Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Burial Culture

Humans have been burying their dead for thousands of years. In fact, according to the fossil record, Neanderthals were the first humanoids to bury their dead over 300,000 years ago (Tappen). The first known burial site in existence was 300,000 years ago at the site of Atepuerca, Spain. At this burial site, over 32 individuals were found in a pit cave. In later years, around 100,000 years ago, there was evidence of bones being stained with red ochre (Thames). This leads archaeologists to believe that even back then there was something ritualistic and spiritual about burying the dead.

Fast forward thousands of years and we see evidence of ancient cultures all around the globe practicing various forms of burials. Some of these burials were done for practical reasons, some as a sign of respect for the leaders, and even others as means to protect the person in their next life. For most people, what comes to mind most is the tombs of the Pharaohs in Egypt. They were buried in lavish sarcophaguses, that were placed in giant tombs, where they were surrounded by most of their worldly possessions and even sometimes, their pets. The Cahokia Mounds are another example of this among the Mississippian River Cultures of 600 to 1400 C.E. The mounds are really burial sites of their leaders.

Despite all of these sites and other archaeological evidence, there are still of a lot of questions that are unanswered regarding ancient, ritual burials. In our modern society, ritual burials are just another part of life. Someone dies, and we spend thousands of dollars to pick out a burial site, casket, and head stone. We echo the practices of many of the ancients to ensure that the dead are well taken care of and spend the rest of their eternity in a comfortable (and sometimes excessively lavish) space.

Though burial sites are fascinating to me, I don’t quite understand the point to all of them. Maybe it’s my scientific background that overshadows my spiritual one, but once the soul leaves the body, to me, the body is just a shell. It’s just flesh and bone. Our society’s obsession with the dead, though warranted, is something that I still have a hard time wrapping my head around. Sure I do find graveyards beautiful, and in many of my stories they play a significant part, but in some ways it’s kind of a waste.

The comfort that some people find in visiting gravesites is just lost on me. I’m more likely to just address a family member that has passed in their homes or just wherever I happen to be. When I die I’m donating my body to the body farm. Might was well use my decaying flesh to help further then study of forensics rather than wasting away in a decorated pine box.


Tappen, N.C. 1985. The Dentition of the “Old Man” of La Chapelle-aux-Saints and Inferences Concerning Neanderthal Behavior. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 67(1):43-50.

The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Thames & Hudson. 1996. ISBN 0-500-05081-3.

Image is from the Kebara Cave Burial Site in modern day Israel.


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