By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Body preservation, like mummification, sidesteps corpse disposal. Some cultures consume their ancestors’ ground bones. Skeletons can even be made into musical instruments.
One major, practical, yet sometimes unpleasant, question surrounding death is what exactly should be done with the corpse. In-ground burials are the oldest known practice, though cremation is also common. Other disposal methods are more surprising, and find themselves in the news again after an American musician who recently received his uncle’s remains made a guitar from the skeleton.
In his video series Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures, Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, discusses the various rituals for handling corpses, including some ancient, eyebrow-raising practices.
A Return to Nature
“[One] form of burial—one that, by necessity, occurs only once—is water burial, or burial by sea—a ritual that has long been practiced by mariners,” Dr. Berkson said. “The US Navy’s method is to slide the shrouded corpse off the side of the ship.”
The Navy isn’t the only one to practice sea burials. Vikings did as well, though in a different fashion, according to Dr. Berkson.
“In some forms of Viking burials, like among the Norwegians, the corpse was placed in a ship surrounded by grave goods, all of which was covered by earth. The ship was then lit on fire and set adrift, meaning that the burial involved earth, water, and fire.”
For the Birds
Another form of corpse disposal is called excarnation. In this practice, the body is left outside, above ground, to be eaten by animals or consumed by the elements, leaving only the bones. Although it may seem disturbing to some, it has a number of ecological benefits, and a near relation to excarnation carries considerable symbolism.
“In Tibet, the practice of exposing a corpse is known as a sky burial,” Dr. Berkson said. “The body is eaten by vultures, who gather at the spots where the rituals take place. The consumption of the body is not seen as desecration, but as returning the deceased to the natural cycle of all things.”
Sky burials are also practical for Tibet since the ground is frozen much of the year, making burials challenging; and trees are scarce, hindering cremation efforts.
The most controversial method of corpse disposal for most Westerners is the idea of fellow humans consuming the corpse.
“Although there are few, if any, cultures that engage in the practice today, history contains examples of peoples who made a habit of eating the dead of their own tribe,” Dr. Berkson said.
One tribe, the Wari of the western Brazilian rainforest, engaged in corpse consumption until the mid-20th century. An anthropologist studied the Wari and published her findings in 1995, saying that they ate “substantial amounts of corpses’ body substances.”
“This means that they consumed the roasted flesh, brains, heart, and liver, and sometimes ground bones,” Dr. Berkson said. “The Wari considered their form of cannibalism to be the most respectful way of treating a loved one’s dead body.”
Of course, it’s unlikely to catch on in modern society.