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By Nikki Withers. Burying the dead is perhaps the earliest form of religious practice and suggests people were concerned about what happens after death. Sign up to receive our newsletter! Already have an account with us? Sign in to manage your newsletter preferences. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more information about how to do this, and how Immediate Media Company Limited publisher of Science Focus holds your personal information, please see our privacy policy.

Chatting with ghosts

Home Everyday science When did we start burying our dead? For humans, maintaining an upside down position, with the head vertically below the feet, is highly uncomfortable for any extended period of time, and consequently burial in that attitude as opposed to attitudes of rest or watchfulness, as above is highly unusual and generally symbolic. Occasionally suicides and assassins were buried upside down, as a post-mortem punishment and as with burial at cross-roads to inhibit the activities of the resulting undead. In Gulliver's Travels , the Lilliputians buried their dead upside down:.

They bury their dead with their heads directly downward, because they hold an opinion, that in eleven thousand moons they are all to rise again; in which period the earth which they conceive to be flat will turn upside down, and by this means they shall, at their resurrection, be found ready standing on their feet. Swift's notion of inverted burial might seem the highest flight of fancy, but it appears that among English millenarians the idea that the world would be "turned upside down" at the Apocalypse enjoyed some currency.

There is at least one attested case of a person being buried upside down by instruction; a Major Peter Labilliere of Dorking d. South Korea 's funeral arrangements have drastically changed in the course of only two decades according to Chang-Won Park. Dying close to home, with friends and family, was considered a 'good death', while dying away from home was considered a 'bad death'.

This gradually changed as the upper and middle class started holding funerals in the mortuaries of hospitals. This posed an issue for hospitals because of the rapid increase in funerals being held and maxing occupancy. This resolved when a law was passed to allow the civilian population to hold funerals in the mortuaries of hospitals. The lower class then followed suit, copying the newly set traditions of the upper classes. With this change, the practice of cremation became viewed more as an alternative to traditional burials.

Cremation was first introduced by Buddhism , but was banned in It took until for cremation to rapidly grow in popularity. The culture of Tana Toraja views funerals as the most important event in a person's life. Because of this importance placed on death, Tana Toraja landscape is covered in the rituals and events transpired after death.

The hierarchy of an individual's life is based on the sacrifices of animals made after their death. Funerals tend to be celebrated by Tana Toraja people, typically lasting days to even weeks long. Death is seen as a transformation, rather than a private loss. Until these funerals are upheld the deceased are held in Tongkonan , built to house corpses that are not considered 'dead'. The Tongkonan represents both the identity of the family and the process of birth and death. The process of birth and death is shown by having the houses that individuals are born in be the same structure as the Tongkonan, houses that individuals die in.

Up until the funeral the deceased being housed in the Tongkonan are symbolically treated as members of the family, still being cared for by family members. Northern Territory Australian Aboriginals have unique traditions associated with a loved one's death. The death of a loved one sparks a series of events such as smoking out the spirit, a feast, and leaving out the body to decompose.

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The smoking ceremonies purpose is to expel the spirit of the deceased from their living quarters. A feast is held where mourners are covered in ochre , an earthy pigment associated with clay, while they eat and dance.


The traditional corpse disposal of the Aboriginals includes covering the corpse in leaves on a platform. The corpse is then left to decompose. In the African-American slave community, slaves quickly familiarized themselves with funeral procedures and the location of gravesites of family and friends. Specific slaves were assigned to prepare dead bodies, build coffins, dig graves, and construct headstones. Slave funerals were typically at night when the workday was over, with the master present to view all the ceremonial procedures.

Slaves from nearby plantations were regularly in attendance. At death, a slave's body was wrapped in cloth. The hands were placed across the chest, and a metal plate was placed on top of their hands. The reasoning for the plate was to hinder their return home by suppressing any spirits in the coffin. Often, personal property was buried with slaves to appease spirits.

The coffins were nailed shut once the body was inside, and carried by hand or wagon, depending on the property designated for slave burial site. Slaves were buried oriented East to West, with feet at the Eastern end head at the Western end, thus raising facing East.

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  • According to Christian doctrine, this orientation permitted rising to face the return of Christ without having to turn around upon the call of Gabriel 's trumpet. Gabriel's trumpet would be blown near the Eastern sunrise. It is forbidden to carry the body for more than one hour's journey from the place of death. Before interment the body should be wrapped in a shroud of silk or cotton, and a ring should be placed on its finger bearing the inscription " I came forth from God, and return unto Him, detached from all save Him, holding fast to His Name, the Merciful, the Compassionate ".

    The coffin should be of crystal, stone or hard fine wood. Also, before interment, a specific Prayer for the Dead [32] is ordained. The body should be placed with the feet facing the Qiblih. The formal prayer and the ring are meant to be used for those who have reached fifteen years of age. Apart from sanitary and other practical considerations, the site of burial can be determined by religious and socio-cultural considerations. Thus in some traditions, especially with an animistic logic, the remains of the dead are "banished" for fear their spirits would harm the living if too close; others keep remains close to help surviving generations.

    Religious rules may prescribe a specific zone, e. Royalty and high nobility often have one or more "traditional" sites of burial, generally monumental, often in a palatial chapel or cathedral; see examples on Heraldica. In North America, private family cemeteries were common among wealthy landowners during the 18th and 19th centuries. Many prominent people were buried in private cemeteries on their respective properties, sometimes in lead-lined coffins. Many of these family cemeteries were not documented and were therefore lost to time and abandon; their grave markers having long since been pilfered by vandals or covered by forest growth.

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    Their locations are occasionally discovered during construction projects. Most modern cultures mark the location of the body with a headstone. This serves two purposes. First, the grave will not accidentally be exhumed.

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    Second, headstones often contain information or tributes to deceased. This is a form of remembrance for loved ones; it can also be viewed as a form of immortality , especially in cases of famous people's graves. Such monumental inscriptions may subsequently be useful to genealogists and family historians. In many cultures graves will be grouped, so the monuments make up a necropolis , a "city of the dead" paralleling the community of the living.

    In many cultures graves are marked with durable markers, or monuments , intended to help remind people of the buried person. An unmarked grave is a grave with no such memorial marker. Another sort of unmarked grave is a burial site with an anonymous marker, such as a simple cross ; boots, rifle and helmet; a sword and shield; a cairn of stones; or even a monument.

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    This may occur when identification of the deceased is impossible. Although many unidentified deceased are buried in potter's fields , some are memorialized, especially in smaller communities or in the case of deaths publicized by local media. Anonymous burials also happen in poorer or disadvantaged populations' communities in countries such as South Africa, where in the past the Non-white population was simply too poor to afford headstones.