Full Moon

Atlas of Death & Dying: 5 Cultures Throughout History

What I’m trying to say is that conversations about death are really, really important.

Last year, when my grandfather died, all I wanted to do was talk about it. How sudden and unexpected his death was, that he didn’t see it coming, but felt prepared nonetheless, how he would have enjoyed the funeral because it was, more than anything, a damn good party. A few weeks before I got the call, he was trying to get my boyfriend drunk over Easter lunch and start a political debate. Life, death and all of its juiciness. 

Now my grandfather was dead and nobody seemed comfortable with me even mentioning it. I could feel the temperature in the room drop several degrees whenever I brought up my loss in conversation. It felt as if everyone but me had agreed not to open this particular can of worms and here I was, at their party, with a can opener. 

But my grandfather had always been direct and full of life, almost allergic to beating around the bush. He spent most of his life working as a prosecutor in a small Romanian town and battling a dictatorial regime that landed many of his friends in jail. He would have talked about it and keeping quiet felt like giving him the finger from beyond the grave.

What I’m trying to say is that conversations about death are really, really important. Language allows us to take detours — “departed”, “the late great”, “pushing up daisies” — and pretend it doesn’t exist, that we’re immortal. But death is a part of the human experience, just as natural as birth and hangovers, and it’s time we talked about it without lapsing into folk wisdom and aphorisms. 

So, to start our honest conversation about the dreaded D-word (get your mind out of the gutter), I’ve researched and put together a little Atlas of Death. Let’s flip through it and learn about some death practices throughout history and across time and culture, from our Neanderthal ancestors to present-day Romania. Strap in and enjoy!

1. Zoroastrian Towers of Silence

Credit: https://uknowledge.uky.edu/world_yosa_semple/8/

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions, with documented roots dating all the way back to the 5th century BCE. It started in the ancient Persian Empire and is based on the teachings of spiritual leader Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). Nowadays, there are only 100,000 to 200,000 practitioners left worldwide, most of them in India and Iran.

Zoroastrianism has the unique distinction of being a heterodox yet orthopraxic faith. This means that, while there is no universal consensus among worshippers as to correct beliefs, there are a set of rituals and practices followed by all, still to this day.

Maybe one of the strangest, to the Western eye, is that of the Towers of Silence, still alive and well in Parsi communities around Western India. Also known as Sky Burials, they are a way to dispose of dead bodies by placing them on an open-topped, circular platform to be picked at by vultures and other birds of prey over the course of a few weeks.

As the religion is dualistic, it makes a clear distinction between good and evil, truth and falsehood, pure and impure. When a person dies, their spirit leaves and the uninhabited body becomes home to impure spirits, contaminating everything it touches. So, practitioners go to great lengths to keep a dead body from coming into contact with anything, but especially with the four sacred elements: earth, air, fire and water. They have complex procedures in place during the funeral process to make sure it doesn’t touch anything.

The death rites start with washing and then wrapping the body in cloth to be taken to its final resting place under the open sky. Once there, it is laid out on one of 3 concentric rings which make up the inner part of the tower: the outermost one for males, the second for females and the innermost ring for the bodies of children. The rest is up to the vultures and other birds of prey, who swoop in and pick the bones clean, leaving them to be bleached by the sun and eventually swept into the central well of the Tower. 

This is done periodically, by pallbearers who represent a separate class in their communities. In an otherwise casteless society, the nusessalars, whose name translates to “caretakers of potential pollutants” form the only exception – a parallel to India’s untouchables. Only they are allowed to walk the narrow one-person corridors inside the Tower, carrying corpses in and later sweeping away their bones, and are considered unclean because of it.

Once upon a time, these Towers of Silence stood far from any cities. Nowadays, the relentless tide of urban sprawl washes over them, leaving them stranded on large swaths of private land, smack in the middle of high-class residential areas. This is the case in Mumbai’s Malabar Hill neighbourhood, where the protected, Parsi-only area sits in the middle of one of the world’s most expensive highrise developments.

If you’re curious and would like to visit a Tower of Silence for yourself, those still in use in places like Mumbai and Hyderabad are off-limits to non-Zoroastrians. However, if you get the chance, you can and should visit the towers in Iazd, which are no longer in use (Iran outlawed the practice in the 1970s), but will offer you a great glimpse into history. Also, apparently the sunsets over there are to die for.

2. The Chinese Death Houses of Sago Lane

Funeral on Sago Lane
Credit: Mr Yip Cheong-Fun http://www.yipcheongfun.com/

In Singapore’s Chinatown, there is a street called Sago Lane, where, during the first part of the 20th century, poor and middle class Chinese immigrants would come to die. Dying at home was a costly and complicated affair, which only the very rich could afford. According to superstition, a death “contaminated “ the house with evil spirits and brought bad luck to its remaining occupants. To exorcise it, the family had to burn an offering of valuable items, including joss sticks and piles of paper money. By the time they recovered from the cost of one exorcism, another relative would die and the ordeal started all over again.

The death houses on Sago Lane overflowed with people who couldn’t afford this process or simply had no one to care for them in their last days. Chinese migration into Singapore had decreased a lot since the start of the Communist regime and earlier generations of migrants were growing old poor and far away from home. One example of this are the Samsui women, who came to Singapore between the 1920s-1940s looking for industrial and construction work. Many of them never managed to return to their home provinces and ended up dying in the sick-receiving houses on Sago Lane.

At its height in the 1950s, the street was home to 7 such businesses catering to every step of the dying process. The bottom level shops sold coffins and funeral paraphernalia – joss sticks, paper effigies – while on the second storey, the terminally ill and dying stretched out on hard beds supported by little stools at each end. The rooms were dormitory-style, one for men and one for women and offered little in terms of privacy or comfort. Still, it was preferable to dying alone. 

Though they couldn’t provide any medical treatment, a doctor came in every day to check on guests and employees worked round the clock to make them as comfortable as possible. If a deceased didn’t have any family present, the staff made sure to pray for their soul and make offerings at the funeral to secure its safe passage.

When a guest’s relatives did come, however, the whole family all but moved into the place for days leading up to the funeral. They would eat, sleep and entertain guests on Sago Lane, throwing dinner parties in the street to show their loved one that they hadn’t been forgotten. The richer the family, the more elaborate the table spreads and festivities, sometimes extending well into the street with nightly music and dancing.

The process culminated in a noisy and colourful funeral, where relatives, friends, staff and Taoist monks all spilled out into the street. Most processions had a brass band and mourners, but some of the more lavish ones went all out with flowers, deafening gongs and stilt-walkers to accompany the coffin and turn the event into a defiant celebration of life. 

3. Professional Funeral Wailers

Traditional Romanian funeral
Credit: https://www.catchy.ro/

Loud, dramatic and full of family, friends and strangers alike. That’s what a traditional Romanian funeral looks like. 

Now a dwindling tradition, professional funeral mourning used to be an integral part of the grieving process, especially in small towns and villages. They were usually a group of older women who showed up to every funeral in their community–invited or not–to wail, sing and tear their clothes and hair in a sincere display of grief which, according to Eastern Orthodox superstition, helped the soul advance on its way to Heaven.

Aside from the esoteric benefits, it’s easy to see how loud, open mourning could help a family recover from loss. It brings communities closer together when they most need it and as anyone who’s ever had a good, earth-shattering cry can attest, the catharsis is real. And this, for many grieving loved ones, can feel like the first step towards healing. 

But the Orthodox Church has a bone to pick with the “un-Christian” practice, in a country where the number of believers continues to rise. Between 2005 and 2012, this figure went from 85% to 89%, with over 86% percent identifying as Orthodox. Many priests argue that it does the families more harm than good by going against the approved narrative of hope beyond death. They work hard, they say, to convince the bereaved that their loss fits into a greater plan and the wailers undo all that hard work with their loud, rousing crying.  

But the last representatives of this dying profession (all puns intended) plan to keep it up for as long as possible. Last time VICE checked in on them, they scoffed at the Church’s censorship: “Imagine not singing to our dead just because that’s what the priest wants!” Read the whole article in English here.

This tradition isn’t going anywhere without a fight. And it’ll be a loud one.

4. Neanderthal Burial Rites

Neanderthal remains
Credit: The Natural History Museum, London/Alamy via https://www.britannica.com/

Recent interpretations of archaeological discoveries are dispelling, bit by fascinating bit, the antiquated notion that Neanderthals were savage brutes with no capacity for human emotion or empathy.

One of the most complete sets of early hominid remains ever found is the 50,000 – 70,000 year-old skeleton of a male Neanderthal, unearthed in 1909 in Dordogne, France, on an excavation site called La Ferrassie. He died when he was between 40 – 55 years old and was placed in what looked like a burial pit, intentionally dug to serve as a grave. His bones didn’t bear any of the telltale signs of exposure to the elements or predator interference and the arrangement in which they were found suggests he was buried in the fetal position.

Once scientists started examining the skeleton, even more fascinating details came to light. LF1, named for the site where he’d been found, had sustained several injuries during his lifetime which would have taken a long time to recover from and possibly left him with some level of disability. He’d suffered a broken clavicle sometime in his childhood and later a femur fracture, both of which were healed, but not quite right. In his older age, LF1 developed what looks like osteoarthritis and would have surely needed help to get around. 

Once scientists started entertaining the possibility that daily Neanderthal wasn’t as brutal as originally thought, more clues began popping up. Starting in the 1950s, at least 10 Neanderthal skeletons have been discovered in Shanidar cave, in the Zagros Mountains of Northern Iraq. Secreted away at the very back of the cave, all the remains belong to slightly different sediment layers and time periods, indicating that the cave could have been used as a dedicated burial place by nearby tribes over several generations. 

One of the skeletons in particular, that of a male, showed signs of so many injuries that there was no way he could have survived without round-the-clock help. He’d lost his right forearm to amputation, had suffered a serious blow to the face and was almost completely deaf. Losing his hearing translated into a poor awareness of his surroundings and this would have meant certain death in the Pleistocene era. He would have needed friends to act as his ears and help protect him from threats he could not fight himself, such as predators and neighbouring tribes. 

These findings should put to rest any remaining doubts about the Neanderthals’ capability for meaningful rapport and empathy. Rather than mere hunting party alliances, these tribes were communities, where the sick and elderly were cared for and the dead often received a respectful burial. 

5. Aztec Ritual Sacrifices

Ritual sacrifice, stylised
Credit: https://www.historydigger.com/

The Aztec, or Mexica, civilisation flourished in central Mexico between the late 13th and mid-15th centuries, until the area’s conquest and subsequent colonisation by the Spanish Empire. Their customs spread all over the Mexican peninsula as part of the wider Mesoamerican culture, but here, I’m going to be talking mainly about the culture in the capital, Tenochtitlan — and their well-documented penchant for human sacrifice.

The Aztecs believed that their gods had sacrificed themselves for mankind and it was their duty to return the favour. Every aspect of their lives–from crops to military success–relied on some deity’s strength and benevolence, which could be ensured through ritual celebration and bloodshed. Society operated in cycles of 52 years, with a year lasting 18 months, each made up of 20 days. At the end of every month, a series of feasts and sacrifices would be performed according to the cult of a certain deity.

Let’s go through some of the main Aztec gods, their month and the method of sacrifice employed in their festivities.

Huitzilopochtli was the national deity of the Mexica and the god of warfare. He was often associated with the sun at its zenith and wielded Xiuhcoatl, a fire-breathing serpent, in battle. Sacrifices to him happened year-round, about every 4 months. Victims were painted blue from head to toe and dressed in a costume similar to what Huitzlipochtli wore in traditional depictions before being led to a sacrificial stone. Using a special obsidian blade reserved for religious rituals, the priest would cut open the victim’s abdomen, pull their still-beating heart out and raise it to the sky, as it was believed to contain a part of the Sun’s heat, which needed to be freed and returned once the body was done with it.  

Huitzilopochtli’s counterpart was Tezcatlipoca, the god of the north, associated with the Aztec land of the dead, Mictlan, sorcery, destiny and the night. This was as close to an omnipotent deity as the Aztecs had. Tezcatlipoca had the power to heal disease and reverse one’s immutable fate, but he was notoriously capricious and much more likely to wreak havoc instead, for the fun of it. A deity like him required a hefty offering.

Each year, a young man was chosen as the god’s living incarnation, and got to live a life of luxury, surrounded by courtesans and worshipped wherever he went. He walked the streets playing a flute and people would bow down to kiss the ground beneath him. This went on for a whole year, until the month of Toxcatl (roughly April 23rd to May 12th in our calendar) when Tezcatlipoca was celebrated. On the day of the sacrifice, there would be a feast in the god’s honour. Then, the young man would climb to the top of the temple, break his flute and have his heart cut out of his chest by the priests.

Huehueteotl and Xiuhtecuhtli were both gods of fire and heat and represented two separate aspects of the same deity. They were celebrated together with 10 days of feasting and celebration during the festival of Izcalli, at the end of which a large number of captives would be sacrificed by burning.

Xiuhtecuhtli was also a vital part of the New Fire Ceremony, which happened every 52 years, at the end of an Aztec century. A man would be sacrificed at the top of the volcano Huixachtlan, his heart cut out and his chest used to build a makeshift hearth, which then lit ceremonial fires in temples across the capital. 

And Tlaloc. I’ve saved the worst for last, so if you’re still reading, congratulations! Tlaloc was celebrated by the Aztecs as god of water, rain and earth fertility. He was mainly celebrated during the first 6 months of the year, until the rains began in earnest, through ritual sacrifice of children. More specifically, crying children. Many of the skeletons found had signs of horrific injury, inflicted before death, which means that the priests went to great lengths to give the rain god his desired offering of young tears. 

Though it was initially thought that the Aztecs only sacrificed lower-class citizens and war captives, it turns out they may have been much more egalitarian in that regard. In fact, many of the men, women and children sacrificed probably came from affluence, personally vetted by Tenochtitlan’s nobility. It was a great honour to be offered to the gods and people embraced the experience, even though it would be their last. 

What’s more, sacrificial remains, such as preserved skin, skulls and other body parts were considered prized religious relics. According to Diego Duran in his 16th century text, The History of the Indies of New Spain, whenever a warrior put on the skin of someone who had been flayed in the gods’ honour, they themselves felt godly. 

These death practices from around the world may seem far removed from what we consider civilized today, but they’re windows into lives and cultures just as organised and regulated as ours. Death has been around for as long as time itself and these stories offer us a glimpse into how we used to approach it. Next time you want to open up this conversation with your friends or family, you’ll be a bit better prepared.

Do you have a favourite story of these, that you’d like me to explore in more depth? Or a different death topic I should write about? Let me know and I’ll do some digging!

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