The methods of disposal of human remains and the rites practiced during burial vary between religions and cultures. Although inhumation and cremation are the most common disposal methods today, people have practiced many different methods since the Paleolithic.
Inhumation, one of the most common disposal methods all over the world, is the placing of dead bodies in the ground. It is usually accomplished by burying the body in a pit ranging from 1 meter (3.3 feet) to 2 meters (6.6 feet). The body may be buried with the coffin, in a shroud or naked. In some cultures, the deceased’s belongings are also buried with the deceased. In the past, especially from the Chalcolithic to the Iron Age, it was common for dead bodies to be buried with valuables and items that could be useful after death.
There is no consensus among scientists as to when inhumation was first practiced. However, it is estimated to have emerged in the Middle Paleolithic.1 There are many studies that show that the first human species to consciously bury their dead was the Neanderthals.2
Burial With Coffin
When it comes to inhumation, it is common practice to bury the body after placing it in a coffin. In this case, the deceased may have been wrapped in a shroud or dressed in ceremonial clothing. The shape, size and raw material of the coffin vary according to culture, religion, traditions and economic conditions.
However, some prefer burial without a coffin, as the coffins delay the decomposition process.
Burial Without Coffin
Burial without a coffin is just as common as burial with a coffin. Generally, burial without a coffin is preferred in cases where the decomposition process is desired to end quickly.
|Burial With Shroud
|Burial Without Shroud
|The body is buried in a shroud for religious, moral and hygienic reasons.
|The body is buried naked because of personal preference or necessity. It is prohibited in some countries.
Cremation is a method of disposing of human remains by setting the dead body on fire. In modern times, cremation is usually completed in about 2 or 3 hours in crematoriums. However, in some countries, this process may take place outdoors and over a longer period of time.
Contrary to popular belief, the entire body does not turn into ashes after cremation. The remaining bone fragments are pulverized with a mechanical grinder and given to the authorized relatives of the deceased.
It is not clear when the first cremation was practiced. But the nearly 20,000-year-old human remains (LM1) discovered in Australia in 1969 is one of the earliest known cremations.3 The oldest examples in Europe date back to the Neolithic.4
With the spread of Christianity, cremation practices were largely abandoned, but the demand for cremation began to increase from the end of the 19th century. According to a 2020 study, cremation rates are over 70% in Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand and the United Kingdom.5
Excarnation is the practice of removing organs from the body of the deceased and stripping the flesh of the corpse from the bones before burial. It is one of the oldest death customs and is practiced in some communities even in modern times.
Excarnation With Blades
It is the practice of scraping the flesh of the dead with a cutting tool. It was a common custom in some communities in prehistoric times. Some archaeological findings also point to cannibalism.
It is an excarnation technique in which corpses are left on mountain tops. In this custom, the meat of the dead is eaten by carnivorous birds and scavenger animals. It is generally practiced in China, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and India.
In Zoroastrianism, the dead are taken to structures called the Towers of Silence and left outside for carnivorous birds to eat.
Burial in Trees
It is the placing of the body of the deceased in a tree for a while. After the flesh of the deceased has decomposed, the remaining bones are usually either buried or transported to another place. It has been practiced by some Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, and shamanic communities.
Ecological Methods for the Disposal of Human Remains
In the 21st century, new methods have been developed to dispose of human corpses due to climate change, global warming, environmental problems and ecological concerns.
Promession is a method of disposal of human remains by freeze-drying. It was developed by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, who passed away in 2020.
In this method, the body of the deceased is crystallized with liquid nitrogen at -196°C (-320℉) and then disintegrated into particles by vibrations. Remains that come in the form of dry powder are interred into the soil with a casket and turn into humus within a year at the latest.7
Aquamation (Water Cremation)
Aquamation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, is a method developed as an alternative to inhumation or cremation. It is based on the principle that the body of the deceased is broken down into chemical components in hot water.
First, the body is placed in a pressure vessel. Next, the pressure vessel is filled with water and potassium hydroxide is added. After the body is soaked in water at 160°C (320°F) for about 4 to 6 hours, only the softened bones remain. The bones are ground into powder and returned to the deceased’s family. The brown liquid consisting of chemical components is disposed of by other methods.
It is a method of rapidly converting human remains into compost through microbial activity under special conditions. Materials such as wood chips, straw and alfalfa are used to accelerate the decomposition. Bodies turn into compost in just one to two months.
- Funerals and the Disposal of Human Remains, Norman Doe, Oxford Academic
- “Intentional Human Burial: Middle Paleolithic (Last Glaciation) Beginnings“, Yuri SMIRNOV, Journal of World Prehistory, Vol 3, No 2
- “The Human Past”, Chris SCARRE, Thames & Hudson, ISBN: 9780500290637
- “Pleistocene human remains from Australia“, J. M. Bowler, Rhys Jones, Harry Allen & A. G. Thorne
- “The Origins of Cremation in Europe“, Agnieszka GIL-DROZD, Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia, Vol 5, 2010
- “2022 NFDA Cremation & Burial Report“, National Funeral Directors Association, July 2022
- Clark, J., Beyene, Y., WoldeGabriel, G. et al. “Stratigraphic, chronological and behavioural contexts of Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia” Nature 423, 747-752, 2003
- “Ecological burial“, Promesa Website