Burial“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If the coyotes don’t get you, the worms must.” -Anonymous

From the moment we’re born, we begin the journey towards death. Hopefully, the period in between is long and prosperous. But down through the years, some cultures developed downright odd ways to dispose of the deceased.


Burial, along with entombment, was and still is, the most common of practices. Although it costs a bit more today, than when Neanderthals painted their dead with red ochre, stuck ’em in the ground, and tossed some flowers and animal bits like antlers, on top. It was pretty pricey for the Egyptians too, if you look at the size of those pyramids. Of course, the catacombs under Rome were gratis, and all you had to do was weep, gnash your teeth and leave the dead in some hole in the wall.

In more civilised times, multiple burials were allowed in a single or double plot, providing the first occupants were not only kept deep in their loved ones hearts, but very deep in the ground. The next one to be added, was often placed scant inches above the first coffin / casket, and the layering continued, as long as the last man in was six feet under.

Some cultures were forced to, or willingly chose exposure. (It would be kind of hard to dig six feet down into the Artic tundra) Native Americans practiced it, and the Parsis of India, continue to raise their dead on “towers of silence”, to avoid contaminating  earth, water or fire. Vultures and other scavenging birds take care of the rest.   The remains were often left in, or on their trees or platforms. It was simple, and nobody made any “bones” about the arrangements.

The ancient civilisation at Catal Huyuk (c.4000B.C.), in what is now southern Turkey, took the practice to new heights … and depths. After the traditional excarnation, the remaining bones where buried without exceptional fanfare, a foot deep under the floors of their houses, accompanied occasionally by a favorite tool or bit of jewellery.

Cremation arrived in America, in December of 1876, with the highly publicised “roasting” of Baron de Palm, who had died in May of that year, leaving his remains to the Cremation Society.  Due to the lengthy battle to burn the body (nobody had a crematorium), he was first injected with arsenic, then subjected to the unholy glee of embalmer Augustus Buckhorst, who observed to reporters at a viewing prior to the pyre: “He ain’t as dry as he ought to be,” he concluded, “But I guess he’ll burn nicely.”

The home fires were burning, quite literally, thousands of years ago.  Between 1400B.C. and 200A.D. cremation was the preferred method of disposal, particularly with Romans. Even  the Caesar family departed this world, after making ashes of  themselves.

Thankfully, the Indian custom of “Suttee”, where wives ritually threw themselves on hubby’s funeral flames, was abolished by the British in 1829.

Depending on the country of “departure”, the ashes have been tossed in a river, buried sedately in an urn, put in an eggtimer as Tony Gribble requested, that he might still be of some use; or blended with concrete mix to become part of a reef module. Perhaps at the ceremony, someone might sing “Coral acquaintance, be forgot…”

Less known and least talked about (especially when you’re having your mother-in-law for dinner), was the practice of cannibalism, reported as early as Neolithic times, and on into the era of Greek historian Herodotus, and Venetian man of the world, Marco Polo. Sometimes it was disposal of the naturally dead, while at others it was the result of tribal squabbles, whereby the loser was lunch, in the hopes that the victor would then consume, … er, assume, the departed’s strengths and powers.


Although generally credited to the upstart Egyptians, embalming the dead was practiced long before their time. As much as 5,000 years before, a fishing tribe from the north coast of Chile, called the Chinchoros, were disassembling corpses, treating internal organs to prevent decay, then reassembling the body, filling it with fibre or feathers, and sometimes using wooden rods to support the spine and limbs. The whole was then coated in clay on which they painted or carved designs.

But the Egyptians really knew how to throw a party for the departed. Anyone who has seen accounts of the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1923, knows that when the boy king died in 1349 B.C. at age 19, he was buried with treasures beyond imagination. All for his use in the afterlife.

Before starting his journey with Anubis, Tut’s body underwent the ritual removal of lungs, stomach, liver and intestines to their own canopic jars, and his body was treated for weeks with a bath of natron, then stuffed with bituminous substances, rubbed with aromatic spices … all in addition to the unguents and oils slathered on with each layer of wrappings. The job was so good, that an abrasion still showed on the skin of his cheek, and x-rays revealed bone fragments underneath, dispelling the stories of death by tuberculosis, and substituting, a good old (very old) murder.

By the time Egyptians discontinued the practice around 700A.D  it is estimated that 730 million mummies had been stashed around the deserts and pyramids.

Desiccation seems to have been the best preserver of all in the East, and a prime example are the mystery mummies of the Takla Makan desert in China. In the 1970s and 80s, mummies were found buried throughout the desert. Many of these freeze-dried remains were Caucasian and dated as far back as 4,000 years!  With nothing to say how they got there. Talk about not stopping to ask for directions!

The Incas tended to really chill out. In 1999, Dr. Johan Reinhard discovered three young sacrificial victims, folded calmly into sitting positions, and frozen since their deaths some 500 years before. At 22,000 feet on top of  Argentina’s Mount Llullaillaco, it was the world’s highest archaeological site. Nature had done the job of the embalmer.

Nature also preserved for modern study, the Siberian Ice Maiden, discovered in the Pastures of Heaven on the High Steppes. Covered in vivid blue tattoos and frozen by extraordinary climatic conditions, the Maiden, six decorated horses, and a last ceremonial meal seem to indicate that women not only got a dinner, but respect, in nomadic societies of 2400 years ago.

The lost Franklin Expedition of 1852, would turn up some sailor-sicles during a 1984 search of the Artic. John Torrington, dead and decently coffined for 130 years, would yield up pathological evidence of lead poisoning, likely a result of the 8,000 tins of poorly soldered provisions on the ships.

Perhaps the most famous iced over individual is the anonymous “Iceman”, discovered along the Austro-Italian border. Middle-aged and dressed spiffily in a grass cape, fur shoes and hat, he had dined on grains and bread, shortly before laying down for his eternal rest. “Otzi” as he was named, was still making news in July of 2001. An arrow hole in his chest showed why he hadn’t taken a left at the Alps and kept on going.

Many people get bogged down on their way to Glory, but none so neatly as Tollund Man.  Fished out of the quagmire in Denmark, his 1950 discovery set the scientific world on their mummified ears. T.M.’s features are composed and serene, evidence that his burial, if not his death was peaceful. Whether they tripped in or were tipped in, the bog mummies of Northern Europe, were perfectly pickled in the oxygen-less peat.

Modern man had to invent their own techniques. Mostly out of the need to deliver the departed in a decorous state.  The Civil War brought with it, embalming with arsenic, and left behind it, ground wells and soil contaminated with the poison seeping from the decomposing remains. Science pulled up their collective socks after this, and developed less chancey methods of keeping a body whole, so they could put them in one (hole).

Freeze dried, or stuffed and mounted … preserving the departed for posterity had a certain cachet as an art. But mummy always said you couldn’t make a living at it.