Missing image
Underwater funeral in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seafrom an edition with drawings by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou.

Burial, also called interment and (when applied to human burial) inhumation, is the act of placing a person or object into the ground. Usually, this is accomplished by digging a pit or trench, placing the person or object in it, and refilling it with the soil that was dug out of it.

Objects are sometimes buried in order to hide them against removal or tampering. For cables and pipelines, burial provides protection and allows the convenience of walking or driving over them.

People are often buried after they die, for a variety of reasons. The rest of this article discusses human burial.


Reasons for human burial

Rotting corpses emit unpleasant odors (due to gases released by bacterial decomposition) and look gruesome. Burial prevents the living from having to see and smell the corpses. However, contrary to conventional wisdom, the WHO advises that corpses are not actually dangerous unless a person died from an infectious disease; corpses resulting from death by trauma (for instance, from natural disasters) are unpleasant but are not a public health issue. [1] (http://slate.msn.com/id/1003473/) [2] (http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/asiapcf/12/29/quake.corpses/index.html)

Many cultures insist on respect for the dead. This has several facets to it:

  • Respect for the physical remains is considered necessary. If left lying on top of the ground, animals may eat the corpse, which is considered highly disrespectful to the deceased in many (but not all) cultures.
  • Burial can be seen as an attempt to bring closure to the deceased's companions. By interring a body away from plain view, the pain of losing a loved one to death can likewise be lessened.
  • Many cultures believe in an afterlife. Burial is often believed to be a necessary step for an individual to reach the afterlife.

Burial practices

In many human cultures throughout history, human corpses were usually buried in soil. Burial grounds have been uncovered all over the world. Mounds of earth, temples, and underground caverns were used to store the dead bodies of ancestors. In modern times, the custom of burying dead people below ground with a stone marker to mark the place is used in almost every modern culture, although other means such as cremation are becoming more popular in the west (cremation is the norm in India).

Different cultures bury their dead in different ways. Some of these practices are heavily ritualized; others are simply practical.

Prevention of decay

Embalming is the practice of preserving a body against decay, and is used in many cultures. Mummification is a form of embalming that is often more extensive, further retarding the decay process.

Bodies are often buried wrapped in a shroud or placed in a coffin (also called a casket). A larger container may be used, such as a ship. Coffins are usually covered by a burial liner or a burial vault, which protects the coffin from collapsing under the weight of the earth.

These containers slow the decomposition process by (partially) physically blocking decomposing bacteria and other organisms from accessing the corpse. An additional benefit of using containers to hold the body is that if the soil covering the corpse is washed away by a flood or some other natural process, the corpse will still not be exposed to open air.

In some cultures however the goal is not to preserve the body but to allow it to decompose - or return to the Earth - naturally. In Orthodox Judaism embalming is not permitted, and the coffins are constructed so that the body will be returned to the Earth as soon as possible. Such coffins are made of wood, and have no metal parts at all. Wooden pegs are used in the place of nails. Followers of the Islamic faith also prefer to bury their deceased so as not to delay decomposition. Normally, instead of using coffins the deceased are buried in a shroud, and the bodies of the deceased are not normally embalmed.

Inclusion of clothing and personal effects

The body may be dressed in fancy and/or ceremonial clothes. Personal objects, such as a favorite piece of jewelery or photograph, of the deceased may be included with the body. This practice, also known as the inclusion of grave goods, serves several purposes:

  • In funeral services, the body is often put on display. Many cultures feel that the deceased should be presented looking his/her finest.
  • The inclusion of ceremonial garb and sacred objects is sometimes viewed as necessary for getting to the afterlife.
  • Though not generally a motivation for the inclusion of grave goods with a corpse, it is worth considering that future archaeologists may find the remains. Artifacts such as clothing and objects provide insight into how the individual lived. This provides a form of immortality for the deceased.

Body positioning

Burials may be placed in a number of different positions. Christian burials are made extended, i.e., lying flat with arms and legs straight, or with the arms folded upon the chest, and with the eyes and mouth closed. Extended burials may be supine (lying on the back) or prone (lying on the front). Other ritual practices place the body in a flexed position with the legs bent or crouched with the legs folded up to the chest. Many cultures treat placement of dead people in an appropriate position to be a sign of respect even when burial is impossible.

In nonstandard burial practices, such as mass burial, the body may be positioned arbitrarily. This is a sign of disrespect to the deceased, or at least nonchalance on the part of the inhumer.

Marking the location of the burial

Most modern cultures mark the location of the body with a headstone. This serves two purposes. First, the grave will not accidentally be exhumed. Second, headstones often contain information or tributes to deceased. This is a form of remembrance for loved ones; it can also be viewed as a form of immortality, especially in cases of famous people's graves. Such Monumental Inscriptions may subsequently be useful to genealogists and family historians.

Unmarked grave

In many cultures graves are marked with durable markers, or monuments, intended to help remind people of the buried person. An Unmarked Grave is a grave with no such memorial marker.

The phrase "unmarked grave" has metaphorical meaning in the context of cultures that mark burial sites. As a figure of speech, an unmarked grave represents consignment to oblivion, an ignominous end. As a monument is a sign of fondness or respect, similarly a grave with no marker is a sign of disdain and disrespect - representing an intent that the person be forgotten utterly.

The corpus of Pope Formosus was actually disinterred, placed on trial (see Cadaver Synod), found guilty, and ultimately thrown into an 'unmarked grave' -- the waters of the River Tiber.

George W. Bush used the phrase "history's unmarked grave of discarded lies" in his speech to the United States Congress on September 20, 2001.

Anonymous burial

Another sort of unmarked grave -- with no disrespect intended -- is a burial site with an anonymous marker, such as a simple crucifix; boots, rifle and helmet; a sword and shield; a cairn of stones; or even lavish monuments. In this type of unmarked grave, no disrespect is intended. Rather, identification of the departed is impossible, yet it is desired that they be memorialised.

The United Kingdom has buried one of their unknown warriors in Westminster Abbey. France has honored an unknown soldier by burial underneath the Arc de Triomphe. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument in the U.S.'s Arlington National Cemetery is dedicated to American military personnel who have died without their remains being identified. These are extreme examples of anonymous graves, intended to honor the departed on a national scale.

Secret burial

In some very rare cases, a person will be buried without identification, even when their identity is known. In some cases of infamous or notorious figures, this is to avoid desecration of the corpse or vandalism of the site.

Famous figures may sometimes be buried in secret, to preserve the 'privacy' of the final resting place. Though this is a type of unmarked grave, it is done out of respect. Famous graves often become tourist attractions, or destinations of pilgrimage. To avoid this the family or friends honoring the dead might bury them: in an unpublicised place; a secret location; or in a grave with a false name -- or no name at all -- on the marker.

Walt Disney was cremated and the ashes buried in a secret location -- Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery -- one of many cemeteries that cater to the needs of famous dead people. Some burial sites at Forest Lawn, such as those of Humphrey Bogart and Mary Pickford, are secluded in private gated gardens, with no entry for the public. A number of tombs are also kept from the public eye. Forest Lawn's Court of Honour advertises that in some of the crypts beneath it are spots which no amount of money can buy, but individuals may be "voted in" as "Immortals." Out of respect for the privacy of the dead, no photographs taken at Forest Lawn are ever allowed to be published, and their information office usually refuses to say where famous people are buried.

Multiple bodies per grave

Some couples or groups of people want to be buried together, for example, a husband and wife. Since (in many cases) people die at different times, the exhumation of the first to die is often necessary. In other cases, the bodies may simply be buried side by side. Or if there was advanced planning the first person buried will be at a greater depth so that the second person can be buried on top at a shallower depth.

Mass burial is the practice of burying dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individuals in one massive pit, much like a landfill for human remains. Most cultures view mass burial as a way of objectifying corpses, and is often viewed as a form of gross disrespect to the individuals being buried. Civilizations attempting genocide often employ mass burial for the people they kill in the genocide, as it coincides neatly with their goals of dehumanizing and destroying a segment of the population.

However, in some cases, mass burial is the only practical means of dealing with a number of corpses sufficient to overwhelm local resources, as in a major disaster.

In cases of mass burial, it is commonly of importance to survivors to later have the bodies exhumed, identified, and buried properly.


In cremation the body of the deceased is burned in a special oven. Most of the body is vaporized during the cremation process, leaving only a few pounds of bone fragments. Often these fragments are processed (ground) into a fine powder, which has led to cremated remains being called ashes. In recent times, cremation has become an increasingly popular option in the western world.

There is far greater flexibility in dealing with the remains in cremation as opposed to the traditional burial. Some of the options include scattering the ashes on the ground or in a body of water, or keeping the ashes at home. Ashes can also be buried either underground or in a columbarium niche. For followers of some religions, such as Roman Catholicism, cremation is permitted but the ashes must be buried or entombed following services.

Live burial

Live burial sometimes occurs, in which individuals are buried while still alive. Having no way of escaping interment, they die in place, typically by asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation, or (in cold climates) exposure. People may come to be buried alive in a number of different ways:

  • An individual may be intentionally buried alive as a method of execution or murder.
  • In Ancient Egypt, servants were sometimes intentionally buried alive with their Pharaoh in order to serve him/her in the afterlife.
  • A person or group of people in a cave, mine, or other underground area may be sealed underground due to an earthquake or other natural disaster.
  • People have been unintentionally buried alive because they were pronounced dead by a coroner or other official, when they were in fact still alive. Scratch marks have been found on the inside of coffins, attesting to the fact that unintentional live burials do occasionally occur in cases where the body has not been embalmed.

Burial of animals

By humans

Missing image
Soldiers' dog cemetery at Edinburgh Castle

In addition to burying human remains, many human cultures also regularly bury animal remains. This is often necessary for hygienic reasons when the body cannot be disposed of in another way.

Pets and other animals of emotional significance are often ceremonially buried. Most families bury deceased pets on their own properties, mainly in a yard, with a shoe box or any other type of container served as a coffin. The Ancient Egyptians are known to have mummified and buried cats, which they considered deities.

By other animals

Humans are not the only species to bury their dead. Chimpanzees and elephants are known to throw leaves and branches over fallen members of their family groups.


The digging up of a buried body is called exhumation, and is considered sacrilege by most cultures that bury their dead. However, there is often a number of circumstances in which exhumation is tolerated:

  • If an individual died under suspicious circumstances, a legitimate investigating agency (such as a police agency) may exhume the body to determine the cause of death.
  • A body may be exhumed so that it may be reburied elsewhere.
  • Once human remains reach a certain age, many cultures consider the remains to have no communal provenance, making exhumation acceptable. This serves several purposes:
    • Many cemeteries have a limited number of plots in which to bury the dead. Once all plots are full, older remains are typically moved to an ossuary to accommodate more bodies.
    • It enables archaeologists to search for human remains in order to better understand human culture.
    • It enables construction agencies to clear the way for new infrastructure.

Frequently, cultures have different sets of exhumation taboos. Occasionally these differences result in conflict, especially in cases where a culture with more lenient exhumation rules wishes to operate on the territory of a stricter culture. For example, United States construction companies have run into conflict with Native American groups that wanted to preserve their ancient burial grounds from any form of modern construction.

In folklore and mythology, exhumation has also been frequently associated with the performance of rites to banish undead manifestations. An example is the Mercy Brown Vampire Incident of Rhode Island, which occurred in 1892.

Alternatives to burial

Missing image
Adashino Nembutsuji in Kyoto, Japan stands on a site where Japanese people once abandoned the bodies of the dead without burial.

Not all cultures bury their dead, and many of those that do bury their dead do not do so in all cases. Alternatives include:

  • Burial at sea is the practice of depositing the body in an ocean or other large body of water instead of soil.
  • Cannibalism is the practice of eating the remains.
  • Cremation is the incineration of the remains.
  • Cryopreservation is the cold storage of the remains.
  • Ecological funeral is a proposed method of increasing the rate of decomposition in order to help fertilize the soil.
  • Excarnation is the practice of removing the flesh from the corpse without interment.
    • Butchering the corpse by hand to remove the flesh.
    • Sky burial involves placing the body on a mountaintop.
    • Gibbeting is the practice of publicly displaying remains of criminals to deter others from becoming criminals.
  • Space burial is the practice of firing the coffin into space. The coffin may be placed into orbit, sent off into interstellar space, or incinerated in the sun. Space burial is still largely in the realm of science fiction as the cost of getting a body up into space is currently prohibitively large.
  • Hanging coffins are coffins which have been placed on cliffs. They can be found in various locations, including China and the Philippines.

In most cases, these alternatives still maintain respect for the dead. In fact, some of the more elaborate alternatives are employed by some cultures to show increased respect for the deceased. Gibbeting is a notable exception, showing a complete lack of respect.

See also

External links

it:Sepoltura he:קבורה sv:Begravning uk:Похорон


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