The History of Death and Burial Customs

Group of people sitting at funeral, casket with flowers in front
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Death has always been both celebrated and feared. As far back as 60,000 BCE, humans buried their dead with ritual and ceremony. Researchers have even found evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, much as we do today.

Appeasing the Spirits

Many early burial rites and customs were practiced to protect the living, by appeasing the spirits who were thought to have caused the person's death. Such ghost protection rituals and superstitions have varied extensively with time and place, as well as with religious perception, but many are still in use today. The custom of shutting the eyes of the deceased is believed to have begun this way, done in an attempt to close a "window" from the living world to the spirit world. Covering the face of the deceased with a sheet comes from pagan beliefs that the spirit of the deceased escaped through the mouth. In some cultures, the home of the deceased was burned or destroyed to keep his spirit from returning; in other,s the doors were unlocked and windows were opened to ensure that the soul was able to escape.

In 19th century Europe and America, the dead were carried out of the house feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him, or so that he couldn't see where he was going and would be unable to return. Mirrors were also covered, usually with black crepe, so the soul would not get trapped and be left unable to pass to the other side. Family photographs were also sometimes turned face-down to prevent any of the close relatives and friends of the deceased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead.

Some cultures took their fear of ghosts to an extreme. The Saxons of early England cut off the feet of their dead so the corpse would be unable to walk. Some aborigine tribes took the even more unusual step of cutting off the head of the dead, thinking this would leave the spirit too busy searching for his head to worry about the living.

Cemetery & Burial

Cemeteries, the final stop on our journey from this world to the next, are monuments (pun intended!) to some of the most unusual rituals to ward off spirits, and home to some of our darkest, most terrifying legends and lore. The use of tombstones may go back to the belief that ghosts could be weighed down. Mazes found at the entrance to many ancient tombs are thought to have been constructed to keep the deceased from returning to the world as a spirit, since it was believed that ghosts could only travel in a straight line. Some people even considered it necessary for the funeral procession to return from the graveside by a different path from the one taken in with the deceased, so that the departed's ghost wouldn't be able to follow them home.

Some of the rituals which we now practice as a sign of respect to the deceased, may also be rooted in a fear of spirits. Beating on the grave, the firing of guns, funeral bells, and wailing chants were all used by some cultures to scare away other ghosts at the cemetery.

In many cemeteries, the vast majority of graves are oriented in such a manner that the bodies lie with their heads to the West and their feet to the East. This very old custom appears to originate with the Pagan sun worshippers, but is primarily attributed to Christians who believe that the final summons to Judgment will come from the East.

Some Mongolian and Tibetan cultures are famous for practicing "sky burial," placing the body of the deceased on a high, unprotected place to be consumed by wildlife and the elements. This is part of the Vajrayana Buddhist belief of "transmigration of spirits," which teaches that respecting the body after death is needless as it is just an empty vessel.

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Powell, Kimberly. "The History of Death and Burial Customs." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, February 16). The History of Death and Burial Customs. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "The History of Death and Burial Customs." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).