In the first two parts of this series, you were provided with a glimpse into ancient European funeral customs from Rome to the tip of Briton. In this third installation, we’ll take you across the world to the Americas, where you may be surprised to find many similarities in the ritual to honor and mourn a loved ones passing. Although there are typically some obvious differences in the perception of an afterlife, in the details of ceremony and ritual, you may discover that grief can be a universally profound impetus to display loss.
As with any warrior-based society, death shadowed over nearly every day interlaced with life and was a deity that was highly respected and played a strong role in Mayan religion. And given the fact that Mayan society was not entirely unified and prone to compete with neighboring Mayan cities, there are likely to be some dissimilarities among the people as a whole.
Among the Yucatec, the Franciscan Priest Diego de Landa gave an account of a how a husband or wife would undergo a period of fasting while mourning for their departed spouse. A gruel made from maize was put into the mouth of the dead, who was then shrouded and entombed in the floor of the house, which, at that point, was abandoned.
Death, according to the Mayan, was often a journey towards rebirth. That is, unless you were evil. For those who had committed unforgivable acts, they might spend an eternity in the underworld known as Xibalba. But, if you died by sacrifice, during childbirth or in battle, you went directly to the over world, or heaven and there was no need for rebirth.
If, however, you had lived honorably, or your death was an undramatic occurrence, you would require a stone bead or jade placed in your mouth to symbolize the heart. If possible, this bead was held near the lips of the dying in order to capture their last breath. This ritual has often been mistaken for the European custom of placing coins in either the mouth or the eyes of the dead as payment to the ferryman who took the dead into the underworld.
Finding one’s way in the spirit world could sometimes be a difficult journey that could result in becoming lost or failing the many tests that awaited them in the underworld. There have been many whistles carved into the shapes of animals and deities unearthed during archeological digs.
In Mayan culture, jade signified life and fertility. Therefore, it would make sense that death masks made of jade would be used in the funeral rite. Kings and other high-ranking citizens were given beautifully constructed death masks to help ensure that they would be recognized in the afterlife. The Mayan also considered the color red to be symbolic of death and rebirth and would cover skeletal remains and graves with the mineral cinnabar.
For many generations, cremation was not a common practice until the post-Classic period which was 900 CE- 1521 CE. But before that time, caves were sometimes used as burial sites, thought to be the entrances to the underworld. This belief was held by many cultures around the world throughout nearly every period of time.
One of the most famous and cross-cultural practices that the Mayans were known for were their pyramids, which have been found all through Central America. Reserved for kings and priests, the Mayan pyramids served as vehicles for the elite to help ease their journey through the afterlife. Their tombs were located at the structure’s base that often consisted of nine steps that symbolized the phases of the underworld. Often, attendants and members of the royal family were sacrificed to these elite few to ensure their journey would not be lonely or overburdened, a fitting end to ancient royalty.
Filed under: History of Funerals on February 28th, 2011