The particular customs by which people dispose of the dead are driven by a wide variety of cultural and religious motivations. Examining the motivations behind these practices gives us insight into the particular beliefs, values, and assumptions of a culture. The cultural and/or religious attitudes regarding death, dying, and the afterlife profoundly influences what is considered the proper way to dispose of a deceased individual. These can vary widely, from cannibalism and cremation to mummification and burial. Several of these will be examined in detail and the motives behind these practices will be analyzed and explored.
Cannibalism refers to the consumption of another human being’s flesh and can be practiced for a variety of reasons including medicinal, survival, or ritual. Documentation of the use of human remains for medicinal purposes is widespread. While not all instances can be verified, there are extensive records of the medicinal use of mummies in Europe, China, and Arabia. The prescribed applications of mummified human remains were quite extensive and believed to cure a variety of ailments, not limited t: palsy, vertigo, contusions, bruises, and flatulency (Roach 2003:221-224).
While these traditions display practicality and resourcefulness regarding the use of human remains as medicine, many people today would find these practices repulsive and obscene. Even today, however, the limits and definitions of what can be considered medicine are largely culturally constructed. The Chinese system of medicine continues to use ingredients that would likely be unsettling for most Americans, and some of these are sourced from human remains (Roach 2003:236).
This fundamental difference in what is considered proper for the use of medicine as well as the disposal of the dead reflects divergent attitudes towards the practical as well as emotional dimensions of cannibalism. Rituals may also play a role in both endo-cannibalism and exo-cannibalism. The desire to acquire the qualities of a slain enemy, pay respect to a deceased relative, or express hatred and revenge towards a defeated foe may have motivated certain cultures to consume the dead (Mims 1999:184-185). Some anthropologists also argue that many cultures would eat their dead as a source of nutrition, sustenance, or population control, however,r this claim is disputed (Roach 2003:245). One of the most obvious motivations for cannibalism may be for survival in extreme or dire circumstances.
Accounts of these situations are well known throughout history and popular culture. Another practice for disposing of the dead is cremation or the incineration of a dead body. One of the original motivations for the practice of cremation in America was environmental, guided by the false assumption that cremation was a “pure and hygienic alternative” to burial (Roach 2003:258). This environmental approach is brought even further in some cases where cremated remains are used as fertilizer, giving people an opportunity to “return to the elements” upon their death (Roach 2003:260). Other than environmental sentiments, whether they are true or false, there are many other cultural perspectives regarding cremation and if it aisa proper practice for disposing of the dead. Religion plays a profound role in shaping the beliefs an individual or culture has concerning death. For example, Hinduism posits that the individual soul (atman) is merely a fragment of the universal godhead known as Brahman; the soul is temporarily trapped by the physical body. The ritual incineration of human remains is viewed as a form of release, and respectable paid to Agni, the god of fire (Mims 1999:136). This tradition is particularly evident today in the city of Varanasi, India, where burning ghats line the Ganges river, and Hindus travel from all over seeking a good death. While cremation is appropriate for Hindus who see death as a means of liberation, this view contrasts with Christian, particularly Catholic, beliefs. As cremation calls for the destruction of the physical body, it is often seen as incompatible with the notion of resurrection. The associations with paganism, hellfire, and the believed difficulty of resurrection from cremated remains originally caused many Christians to resist the practice (Mims 2003:173-178). In 1963, however, the Catholic Church relaxed the ban on cremation, which allowed it to gain increased acceptance among Christians (Roach 1999:259). Other motivations for cremation may include the practicality of saving space in cemeteries, saving money on graves and headstones, and as an alternative to burial for those who fear being buried alive (Mims 1999: 171).
Mummification, the physical preservation of the body, is one practice that has received considerable attention mainly due to discoveries from ancient Egypt. The motivation for this practice in Egypt was primarily spiritual; it was believed that the spirit needed the body to be intact for it to continue into the next life (Mims 1999:195). Embalming, a somewhat similar practice, is used today to preserve the body and render it presentable during funerals. Thus, the motivation for embalming is primarily social, so an open casket funeral service can be held (Mims 1999:191). Many parallels can be drawn between the practices of mummification among the ancient Egyptians and the modern custom of embalming. Both of these traditions seem to be driven by a fundamental denial of death. This is understandable, as the human psychological difficulty in facing mortality is utterly profound and transcends both periods and cultures.
The modern obsession with producing a lifelike corpse reflects an infatuation with life and fear and denial of its end. Likewise, the preservation of the corpse through mummification in ancient Egypt is powerfully motivated by religious beliefs of permanent selfhood and everlasting life.
By examining the cultural and religious motives that influence how the dead are managed, cultural comparisons and parallels can be drawn in a very unique way. Beliefs concerning death and the afterlife can impact the culture in subtle and powerful ways. Investigating these beliefs and assumptions provide a powerful tool for understanding some of the most essential, profound, and enduring aspects of human societies.