1. Parsi Towers of Silence
Location: Iran and India
A Tower of Silence is used by those of the Zoroastrian faith for ritual exposure of the dead. The dead are laid out on the tower to be devoured by buzzards, and their bones are collected and placed in a pit at the center of the structure to decay. Rainwater washes the bones through chambers in the tower that purify and return them to the soil.
2. Sky Burial
In most forms of Buddhism, bodies are meant to be cremated or given over to animals in an act of charity. Since there is little wood for burning bodies in Tibet, a practice of allowing vultures to pick the bodies clean evolved. Once picked clean, the bones are ground up and fed to crows.
3. Ship Burial
If you’re familiar with a “Viking funeral” then you know about this one. A body, along with “grave goods” like swords, armor, jewelry, and prized possessions, is put into a boat made specifically for the occasion. Sometimes the boat is sent to sea, other times it becomes a kind of sarcophagus and is entombed. Fire is not always involved, but sometimes others are sacrificed to act as servants to the deceased in the afterlife.
Location: Ancient Egypt, The Americas, Asia
The Egyptians are best known for this practice, but mummies can be found in the Americas and Asia as well. Some of the oldest mummies are from The Spirit Cave in Fallon, Nevada, and are estimated to be 9,400 years old. In mummification, the organs are removed or the body is otherwise desiccated and protected against pests.
5. Funerary Cannibalism
Location: Africa, South America, Oceania
In this practice, the dead are eaten by mourners as an act of compassion or to absorb the life force of the deceased. The Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest is one famous tribe that still practices this. They cremate the dead and mix the ashes with a banana paste.
6. Bog Bodies
Location: Throughout Europe, Mainly in the North
A bog body is a specific type of mummy. The deceased is buried in a peat bog, which naturally mummifies the corpse with its unique chemistry. It is thought to be a form of ritual sacrifice.
7. Jazz Funeral
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
A funeral procession unique to New Orleans, Louisiana, and Cajun culture, this funeral practice blends traditional European and African cultures. A jazz procession leads the deceased from the funeral home or church to the grave, playing dirges and sad music all the way. Afterward, the band plays merrier music at a post-funeral party where the life of the deceased is celebrated.
Catacombs are any underground place reserved for the common burial of the dead. The word originated to describe the Roman catacombs, which were outside of the main city. Some catacombs may be within city borders, though, like in Paris. The unique nature of the Roman catacombs allowed for mourners of even traitors, martyrs, or heretics to gather and mourn without fear of city authorities.
A unique monument that commemorates the death of a group of people or stands as an “empty grave” for someone buried elsewhere. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a good example. The Cenotaph is a monument in Whitehall, London that acts as a monument to all UK’s soldiers – but primarily those who died in WWI.
Location: Scandinavia and Elsewhere
Norsemen erected runestones in memory of the dead. These tall stones were carved with exquisite and intricate runes telling of the decease’s deeds. They weren’t always erected near a grave site – it could also be a place of religious or personal significance.
11. Burial At Sea
This is an ancient tradition with roots so deep, they’re difficult to trace. Most major religions have their own specific customs for performing a burial at sea. Sometimes, when a body cannot be located, a cenotaph, rather than a body, maybe symbolically thrown into the sea.
12. Charon’s Obol
Location: Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece, an obol was 1/6 of a drachma. This coin, or a symbolic coin of similar weight and shape, was left with the dead to pay a fee to Charon, the ferryman of Hades. In some traditions, the coin was left on the eyes. In others, it is placed on the tongue. A persistent tradition – it spread from Greece to Rome and from there into Christian Europe. Pope Pius IX was buried with an obol in 1878.
13. Jade Burial Suit
Location: Han Dynasty China
Royal members of the Han dynasty were buried in ceremonial suits of jade. The jade was cut into square, rectangular, and triangular shapes and threaded with wire to cover the entire body, like a suit of armor. They were extremely expensive and took years to complete.
14. Ecological Burial
Location: Worldwide, Late 19th Century
In the modern era, some people wish to be buried in a more eco-friendly way. Instead of taking up space in a graveyard or releasing toxins harmful to the environment with cremation, this form of burial emphasizes the quick decay of the body and dissemination into nature.
This Hindu practice literally translates to “last sacrifice.” Depending on the caste, gender, and age of the deceased, they are symbolically returned to the elements of creation in a specific ritual. It is common that a funeral pyre is used in at least one part of this practice.
Cremation is popular in religionssuch as Buddhism and Hinduism and has historically been practiced
all around the world. The Christian reverence for the physical body led to cremation being outlawed in many Western countries, but those laws have since been discarded.
17. Body Positioning
Important in Many Traditions
The position of the body in the grave or coffin is important in many traditions. Christian burials have been oriented with the head pointing west and the feet pointing east, according to the coming of Christ on Judgment Day. In Islam, bodies are perpendicular to Mecca, with the face looking towards it. In some cases, assassins, thieves, suicides, and other disrespected dead may be buried upside down or at crossroads.
18. Flowers and Stones
Cicero of Rome describes flowers being planted around a grave to purify the ground of human remains. The Jewish tradition of leaving small stones on a grave is ancient. It can be traced back to a time when gravestones were not used – instead, small stones were piled to mark a grave. As long as visitors tended the grave and left stones, the dead would be remembered.
19. Hanging Coffins
Location: China, The Philippines
Hidden high up along mountainsides and in difficult to reach places. The people of Sagada, in the Philippines, believed that the closer a coffin was to the sky, the
20. Air Sacrifice
Similar to a Sky Burial, but still unique. A holy man, a lama, guides the family and body of the deceased to its “source.” There, the family lays the body out in the closer the deceased was to heaven. open and makes an outline of it with stones. Then they allow hungry dogs and birds to devour the corpse, leaving only the outline – a representation of its spirit.
An old practice, outlawed in 1861, whereby a widow would throw herself alive onto her husband’s funeral pyre. It mirrors the story of the goddess Sati, a consort of Shiva.
22. Spirit Offerings
Offerings such as alcohol, rice, food, money, cars, and other things are sometimes symbolically or literally given to the dead. “Hell money,” a specific kind of counterfeit currency, is often burned for the dead during East Asian funerals. Edgar Allen Poe’s “Poe Toaster” was famous for leaving a spirit offering of roses and cognac at Poe’s cenotaph.
23. Kiribati Skull Burial
Location: The Republic of Kiribati in the Central Pacific
A few months after burial, the body is exhumed and the skull is taken. The family of the deceased will polish, oil, preserve, and display this skull in their home. Sometimes offerings of food and tobacco are made to it.
24. Burial Beads
Location: South Korea
Since there is such limited space for burials in South Korea, they have to get creative with the bodies of the deceased. In this practice, the body is cremated and pressed into jewelry-like beads. They are often colorful and kept in an urn or bottle.
Known as “The Turning of the Fantasy Coffins Ghana The Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop Bones.” The Malagasy people dig up in Ghana is famous for creating their dead every 5-7 years to take “fantasy” coffins that are fun ways care of them. They re-wrap the
dead, perfume them, dance with them, and share stories.
26. Fantasy Coffins
The Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop in Ghana is famous for creating “fantasy” coffins that are fun ways to celebrate life at a funeral. Some are shaped like cars, others like chili peppers, airplanes, or fish – they always have something to do with the life of the deceased.
27. Tinguian Funeral
Location: The Philippines
The Tinguian people dress the dead in their finest clothes, sit them in a chair, and give them smoke. There the dead sit smoking for several weeks.
28. Haida Totem Funeral
Location: North America
The Haida people gave this honor to shamans, chiefs, and warriors. The dead would be clubbed to a pulp and put in a box, then the box itself would be placed on a high totem pole to decompose.
29. Eternal Reefs
Location: Florida, USA
The ashes of the dead are mixed into a concrete material with a nearly natural pH. The concrete is then shaped and textured into a “reef ball” and lowered into the ocean where marine life and coral reefs will take root.
30. Strangulation Funeral
Family members who were close to the deceased were murdered, usually by strangulation, in this now outlawed funeral rite. Widows were the ones most often killed in this way. It was believed that the god Ruvuyalo would destroy the spirit of a man who did not enter the afterlife with his wife.
31. Funeral Strippers
Location: China, Taiwan
Having a well-attended funeral is a subject of great concern in Taiwan. To attract a crowd, some families hire strippers, host dances, and set out elaborate feasts to entice people to attend.
32. Burial in Space
Location: United States
Companies, like Celestis, Inc. and Elysium Space, offer to take your ashes into orbit around Earth. For a more expensive price, you can send a loved one’s ashes on a one-way trip to the Moon.
33. Mayan Rituals
Location: Latin America
The Maya buried their dead with maize, a symbol of rebirth, in their mouths. Grave goods, like food, jade, whistles, and statuettes were provided to guide the dead through the afterlife.
Location: Ancient Greece, Egypt, North- Ancient Egypt
Initiates of ancient cults to Orpheus and Dionysus, or members of certain Egyptian or Semitic religions, would carry “passports of the dead.” These tablets made of metal or stone would have a picture of the deceased on one side and instructions for navigating the afterlife on the other.
35. Death Masks
Location: Ancient Egypt
Death masks come in many different styles. The earliest, found in ancient Egypt, were not direct casts of the face, but rather stylized carvings. Later, Romans would cast the faces of the dead in wax. In Europe, death masks were made with wax or plaster. The masks of the famous and powerful were preserved and displayed in churches or places of political importance.
36. Memento Mori
Location: Victorian England
The Victorian era saw a particular fascination with death and mourning. Postmortem photographs were common. “Spirit photos” were popular and created using a double exposure that created a ghostly image of the deceased next to the solid image of the mourning. Jewelry and tokens with the hair of the dead were also prized and often given as affectionate gifts.
37. The Tumulus
Otherwise known as a burial mound. Some have entrances, while others look like large hills. There is a carefully constructed and especially interesting varieties burial chamber, or several, within. The tremendous “pyramid of Anatolia” is a 69 meter high tumulus with a diameter of 355 meters. A whole era of Japanese history is named for their unique tumulus, the kofun. The Daisen Kofun is 400 meters in length and designed like a keyhole.
38. Etruscan Cities of the Dead
Location: Ancient Tuscany/Italy
Imagine a graveyard, with every grave being an elaborate tomb. This kind of “necropolis” exists in Egypt, and especially interesting varieties were created by the ancient Etruscans of Italy. Their “cities of the dead” has many chambers, with each corpse having its own room complete with furniture. Chambers were connected by “city streets” in a careful grid.
39. The Ka-Statue
Location: Ancient Egypt
These stone or wooden statues were used as conduits for the spirits of the dead. A ritual called the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony would be performed by priests to give statues (and the spirits that inhabited them) the ability to see, breath, smell, and hear. Sometimes they were carved into a particular likeness, but other times general statues were created for roving spirits to partake in festivals.
40. The Ancestral Altar
In societies that practice ancestor worship, namely China, people maintain household shrines for the deceased. Tablets, urns, or other objects are used to represent each deceased ancestor. In China, some ancestral temples were converted into schools or granaries during the Cultural Revolution. Since the 1980s, many shrines have been rebuilt or returned to their original function.
Location: The Philippines, Worldwide
Psychopomps are spirits, angels, or deities who guide the souls of the deceased to the underworld. In Filipino culture, dead relatives act as psychopomps. On a person’s deathbed, if they call out for a relative, it is said that the spirit of the relative is waiting for them at the foot of their bed to guide them into the afterlife.
42. Funerary Art
Since the time of Neanderthals, we have decorated the gravesites of our dead. The Terracotta Army, the Taj Mahal, and the pyramids are all elaborate forms of funerary art. These works of art don’t just tell us about the single deceased – they also reveal much about a society’s attitude towards death.