From open casket Christan funerals to the green burials of the Pueblo indigenous peoples, to the Imam-led prayer memorials of Islam, each culture and religion has its own way of honoring its dead. Various belief systems from all over the world reveal just how different each culture can be in how they approach death. It’s possible that these beliefs have helped centuries of people make sense of death. Tradition also provides a way for the living to cope with the loss of their loved ones. These beliefs have evolved along with each society, but to appreciate the traditions of today, we must first learn about the ancient past.
In ancient China, dating back to 1600B.C., death was not viewed as an end to life, but rather an extension of it. The ancient Chinese believed that life would continue on for the deceased in spiritual form after they died. During the burial rituals, they would prepare necessities for their loved ones to use in their new life.
It’s possible that these beliefs have helped centuries of people make sense of death.
These provisions started out, disturbingly enough, as human sacrifices in the form of servants who would be buried alive with their masters in some royal Shang Dynasty tombs. Fortunately, this trend eventually faded in favor of pottery, bronze vessels, spirit tablets, and designing the tombs as elaborate houses for the living. The belief that spirits continued their lives after they died was strong, so much so that they believed not honoring the dead by making offerings would anger them and lead them to cause mischief in the present.
In contrast to the Chinese, ancient Mesopotamians were terrified of death. This is partly because they believed that humans had been created from clay mixed with the blood of a sacrificed god. So similar to how the Chinese believed the spirit endured after death, the Mesopotamians thought of the departed spirit as immortal. Except for this time, this spirit’s existence would continue in misery with no access to the pleasures of the mortal plane. The only way to ease their suffering was through the food and offerings provided by the descendants.
Not only did this make the Mesopotamians fear death, but they were also afraid of the dead themselves. They believed certain types of spirits could escape the realm of the dead and harass the living. To prevent this, the Mesopotamians even gave their enemies proper burials to avoid angering their spirits, and the confiscation of the bodies of enemies was considered a grave punishment (no pun intended).
The ancient Egyptians had a more optimistic outlook on the afterlife. They believed an entity called Ka, associated with the physical body, could eat, drink, smell, and actively enjoy the afterlife. The Ba was essentially what they thought of as the soul, and it couldn’t survive without the body and needed to recognize said body to be able to return to it. This led to the ritual of body preservation that involved leaving the dead in the desert so they would avoid decomposition in the dry climate, which preserved the body so the departed soul could properly arrive in the afterlife and enjoy eternity.
This ritual eventually conceived mummification, which remained in practice for 3,000 years. The body would be washed and organs like the liver, stomach, lungs, and intestines were all removed and put in “canopic” jars for burial with the body. The brain was removed through the nostrils and disposed of while the heart would be placed near the throat because it was thought that this organ was the source of one’s life force. The body was dried out and padded, allowing it to keep the proportions the person had in life, keeping it recognizable to the Ba.
Greeks and Romans
Similar to how the ancient Egyptians believed Anubis was the God of Death, the Greeks and Romans believed in Hades and Pluto, death deities who ruled the underworld, sometimes known as Tartarus. Also similar to how Anubis judged the souls of the dead, souls in Greek and Roman religions would be required to give an account of their lives to three judges. They would then be sent to either the Fields of Asphodel if they were judged to have lived a good life or the Pit of Tartarus if they were thought to have lived wickedly. Elysium was a heaven-like place reserved for heroes and gods.
The belief that spirits continued their lives after they died was strong.
The process of sending off the dead in Greek and Roman belief systems involved placing a coin on the mouth of the corpse to provide the demonic boatman Charon payment for the trip across the River Styx. Some people even provided their departed with honey cakes to appease Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gates of the underworld.
In the same way that the Mesopotamians believed not burying the dead properly could lead to trouble, the Greeks and Romans thought that failing to provide the departed with a proper ritual could cause their ghosts to linger. Their funeral rites consisted of erecting earth mounds, rectangular tombs, and elaborate marble statues. Later cremation became a popular way of handling the dead, though they would bury a severed finger joint where the body was cremated, perhaps for purification purposes.
Just as the Chinese and Mesopotamians thought that paying respects to the dead was necessary long after the funeral, the Romans and Greeks also believed that failing to make offerings to the dead would lead them to haunt the living…and not in a good way.
Each of these ancient belief systems reveals the attitudes these cultures had towards death and the afterlife. Despite their differences in how they bury their dead, there’s a curious connection in how they view departed souls. Whether it was fear, bitter-sweetness, or sorrow, all of these ancient cultures respected those who passed with a spiritual mindset rooted in tradition.
This may have been due to some subconscious desire for the spirits of their loved ones to endure in some form, or it could have been a manifestation of their own anxieties towards death and the unknown. Ultimately, each ritual of these ancient cultures demonstrates a need to respect the dead as they would the living, both in the ancient world and beyond.
Want to know more about burial in the ancient world? Read Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt by Salima Ikram.
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