Funerary architecture is the study of structures that are designed and built to honor and preserve the dead. It encompasses a wide range of burial structures, from grandiose mausoleums to humble graves. Below, you will see the meanings of some of the commonly encountered terms related to these structures.
Burial mounds are ancient human-made structures that were constructed to serve as tombs for the deceased. They were constructed by piling soil, rocks and other materials over a central burial chamber or pit that contained the remains of the deceased. Burial mounds can be found all over the world. They are typically associated with ancient cultures and civilizations. They were widely used during the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages and vary in shape and size.
Building a burial mound was a significant endeavor that required a lot of time and resources. The size of the mound depended on the social status and importance of the deceased and could range from a few meters in diameter to several hundred meters in length. Some mounds were even constructed in unique shapes, such as spirals, pyramids or other geometric patterns. The construction of burial mounds was a way to honor the deceased and was accompanied by various rituals and ceremonies. Nowadays, many of these mounds are important archaeological sites, and researchers study them to better understand their cultural and historical significance.
Catacombs are underground tunnels or passageways, historically used for burial purposes. They were primarily used by ancient civilizations for burying their dead, and later by Christians during the Roman Empire as a way to bury their martyrs and saints. The tunnels often contain intricate networks of tunnels and chambers, with elaborate artwork and decorations.
Catacombs are usually found in areas with soft, porous rock, such as limestone or tuff. This type of rock is easier to excavate and allows for air circulation, which helps to naturally preserve the bodies. Catacombs offer valuable insights into ancient beliefs and traditions, revealing the religious and social beliefs of the people who created them. In addition, the study of catacombs provides important information about ancient funerary practices, as well as the spread and evolution of Christianity.
Catafalque is an elegant ceremonial structure that serves as a base to hold the casket or coffin of a deceased person during their final farewell. It’s essentially a raised platform that’s adorned with various symbolic elements such as flowers, candles and other artifacts that reflect the personality, beliefs and culture of the deceased.
The catafalque’s design and construction are highly dependent on the cultural and religious traditions of the person being commemorated.
A symbolic tomb or monument erected in honor of a person whose remains are elsewhere, or whose body cannot be found, is called a cenotaph. A cenotaph may also have been erected for soldiers who died in a war, or for a group of people who died in a plane crash. For example, in many countries in Europe, there are many cenotaphs erected for soldiers who died during the World Wars.
The word cenotaph is of Greek origin and is derived from a word meaning empty tomb.
Chamber tomb is a type of burial structure that consists of an underground chamber or interconnected chambers used for the burial of human remains. Such burials were common in ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, Rome and China. They were primarily used to bury high-status individuals or entire families. The tomb was often decorated with intricate carvings, murals and other artistic expressions specific to the culture and period in which it was constructed.
Chamber tombs varied in design and construction, some were made of stone or brick, while others were carved into rock formations. The size of the tombs varied too, some were large enough to accommodate multiple bodies, while others were designed for individual burials. Regardless of design, the chamber tomb was an important milestone in the evolution of burial practices, offering valuable insights into the beliefs and values of ancient cultures.
Chullpa is an ancient tower found in the Andean regions of South America. These structures were created by indigenous peoples and are cylindrical or rectangular in shape, varying in size from small to large. Chullpas were typically built on high ground, providing an impressive view of the surrounding area.
The Chullpas were used as tombs for high-ranking individuals or members of a community and were believed to be the entrance to the afterlife. The towers were made from a variety of materials including stone, mud and adobe, and featured intricate designs and carvings that represent the cultural and religious beliefs of the people who constructed them.
Columbarium is a structure designed to hold the cremated remains of deceased individuals. These structures may be found in cemeteries, churches or other memorial locations. Columbariums (columbaria) can take many forms, ranging from simple niches in a wall to ornate buildings or structures.
Columbariums have been used for centuries, with some of the oldest known structures dating back to ancient Rome. Today, columbariums are a popular option for those who choose cremation as their final disposition. They provide a secure and respectful location for the remains of loved ones to be memorialized, while also allowing for easy access for family and friends who wish to pay their respects.
Dolmen is a type of megalithic tomb consisting of two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal stone slab or capstone. These structures are typically found in areas where prehistoric communities once lived, such as Europe and Asia. Dolmens were used as burial chambers and were often covered with earth or other materials to create a mound or cairn.
They are some of the earliest examples of human construction, dating back to the Neolithic. Dolmens were constructed using simple tools and techniques, and the sheer size and weight of the stones used in their construction make them a remarkable feat of engineering for their time. Dolmens are often found in clusters, suggesting that they were used by a community or tribe for multiple burials over an extended period of time.
Epitaph is a brief inscription that appears on a tombstone or monument, commemorating a deceased person. It typically includes the person’s name, dates of birth and death, and a short message or tribute. Epitaphs may also include religious or philosophical sentiments such as prayers, quotes or epitaphic poetry.
Epitaphs have been used by various cultures throughout history as a way to pay tribute to the deceased. These inscriptions often offer comfort and solace to loved ones who visit the gravesite, serving as a reminder of the life and legacy of the person buried there.
Gonbad is a term used in Persian architecture to refer to a type of domed tower or tomb built as a monument for a prominent figure. Typically constructed from brick or stone, the dome of the gonbad usually rests on an octagonal or square base. The interior of these structures often features intricate designs and patterns, while the exterior may be adorned with ornamental details or elaborate tilework.
Gonbads have a rich history in Persian and Turkish architecture, dating back to the 11th century. Originally serving as mausoleums for rulers and other important figures, these structures have evolved over time to serve a variety of purposes. In addition to being used as tombs, gonbads have also been repurposed as mosques, observatories, and even water towers.
Grave goods are objects that are buried alongside the deceased in a grave. These goods are typically intended to provide the individual with the necessary items and tools for the afterlife. The type of grave goods found in a burial site can provide valuable insights into the culture and beliefs of the individuals who were buried there.
Examples of grave goods include jewelry, pottery, weapons and food. In some cultures, entire animals or even humans were buried with the deceased as a form of sacrifice. Grave goods have been found in burial sites dating back to ancient times, with some of the earliest known examples dating back to the Neolithic. The practice of burying grave goods alongside the deceased was widespread across many different cultures and civilizations, including ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Kofun, also known as Japanese burial mound, is a significant part of Japan’s cultural heritage. These mounds are known for their unique keyhole-shaped designs, which were used to bury emperors and other high-ranking officials during the Kofun period (250-538 AD). The mounds were constructed using earth and stone, and some can reach up to 500 meters in length.
The Kofun period marks a crucial period in Japan’s history, where the country witnessed significant cultural and societal changes. The mounds themselves offer valuable insights into Japan’s ancient burial customs, social hierarchies, and the country’s overall architectural and engineering capabilities.
Mausoleum is a monumental structure typically built for the deceased. It’s a freestanding, above-ground building often with a large dome or other distinctive architectural features. Mausoleums can be found throughout history and in various cultures including ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations.
Mausoleums serve as tombs or memorials and can also function as sites for public worship or pilgrimage. Many mausoleums feature elaborate decorations such as sculptures, frescoes and mosaics to honor the deceased and provide a fitting tribute to their memory. Some mausoleums also contain crypts, chambers or niches for interring additional remains or relics.
Megalithic tomb is a type of prehistoric tomb that is constructed from large, rough-cut stones, also known as megaliths. Most of these tombs were built during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, around 4000 to 2000 BC.
Megalithic tombs come in various forms, including the passage tomb, the wedge tomb and the dolmen. Passage tombs are characterized by a long, narrow passage leading to a burial chamber, while wedge tombs have a wedge-shaped chamber that tapers to a point. Dolmens, on the other hand, consist of two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal capstone, creating a type of chamber or portal. These tombs were often used for collective burials, with several individuals interred in the same chamber.
Necropolis is a large cemetery or burial ground that is usually associated with ancient civilizations.
The concept of a necropolis is closely tied to the religious beliefs of the ancient civilizations that built them. These cultures believed that the dead were not simply gone, but rather that they continued to exist in some form in the afterlife. As such, it was important to provide them with a place to rest that was suitable for their status in the afterlife.
Necropolises can vary widely in size and complexity. Some may consist of simple tombs or graves, while others may be elaborate structures consisting of multiple chambers or even underground cities.
Ossuary is a container or building for holding skeletal remains. This cultural practice, also known as a charnel house or bone house, has been employed by various societies throughout history. Ossuaries were commonly used for secondary burials, where the remains were placed after the flesh had decayed. They were also used to store the bones of many individuals, often separated by family or social status. Typically, ossuaries were made of durable materials such as stone or pottery, and they were sometimes adorned with intricate carvings or inscriptions.
Rock-cut tomb is a type of burial structure that was practiced in ancient times, characterized by being carved out of a solid rock formation. Rock-cut tombs were typically used by the wealthy and powerful, as they required significant resources and manpower to create.
One of the main advantages of rock-cut tombs was their durability. Unlike above-ground tombs, which are susceptible to weathering and decay, rock-cut tombs can withstand the elements for centuries or even millennia. Additionally, rock-cut tombs provided a level of security and privacy that above-ground tombs could not match. The difficult-to-access nature of these tombs meant that they were less likely to be disturbed by tomb robbers or other unauthorized individuals.
Sarcophagus is a type of coffin used in ancient times to house the remains of a deceased person. It is usually made of stone, such as limestone, granite or marble, and intricately carved with images and designs related to the deceased’s life or beliefs.
Sarcophaguses were popular in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, with the earliest examples dating back to the Old Kingdom period in Egypt. They were typically reserved for the upper classes and were often placed in tombs or burial chambers.
In addition to their primary function as a container for the dead, sarcophagi also served a ceremonial purpose. They were often used in funerary processions and were displayed prominently during funeral rites.
Stele refers to a vertical, free-standing monument made of stone or other durable material, often used for commemorative, religious or funerary purposes. Steles have played a significant role in many cultures and civilizations throughout history.
In ancient Egypt, steles were commonly used as grave markers, to commemorate significant events, or to honor important individuals. The inscriptions on these steles were typically written in hieroglyphics.
In ancient Greece, steles were also used as grave markers and were inscribed with the name and life details of the deceased. The images or sculptures on the steles often depicted scenes from the person’s life, their profession or social status.
Stele usage has also extended to boundary markers, political and religious markers, and public monuments. The ancient Roman Empire utilized steles as milestones on roads, with distance markers inscribed on them.
Tumulus is a type of ancient burial mound, typically made of earth and stones, and often found in Europe and Asia.
It is important to distinguish between tumulus and burial mound. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, a burial mound is a broader category that includes any man-made mound or raised earthwork built over a burial site. Tumulus, on the other hand, specifically refers to mound constructed during the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Another distinguishing factor is the level of complexity of the structures. Tumuli are often more elaborate in construction and are frequently accompanied by burial chambers or cists containing rich grave goods. In contrast, burial mounds can vary widely in their construction and may not always be associated with rich grave goods.
- Encyclopedia Britannica & Merriam-Webster.com
- “The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions”, Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti & Danilo Mazzoleni, Schnell & Steiner, ISBN: 9783795411947
- “Grave goods in early medieval burials: messages and meanings“, Heinrich Härke, Mortality, Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying, Volume 19, 2014
- “The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial”, Sarah Tarlow (Editor) & Liv Nilsson Stutz (Editor), Oxford University Press, ISBN: 9780199569069
- “Death and Burial in the Roman World”, J. M. C. Toynbee, Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN: 9780801855078
- “The Archaeology of Death and Burial”, Mike Parker Pearson, Texas A&M University Press, ISBN: 9781585440993
- “Death and the Afterlife: A Cultural Encyclopedia”, Richard P. Taylor, ABC-CLIO, ISBN: 978-0874369397