old legend, when St. Patrick (fifth century) was dying he requested his weeping and lamenting friends to set aside their grief and to rejoice at his comfortable exit from a world of sadness, sin, and confusion. In order to better shift the emotions from sorrow to joy, St. Patrick is said to have instructed each person gathered around his deathbed to take a drop of something to drink. This last request of the saint is observed in deep reverence at every Irish wake.
The charming story of St. Patrick aside, some authorities believe that the Irish wake was intended originally to prevent the dead person's restless soul from prowling around the homes of the surviving family members. Friends and relatives would gather in the family home as the body of the deceased lay in its coffin awaiting burial. Once respects were said and memories of the deceased were shared, the mourners would eat, drink, and dance to relieve the tensions and fears of the bereaved. The party would last until dawn so there would always be someone who was awake to watch the body and keep the soul from doing mischief.
Yet another theory of the origin of the wake has it that because lead cups were often used to drink ale or whiskey, the potent combination would sometimes literally knock a person out for a couple of days. A friend walking along the road from the tavern might come upon an unconscious person and assume that he was dead. The apparently deceased would be carried home and laid out on the kitchen table for a day or so before being prepared for burial. Family and friends would gather around the body, eating, drinking, and talking, as they waited to see if the corpse on the table was going to "wake up."
Marking the Burial Place. The marking of graves goes back into remote antiquity. Paleolithic humans (c. 250,000 B.C.E.) placed stones and other markings on graves, but it cannot be determined for certain whether they did so to keep evil spirits from rising from the burial place or to be able to distinguish one grave from another for the purpose of mourning. In the Neolithic time period (c. 8000–9000 B.C.E.,) humans set up great stone megaliths above burial mounds; these protected the dead from desecration and quite likely had certain religious significance.
The ancient Hebrews buried their dead and used stone pillars to mark the graves. The Greeks often placed gravestones and various kinds of ornate sculpture on their burial sites.
Not everyone who died in ancient Egypt was buried in a tomb. Although the Egyptians believed firmly in an afterlife, they were also of the opinion that only the powerful and important in the earthly life would have any notable status in the world to come. According to rank and wealth, those who were great in Egypt and therefore likely to be important in the next life were laid to rest in magnificent tombs with treasure, servants, food, and weapons to accompany them and the ordinary people were buried in rude stone compartments.
The rulers of the ancient city of Thebes, once capital of upper Egypt (1580–1085 B.C.E.), and their subjects never constructed massive pyramids to house their coffins, but cut their tombs from rock. As soon as a pharaoh would ascend the throne, his loyal subjects began the preparation of his tomb. Excavation went on uninterruptedly, year by year, until death ended the king's reign and simultaneously the work on his tomb—which also became a kind of an index revealing the length of his reign. These tombs, cut from the rock in the mountains in Upper Egypt, are still to be seen.
The Assyrians (c. 750–612 B.C.E.) dug huge excavations that sometimes reached a depth of 60 feet into which they cast the bodies of their dead, one upon the other. Even when they began to place their dead in coffins, the Assyrians continued to pile one above the other in great excavations.
The Iberians, the original people who inhabited the peninsula where modern-day Portugal and Spain exist, buried their leaders with great pomp and ceremony in chambers made of huge stones, covered over with earth. The bodies were placed in these megalithic chambers in a sitting posture. The Aryans, an Indo-European people, burned their dead and placed the ashes in urns shaped like rounded huts with thatched roofs.
Decorating graves with flowers and wreaths is an old custom that appears to date back to the earliest human burial observances. Wreaths made of thin gold have been found in Athenian graves during archaeological excavations. The Egyptians adorned their mummies with flowers, and paintings on the walls of tombs depict the mourners carrying flowers in their hands.
A custom in sixteenth-century Europe was to make wreaths of flowers from ribbon and paper and give them to the church in memory of the deceased. These artificial wreaths of long ago evolved into the contemporary mourning wreath of living flowers, usually brought by friends or relatives of the deceased and placed upon the grave.
Cremation. Because early humankind so feared the evil spirits that caused death and believed that they continued to dwell in the corpse awaiting new victims, it is not surprising that cremation, the burning of the body, became one of the earliest methods of disposing of the dead. Cremation appears to have been practiced widely in the ancient world, except in Egypt, in China, and among the Hebrews.
In ancient Greece only suicides, infants who had not yet grown teeth, and persons who had been struck by lightning were denied the privilege of cremation and were buried. When cremation was conducted, the ceremonies were elaborate and solemn and the ashes of the deceased were placed in urns of burned clay and buried. Later, when burial became the custom in Greece, the bodies were enclosed in elaborate stone caskets, similar to the Roman sarcophagi.
The Vikings of old Scandinavia sometimes buried their kings and queens in their ships, but the traditional Viking funeral was to set the dragon-headed longboat afire and send it out to sea to burn. On the Danish colony of Greenland, the Vikings who settled on its shores believed that there was danger of pollution from the evil spirits that lurked around the corpse until the smell of death had passed away. They burned the dead body almost before it became cold and tried to avoid inhaling any of the fumes from the fire. They also burned every object in the dead person's house.
The Zulu tribe of Africa always burns the property of the dead to prevent evil spirits from remaining in the person's home. Many Native American tribes followed the same custom of burning the possessions of the deceased, and it is not uncommon to hear of contemporary men and women who, after the funeral of a relative, superstitiously burn the individual's clothes and other belongings.
Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs employ cremation as a standard method of disposing of the dead. In India the body is cremated on a funeral pyre whenever possible, and in ancient times widows were sacrificed alive on the burning pyres with their husbands.
For many centuries, the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body discouraged the custom of cremation. The early followers of Christianity feared that if the body were to be burned after death there would be nothing but ashes to be resurrected on Judgment Day. Although cremation is not popular among contemporary Christians, many theologians have argued that the same power of Christ that can resurrect the body that has decomposed in the grave could also resurrect the body that has been cremated and reduced to ashes.
Remembering the Dead. Among the original people of Patagonia in South America, it was the custom to open the coffins of the dead and redress them each year on the anniversary of the person's death. The same custom is found among the Eskimo, who annually take new clothes as a gift to the dead. Among many Native American tribes in earlier times, the widow was obligated to remain beside the tomb of her deceased husband for a year, while other family members brought food daily for her and for the spirit of the dead man.
The ancient Egyptians shaved their heads in time of mourning, and for a certain period abstained from mixing with any other than their immediate family. When it came to looking after the needs of their deceased in the afterlife, the Egyptians provided weapons, food, drink, furniture—all went into the tomb with the mummy. Wealthy Egyptians were buried with their slaves so they might be certain of good service in the next life. Frequently, a child was buried alive with a dead parent so the parent would not miss the child left behind on Earth.
In ancient Rome, those who had lost a loved one to death remained at home and avoided all feasts and amusements. The men cut neither their hair nor their beard. For several weeks, those who mourned did not socialize with friends or relatives, remaining only with their immediate family.
Today, black is considered the universal color of mourning, because of the age-old traditions of somberness associated with it. However, in Japan and in China, pure white is worn when mourning. In some sections of Africa, red is the color of mourning, with red paint applied to the naked body.
Among various tribes of equatorial Africa, tattooing and mutilating of the bodies of family members are practiced for purposes of indicating that one of their loved ones has been taken by death. The people of the Andaman Islands, in the eastern part of the Bay of Bengal, disinter the body after it has been buried long enough to decompose, then wear the bones of the dead to indicate mourning. While they wear these bones, it is considered taboo to approach them and to interfere with their grief.
In earlier times, it was customary for the Hindu widow to throw herself upon her deceased husband's funeral pyre. Today, she may shave her head, give away her valuable possessions, retire from social life, and spend the rest of her life performing menial duties for the family of her late husband. Among some Native American tribes of North America it was customary to cut the hair of widows and forbid them to remarry until the hair had grown again to its original length. The Chick-asaws decreed that the widow was obliged to live a single life for three years. Navajo beliefs stated that a widow must live in retirement for a certain period before she could marry.
Although many early humans in various societies around the world observed the responsibility of providing the necessities of life for their dead until they felt the soul had become accustomed to its new spiritual environment, there are a number of religions and cultures today that continue to remember their dead by conducting certain rituals that extend far beyond a few weeks of bringing food and drink to the grave.
On the day after a follower of the Hindu faith has been cremated, friends bring various gifts to his or her relatives. On the 11th or 12th day after the cremation, all those who attended the funeral service gather once again to offer a meal of rice balls and milk to the spirit of the deceased. This custom is a form of reciprocity to the departed for all the acts of kindness that he or she performed during life.
For the next week after a member of the Jewish faith has died, the family mourns, "sitting shiva," conducting religious services in the home. During this time, friends bring them food and express their condolences. The next month, a period known as sheloshim, the family does not go out to any type of entertainment. For the next 11 months (shanah), they say the prayer of Kaddish every day. Each year on the anniversary of their loved one's death, they pray the Kaddish and burn a candle for 24 hours in memory of the deceased.
Muslim people mourn for their dead for three months after the burial service. It is customary for families to read aloud from the Koran and to pray for the deceased loved one.
Each year the Taoist Chinese hold the festival of Ching-Ming to honor the memory of the dead. Many Christian Hispanic nations celebrate an annual Day of the Dead, and in the United States, All Hallow's Eve, Halloween, rather than a night of trick-or-treat, is traditionally a time to pray for those loved ones who are deceased.