Death is a universal phenomenon. Everybody dies. And to quote Ricky Gervais “usually at the end of their lives and just the once, and forever“. The way that people deal with the deceased however is extremely varied. What happens leading up to death, immediately after, the mourning periods, the funerals, the burial procedures, and locations vary widely over time and space. Not only are these practices highly variable, but they change within societies over time, sometimes over centuries and sometimes within a generation or two. Change in burial practices and the approaches towards them can happen for a number of reasons including changes in the economy or environment. However, there is also change based on fashion, or change due to technology. Here we are going to discuss a couple ancient examples, and then compare these against some modern trends.
Ten thousand years ago in the fertile lands of the Near East, the first large sedentary communities were being established and there was a major shift from gathering to farming. Plants and animals were becoming increasingly domesticated, as populations became more concentrated. Burial patterns in this period shifted along with the broader changes in the society. Within the PPNB culture, there is a change to burial of individuals within houses beneath the floor and the removal of skulls, which would then be plastered over and displayed or cached with other skulls. It is attributed to ancestor worship and was done using different techniques by different communities. Increasing stress within and between communities over the accumulation of prized land would have led to many disputes over ownership. As agriculture becomes more important, so does the accumulation of the best pieces of land. The display of ancestors and the burial of one’s predecessors beneath the floor has been argued as a way for the people to justify their rights to the land. We see here that broader economic and habitation change led to change in burial practice (Read the full post on this here).
Another example of change, over 7,000 years ago, is the shift to warm arid weather in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile and Southern Peru, which is argued to have caused an increase in mummification among the Chinchorro culture in this region. Using geological and hydrological surveys of the area, archaeologists are able to determine that there was increased rainfall from 7.8 to 6.7 thousand years ago, and using ice cores from the Andes suggests that the weather was more stable during this period. Chinchorro deceased prior to 7 thousand years ago primarily were placed in shallow graves in the desert. It is highly likely that wind, erosion and human activity would expose the burials, causing continued visual interaction with the dead. Using Hertz’s argument that decay of the body corresponds with beliefs about the fate of the soul, it is possible that natural mummification was seen as the appropriate method of disposal and with increasing complexity became an artificial practice. As the population increased there was increased technological and cultural innovation. One of these innovations was elaboration of a mortuary process that had previously occurred naturally. The change in weather led to a change in burial (Read the full post on this here).
We can interpret the changes in burial, but how were these actually felt. For example, I’ve often wondered about changes in burial during the Middle Bronze Age when there was a shift from inhumation to cremation (Sorenson and Rebay 2008). We know this was transitional, and that the two practices were co-occur for over a century, but how would people have understood this change? It is a major switch to go from burying to burning the remains of a deceased loved one. The first time someone did it was it an accident, or maybe it was a grand statement for a high ranking individual, or was it done with fear and revolt at first? When cremation was being introduced during the Victorian period people had emotions ranging from rational acceptance of this cheap and hygienic process to complete revulsion over the fiery destruction of a human.
Look at the conversations taking place today about death. The recent trends in the funerary industry include an increase in personalization, rise in cremation, funeral planning prior to death, increased use of technology for planning and mourning, and a rise in women within the profession. Given these, I would argue to some extent that we are seeing the beginning of a new trend in death where there is more discussion about it, more interaction with it, and new ways of mourning. The debates online may be a sign that we are going through a transition. There have been major discussions about the use of technology and death- ex. the appropriateness of live-tweeting a funeral and the debate over the trend of taking funeral ‘selfies’. But these are changes in the way that we are experiencing and dealing with death. For younger generations, using technology to solve problems, prevent awkwardness, and address emotion is a completely normal thing- why wouldn’t they use technology at a funeral when its part of everything else they do? (For a great discussion of the selfie issue, see Caitlin Doughty’s piece on Jezebel). If you want to see the outrageous end of modern funerary practice, just check out the ads for TLC’s show: Best Funeral Ever. Transition in funerary and mortuary behavior is normal. The outrage and discussions about death may be the sign that our interactions with death are changing. The avoidance and medicalization of death has been the trend for the past century, so maybe this digital discussion is the beginning of a new trend where we more openly discuss death? Recent trends in modern funerary practices show that personalization is increasing and people are getting more creative with funerals. Maybe we are taking death back… Maybe the shift in technology is causing our shift in burial practices.
See links throughout the post for works cited and…
Sorenson, Marie L. and Katharina Rebay. 2008 From substantial bodies to the substance of bodies: analysis of the transition from inhumation to cremation during the Middle Bronze Age in central Europe. In Past Bodies: Body-Centered Research in Archaeology. Boric and Robb, eds. Oxford: Oxbow Books. Pp. 59-68.