Ritual disposal of human remains. The practice is often intended to facilitate the deceased's entry into the afterworld. Grave burial dates back at least 125,000 years. Types of graves range from trenches to large burial mounds to great stone tombs such as pyramids. Caves have also long been used for the dead—e.g., in ancient Hebrew burials, the sepulchral caves (rock temples) of western India and Sri Lanka, and the Dogon cliff burial sites. Water burial, such as occurred among the Vikings, has also been common. Cremation and the scattering of ashes on water is widely practiced, especially in Asia; in India the remains of the deceased are thrown into the sacred Ganges River. Some peoples (American Indian groups, Parsis, etc.) employ exposure to the elements to dispose of their dead. Among many peoples, the first burial is followed by a second, after an interval that often coincides with the duration of bodily decomposition. This reflects a concept of death as slow passage from the society of the living to that of the dead. Jewish custom requires speedy burial; a prayer known as the Kaddish is recited at the graveside, and a gravestone is normally erected a year after burial. Christian burials are often preceded by a wake, a “watch” held over the deceased's body and sometimes accompanied by festivity. Bodies of Muslims are laid on their right side and facing Mecca.
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Burial, also called interment and inhumation, is the act of placing a person or object into the ground. This is accomplished by excavating a pit or trench, placing an object in it, and covering it over.
The remainder of this article discusses human burial.
Intentional burial, particularly with grave goods, may be one of the earliest detectable forms of religious practice since, as Philip Lieberman suggests, it may signify a "concern for the dead that transcends daily life." Though disputed, evidence suggests that the Neanderthals were the first hominids to intentionally bury the dead, doing so in shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones. Exemplary sites include Shanidar in Iraq, Kebara Cave in Israel and Krapina in Croatia. Some scholars, however argue that these bodies may have been disposed of for secular reasons.
The earliest undisputed human burial dates back 130,000 years. Human skeletal remains stained with red ochre were discovered in the Skhul cave at Qafzeh, Israel. A variety of grave goods were present at the site, including the mandible of a wild boar in the arms of one of the skeletons.
Prehistoric cemeteries are referred to by the more neutral term grave field. They are one of the chief sources of information on prehistoric cultures, and numerous archaeological cultures are defined by their burial customs, such as the Urnfield culture of the European Bronze Age.
Human burial practices are the manifestation of the human desire to demonstrate "respect for the dead". Among the reasons for this are:
Some burial practices are heavily ritualized; others are simply practical.
With a natural burial, the body is returned to nature in a biodegradable coffin or shroud. Native vegetation (often a memorial tree) is planted over or near the grave in place of a conventional cemetery monument. The resulting green space establishes a living memorial and forms a protected wildlife preserve.
The practice of natural burial dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Sir Francis Seymour Hayden proposed "earth to earth burial," in a pamphlet of the same name, as an alternative to either cremation or the slow putrefaction of encased corpses. The earth to earth burial movement was part of the short-lived cremation controversy of the 1870s.
Muslims also practice natural burial, with the deceased's body covered in shroud and with the face facing Mecca. Likewise in Orthodox Judaism, embalming is not permitted, and the coffins are constructed so that the body will be returned to the Earth as soon as possible. Such coffins are made of wood, and have no metal parts at all. Wooden pegs are used in the place of nails.
Natural burial grounds are also known as woodland cemeteries, eco-cemeteries, memorial nature preserves, or green burial grounds.
Bodies are often buried wrapped in a shroud or placed in a coffin (also called a casket). A larger container may be used, such as a ship. Coffins are usually covered by a burial liner or a burial vault, which prevents the coffin from collapsing under the weight of the earth or floating away during a flood.
These containers slow the decomposition process by (partially) physically blocking decomposing bacteria and other organisms from accessing the corpse. An additional benefit of using containers to hold the body is that if the soil covering the corpse is washed away by a flood or some other natural process, the corpse will still not be exposed to open air.
In nonstandard burial practices, such as mass burial, the body may be positioned arbitrarily. This can be a sign of disrespect to the deceased, or at least nonchalance on the part of the inhumer, or due to considerations of time and space.
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 Labelliere of Dorking (d. June 4, 1800) lies thus upon the summit of Box Hill. Similar stories have attached themselves to other noted eccentrics, particularly in southern England, but not always with a foundation in truth.
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 east to west, with the head facing east and their feet to the west. This positioning represented the ability to rise without having to turn around at the call of Gabriel’s trumpet. Gabriel’s trumpet would be blown in the eastern sunrise. East-west positioning also was the direction of home, Africa.
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.g. some Christian traditions hold that Christians must be buried in "consecrated ground," usually a cemetery; an earlier practice, burial in or very near the church (hence the word churchyard), was generally abandoned with individual exceptions as a high posthumous honour; also many existing funeral monuments and crypts remain in use.
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.org
Most modern cultures mark the location of the body with a headstone. This serves two purposes. First, the grave will not accidentally be exhumed. 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" parallelling the community of the living.
Many countries have buried an unidentified soldier (or other member of the military) in a prominent location as a form of respect for all unidentified war dead. The United Kingdom's Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is in Westminster Abbey, France's is buried underneath the Arc de Triomphe, Italy's is buried in the Monumento al Milite Ignoto in Rome, Canada's is buried at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Australia's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, New Zealand's Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is in Wellington and the United States' Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located at Arlington National Cemetery.
Many cultures practise anonymous burial as a norm, not an exception. For instance, in parts of eastern Germany, up to 43% of burials are anonymous. According to Christian Century magazine, the perspective of the Roman Catholic Church is that anonymous burials reflect a dwindling belief in God, but others claim that the practice relates more to the exorbitant cost of grave markers and the solitary nature of German life.
When Walt Disney was cremated his ashes were buried in a secret location in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, California. Some burial sites at Forest Lawn, such as those of Humphrey Bogart and Mary Pickford, are secluded in private gated gardens with no public access. A number of tombs are also kept from the public eye. Forest Lawn's Court of Honour indicates that some of its crypts have plots which are reserved for individuals who may be "voted in" as "Immortals"; no amount of money can purchase a place. Photographs taken at Forest Lawn are not permitted to be published, and their information office usually refuses to reveal exactly where the remains of famous people are buried. Although the cemetery's owners state that this is meant to deter gravesite tourism, some critics say that the cemetery wishes visitors to purchase memorabilia at the funeral home's numerous gift shops instead of taking photographs for free, especially in the case of grave markers notable for their beauty.
Mass burial is the practice of burying multiple bodies in one location. Civilizations attempting genocide often employ mass burial for victims. However, mass burial may in many cases be the only practical means of dealing with an overwhelming number of human remains, such as those resulting from a natural disaster, an act of terrorism, an epidemic, or an accident. This practice has become less common in the developed world with the advent of genetic testing, but even in the 21st century remains which are unidentifiable by current methods may be buried in a mass grave.
Individuals who are buried at the expense of the local authorities and buried in potter's fields may be buried in mass graves. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is believed to have been buried in such a manner. In some cases, the remains of unidentified individuals may be buried in mass graves in potter's fields, making exhumation and future identification troublesome for law enforcement.
Naval ships sunk in combat are also considered mass graves by many countries. For example, U.S. Navy policy declares such wrecks a mass grave and forbids the recovery of remains. In lieu of recovery, divers or submersibles may leave a plaque dedicated to the memory of the ship or boat and its crew, and family members are invited to attend the ceremony.
Sites of large former battlefields may also contain one or more mass graves. Douaumont ossuary is one such mass grave, and it contains the remains of 130,000 soldiers from both sides of the battle of Verdun.
Catacombs also constitute a form of mass grave. Some catacombs, for example those in Rome, were designated as a communal burial place. Some, such as the catacombs of Paris, only became a mass grave when individual burials were relocated from cemeteries marked for demolition.
Judaism does not generally allow multiple bodies in a grave. An exception to this is a grave in the military cemetery in Jerusalem, where there is a "kever ah-chim" (Heb. "grave of brothers") where two soldiers were killed together in a tank and are buried in one grave. As the bodies were so fused together with the metal of the tank that they could not be separately identified, they were buried in one grave (along with parts of the tank).
There are several common alternatives to burial. In cremation the body of the deceased is burned in a special oven. Most of the body is burnt during the cremation process, leaving only a few pounds of bone fragments. Bodies of small children and infants often produce very little in the way of "ashes", as ashes are composed of bone, and young people have softer bones, largely cartilage. Often these fragments are processed (ground) into a fine powder, which has led to cremated remains being called ashes. In recent times, cremation has become a popular option in the western world.
There is far greater flexibility in dealing with the remains in cremation as opposed to the traditional burial. Some of the options include scattering the ashes at a place close to the heart of the deceased or keeping the ashes at home. Ashes can also be buried underground or in a columbarium niche.
Writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote a number of stories and poems about premature burial, including a story called "The Premature Burial." These works inspired a widespread popular fear of this appalling but unlikely event. Various expedients have been devised to prevent this event, including burying live telephones or telemetry sensors in graves.
Superstition also played a part in the selection of cross-roads in the burial of suicides. Folk belief often held such individuals could rise as some form of undead (such as a vampire) and burying them at cross-roads would inhibit their ability to find and wreak havoc on their living relations and former associates.
In addition to burying human remains, many human cultures also regularly bury animal remains.
Pets and other animals of emotional significance are often ceremonially buried. Most families bury deceased pets on their own properties, mainly in a yard, with a shoe box or any other type of container served as a coffin. The Ancient Egyptians are known to have mummified and buried cats, which they considered deities.
Frequently, cultures have different sets of exhumation taboos. Occasionally these differences result in conflict, especially in cases where a culture with more lenient exhumation rules wishes to operate on the territory of a stricter culture. For example, United States construction companies have run into conflict with Native American groups that wanted to preserve their ancient burial grounds from any form of modern construction.
In folklore and mythology, exhumation has also been frequently associated with the performance of rites to banish undead manifestations. An example is the Mercy Brown Vampire Incident of Rhode Island, which occurred in 1892.
Human bodies are not always buried. Alternatives to burial include the following:
In most cases these alternatives are still intended to maintain respect for the dead, but some are intended to prolong the display of the remains.
Cryonics is often mistakenly assumed to be an alternative interment method, but is in fact a medical procedure carried out to physically preserve the body in the hope that it will one day be technologically possible to revive the individual. See also information theoretical death; clinical death.