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Burial practices & grave goods

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

3 min read.
wall lined with human skulls by rachel claire via pexels
I'm working on a scene that involves a big fancy funeral and I wanted to do a bit of research into various funerary practices in different cultures. I don't want to give too many spoilers for Wednesday's edition of the Civil Mage serial story, but, whelp, I promise there aren't any child graves, at least.

Quick Facts

  • Neatly stacking and organizing human skeletal remains was common in 13th century parish houses. Although the underlying purposes behind charnel houses are obscure despite being relatively recent, there's evidence they arose partially because cemeteries got out of hand and may have been related to the development of the doctrine of Purgatory.
  • A child’s grave is the earliest known burial site in Africa. It's about 80,000 years old and helps the theory that Neolithic burials happened most often for "unnatural" deaths.
  • Aztatlán burial mounds are covered with shell debris and buildings; the bodies are generally found under the first floor.
  • Tibet is home to a cave burial complex that is unusual not only because of how far people moved the bodies but also because of how many animal bones are mixed in with the humans, and how narrow the entrance is (60cm).
  • A body buried without embalming fluid can still impact the surrounding environment over 4,000 years after burial, and graveyards with many bodies are even more unique; there are over a hundred species that were preserved in graveyards, including several rare orchids.

Tomb Roads

Bronze age Arabians built 'funerary avenues' that functioned as as highways between oases and pastures. These paths were bordered by thousands of elaborate burial monuments. Aerial photos make them look a bit like crop circles meant to communicate with aliens; or rather, they seem like the sort of thing that inspired scifi movie directors. They generally seem to be circular tomb structures with triangular paths leading back to the road, and are packed together very tightly, especially near water.

Grave Goods

This nifty thread about when and how grave goods get used touches primarily on obscure Christian funerary practices, like placing a scallop shell in a man's mouth, but also has a useful aside about the socio-political implications of ostentatious displays of disposable wealth at communal events. It hearkens back to things I learned about early pastoral economies and wrote about for the Liminal afterword: cows, thunder, & how ancients exploited ceremonial roles. For more details, you can check out my notes about the rise of ostentatious funerals in steppe cultures.

Self Mummification

Once upon a time, some folks in China put the corpse of a monk inside of a metal statue that was then painted gold. His organs were removed by some unknown method, and then replace with scraps of paper. But the terrifying part is that this happened after a process known as "self-mummification" in which the monk spent over a decade following a strict diet designed to reduce body fat and moisture. Monks who self-mummified drank poisonous sap that functioned like embalming fluid and repelled insects. Eventually these monks were buried alive with a small straw and a bell to ring to signal whether they were alive; when they died, the tomb was sealed for three years — if there was a mummy at the end of it, it was venerated. If not, they exorcised and buried him.

Excavation pre-Nation

The colored skeletons of Çatalhöyük, Turkey, from 9,000 years ago were pigmented with ochre and cinnabar and sometimes interred in the walls of homes. Neolithic people in Anatolia redecorated after funerals, so the bodies were often excavated and reburied several times. As mentioned in the housing edition, Çatalhöyük is notable for having a very high population density without being strictly urban; it predates states, money, and private property, but had houses located so closely together people had to enter through the roof.

📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy the previous edition about tombs.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

🪦 Do you have a favorite story about funerals or cemeteries? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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