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A gold and red Tibetan Skull mask, depicting a smiling face

Memento Mori: Historic death rituals from around the world

Skull mask detail at the Tibet Museum of Lhasa. 三猎, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

As understanding science and life has progressed throughout history, one element has remained unchanged: all things living will die. Through archaeological finds, we can see that cultures worldwide have held ceremonies and traditions as far back as the early beginnings of human civilisation.

Transcending cultural and historical bounds, some death traditions still practised in modern society can trace their roots back to ancient history. However, while some traditions are more recognisable (Viking funeral boats and pyres, or the pyramids and valley of the kings) others are less prominent. Here are some historic death rituals from around the world that you might not have heard of.

Sky burials

Sky burials, also known as Tibetan Sky Burials, are an excarnation practice that is observed throughout Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, and mountainous regions of India. In sky burials, the deceased is placed open to the elements on a mountaintop to decompose. Translated in native languages to roughly mean 'bird scattered', sky burials are primarily practised in areas with a prevalence of Buddhism. The belief that the body is just a vessel, preserving the body once the spirit has left holds little import. Leaving the body open to the elements to decompose naturally or feed the local vulture population is considered a spiritually generous way of returning the body to nature.

Zoroastrian tower of silence

Similar to sky burials, Zoroastrian burials also utilised the elements in their funeral rites. With records dating back as early as the 9th century BC, Zoroastrian towers of silence were large circular structures built exclusively to dispose of the deceased. The body would be placed at the tower open to the elements and left to decompose. Vultures would typically strip the bodies of any remaining flesh, and then the skeleton would fall into a pit.

It’s believed that the Zoroastrian train of thought was that by keeping the disposal of their deceased separate from their communal area, they were returning the bodies to the earth while avoiding contamination of soil for crops.

Ancient Greek

The burial practices of the ancient Greeks are widely referenced in classic literature and archaeological finds. From decorated vases depicting bodies lying in state to architecture and funerary objects that have survived through the millennia, the evidence shows that death rituals were essential to the culture.

Starting in the Mycenaean period (Greece pre-1100 BC), rituals for the burial of their dead followed a consistent pattern. First, the body was to lie in state for a day before leading a procession to a family tomb. Once placed on the floor in the crypt, the body would be surrounded by weapons, jewellery, money, and other items that they could take with them to the afterlife. Once the deceased was interred in the tomb, the living would continue the rituals at the graveside. These included libations (the act of pouring liquid or grains as an offering to the spirit of the deceased, or a chosen deity), a graveside meal. The later archaic and classical greek cultures started to move away from these practices by burying their dead in individual graves and not family tombs. Grave gifts began to decrease, and funeral rites meant that those who were dying could arrange future care for their loved ones.

The preparation of the deceased before burial also became more involved. Women would wash and anoint the body, and a coin was sometimes sealed into the deceased’s mouth as payment to Charon - the ferryman of the dead. Once prepared, the body would be laid out on the second day for viewing. Those paying respect would wear dark robes, and women would lead in the mourning by singing, chanting, and rending at their hair and clothes. The funeral procession would take place on the third day whereby offerings were made to the deceased by their closest loved ones. Prayers would be spoken while libations were poured and then following the funeral the house would be thoroughly cleaned with seawater. A final feast would be held, hosted by the now buried deceased, to show thanks for the effort made in burying them.