The Western conceptions of death and funerals usually consists of a single primary burial: whether the individual is interred in a casket or cremated in an urn. However, throughout history there have been a number of cultures and reasons for removing the whole skeleton from a burial. Here are five reasons:
1. Communal Burials: In the Early and Middle Bronze Age in Cyprus, there were a number of cultures which would bury their dead first in singular graves, but would later disinter them and put them in a collective grave or tomb. Ideologically, the second burial represents the movement of the soul of the individual from the world of the living into the afterlife of the ancestors. Individuals would be removed from their graves by their living relatives, the remaining flesh removed from their bones, and then placed within the communal area (Keswani 2004). This type of practice actual continues to today in some Greek communities such as Lehonia (O’Rourke 2007). In this highly stratified community, the secondary communal burial, which takes place a year after death, is meant to signify equality in the afterlife.
2. Artwork: There are a number of famous chapels where human remains have been used to create incredible works of art, but the most memorable is the Seldec Ossuary. Also known as the Church of the Bones, the chapel was built in the 13th century in the Czech Republic. In 1870, a local woodcarver named Frantisek Rindt was commissioned to deal with the over 40,000 bones. He creatively used them as decorations throughout the chapel. One of the most impressive pieces of work is an immense chandelier that contains at least one of every type of human bone (Seldec Ossurary 2009). The Paris Catacombs are another example of human remains being used as artwork. In the late 18th century, the overflow from Paris cemeteries were moved into the abandoned mine system underneath the city. In 1810, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury began to rearrange the skeletons in an artistic way to make the underground more of a memorial rather than just a repository.
3. Veneration of Ancestors: The Malagasy people in Madagascar practice a secondary burial practice called Famadihana. Every 2 to 7 years, people in the village will exhume the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts in order to take care of the remains by wrapping them in new silk shrouds. It is also customary to dance with the corpse to live music. The tradition only dates back to the 17th century, but it continues today. It is based on a belief that the dead can only join the afterlife once the flesh has completely decomposed, a process that can take a number of years depending on the conditions. The ceremony is extremely expensive due to the extended kin joining in, requirement for a large amount of food, and live music, but also the expense of silk shrouds. It is due to this that the practice is becoming less frequent (BBC 2008). A similar tradition is carried out in Southern China, called ercizang, where the deceased is first buried in a temporary grave and then exhumed after 3 to 4 years. The family will gather to clean off the remaining flesh, and will place the individual within a large urn inside the ancestral tomb (Watson and Rawski 1988).
4. Political Agendas and Personal Wishes: The Babenberg and Habsburg dynasties of Austria had a number of remains of its rulers which were buried for a number of years at monasteries nearby the location of death, which were later moved. From the 10th to 18th centuries, these two dynasties ruled Austria through a number of politically unstable periods. When a ruler died during this period it was often unlikely that they could be buried at their chosen location, especially if they died during a foreign military campaign or if political tensions prevented movement. Preservation of the bodies was not common, and certain modes of preservation were outlawed by the church. Therefore, it became common for individuals to be buried at a local monastery until they could be moved to their chosen location. Another reason for primary location in one monastery followed by exhumation and final burial at another was when individuals in a family died before the family crypt was completed. Temporary burial was a perfect solution to the problems of storing the deceased until they could be properly honored (Weiss-Frejci 2001).
5. Bioarchaeology: As bioarchaeologists, we remove full skeletons from the ground for a number of reasons including cemetery relocation due to construction or natural disasters, or for our own research in order to learn more about a population. Human remains are extremely important towards understanding the health and lifestyles of past populations. By directly studying the remains, we are literally put the people back into history.
The reason that these are important to mortuary archaeologists, is that we need to be able to interpret burials, whether primary or secondary. Having a knowledge of the range of burial practices, their lengths, and the final resting places is important in creating accurate interpretations of sites. The more we know about funeral and burial practices, the better we can do our job.
Keswani, P. 2004. Mortuary Ritual and society in Bronze Age Cyprus. British Library.
O’Rourke, D. 2007 Mourning becomes eclectic: Death of communal practice in a Greek cemetery. In American Ethnologist 34(2):387-402.
Seldec Ossuary. 2009. The Seldec Ossuary Website. Electric Document. http://www.sedlecossuary.com/
BBC. 2008. Madagascar’s dance with the dead. BBC. Electronic Document. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7562898.stm
Watson, James L. and Rawski, Evelyn S. 1988. Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Weiss-Frejci 2001. Restless Corpses: secondary burial in Hapsburg and Babenburg dynasties.dynasties. In Antiquity, Dec.