Cryonics — Suspending The Inevitable?

CyronicsNearly everyone has a fear of death, but there are some who refuse to accept its grip pulling them from the living world. There reasoning can range from beliefs in punishment in the afterlife for bad behavior, unfinished business, or simply a zest for being alive. Sometimes, atheists who feel that the time they have is all there is, may be reluctant to leave the world when their life ends. And then, there are those who suffer from illness or disease that modern medicine cannot resolve.

But, can anyone truly cheat death? Some people seem to think so. With hope for extending their existence on the planet, they turn to a highly controversial science called Cryonics. Many people may be familiar with the term only from the sensationalized headlines reporting on Walt Disney’s supposed freezing, which have been found to be untrue. But what, exactly is cryonics? Does the process begin before or after death? Let us have a look.

Simply put, cryonics is the low-temperature suspension of decomposition in human beings or animals immediately after death, with the hope of reviving the patient sometime in the future when medical technology will allow resuscitation and treatment of their terminal illness. Currently, there are about 200 people who have undergone the procedure and are presumably waiting for their future.

The theory in this field, holds that the human personality is maintained within the cells of the brain and can survive despite the absence of brain activity, superseding clinical death. Therefore, even if certain organs are no retrievable, the essence of the patient remains intact.

The practice of cryonic suspension has resulted in a myriad of moral, ethical and religious debates. In some religious traditions, such as Buddhist, the body must be allowed to return to earth to complete the cycle of life. If this is not allowed to happen, the deceased could suffer a spiritual stagnation on their journey after death. In Jewish burial practices, the body is not to be disturbed by embalming or the removal of organs and must be buried as soon as possible.

There also follows the dilemma of not allowing the opportunity for a public ceremony with the deceased, for loved-ones to express their grief and be given the chance to have one last goodbye and to begin the process of acceptance and healing. Many people have difficulty with letting go and can find it nearly impossible to do so without seeing physical proof that their loved-one has actually passed away. Imagine the strain of never having closure if someone you cared deeply for had passed, yet their body remained suspended, waiting for re-animation. Are they really dead? What if you should fall in love with someone new? Would you consider it cheating and feel guilt for it?

And then, there is the scientific debate over the merits of cryonics, mainly, can it even work? As of yet, there is no scientific proof that it does. No one has ever been resurrected from their frozen state. For many people in the medical and scientific world, cryonics is nothing more than theory at best. The scientific method based upon tests and proof and tests once more. It is understandable why the view on cryonics is less than positive.

Yet, science can often begin with an idea that, at first, may seems ludicrous to many. Given the fact that the human brain is not entirely understood, no one really knows what would happen to it, if it were to be re-awakened after death. The possibility of life is enough for some to pursue any chance for its extension no matter how far they must stretch.

Real Lives of The Un-Dead

VampiresFrom the first time people sat around a campfire and scared each other with ghost stories and other tales of the supernatural, many have wondered if there was a grain of truth to the tales. More often than not, stories are simply stories, a means of entertainment, cautionary tales of morality or a way to keep children from straying too far. But, sometimes, there is a basis of fact in the tales and superstitions passed down for generations.


For centuries, the physical manifestations of good and evil existed nearly everywhere. Nearly every culture has made reference to some form of a spiritual parasite that can drain the life-force from the living. In Christian traditions, the Devil could appear in many forms and could very well meet you on the road to steal away your soul. And if not the Devil, then one of his servants, one of which was the vampire.

One would do well to keep in mind that many people have a fear of the unknown, and quite often, an overwhelming fear of death, worrying over what might be waiting for them in the afterlife. Even worse, what might have crept out from the underworld, waiting in the shadows. Given the lack of understanding about the process of decomposition until modern science and medicine explained it over the last 100 years or so, it’s not surprising that misunderstandings of the human body fueled superstitions and beliefs.

Add to that, the ignorance of medical conditions such as acute catalepsy, in which the sufferer’s respiration and heart rate become extremely faint and their muscles become so rigid that they are mistaken for a corpse. Imagine, if you were to witness an apparent death, only to see what you thought was a corpse, rise up and speak. Compound this sight with a belief that evil walks the earth in physical form, equipped with supernatural power with the intent of causing great harm, ready to take your very soul. How would you react?

There were quite a number of ways in which the dead became the undead, but the similarities of identifying the demonic were usually but a few. One of the signs was that, if a suspected vampire’s grave was opened and the corpse had blood dripping out of its mouth, it was proof that the thing had recently fed. What the people of that time did not understand was that bodily fluids are pushed out through the orifices during decomposition.

Another “sign” of a vampire was that their eyes remained open wide, bulging in some instances. Since the eyes are one of the first things to undergo the process of rigor mortis, it’s easy to understand the mistaken belief that the dead aren’t quite dead, especially when the body’ gasses create pressure that cause the eyes to bulge. This trait of the vampire led to the conclusion that it had hypnotic power over its victims, which could clearly become romanticized as seduction in literature and film.

One of the most signature features of recognizing a vampire is by the presence of fangs. These are the tools of their trade, as legend tells us, what they use to feast on the living or turn someone else into a member of the undead. In reality, the protuberance of teeth was due, once again, to decomposition and rigor mortis if the deceased had died in pain or surprise, leaving a grimace on their face. Because of the belief held at that time, was that the body would remain flexible if uncorrupted by evil, a rigid snarl was a sure sign of vampirism.

Read Part Two

Death Personified Part II

CrowsIn many traditions all over the world, death is viewed as a transition from one existence to another. Life co-existed with death, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. To lose a part of one’s self was necessary to allow a place for new growth to begin. Discarding what was no longer needed, often had a concrete basis in the everyday lives of villagers working the fields, enduring the hardships of storms, diseased livestock and loss of crops. There was little room for being sentimental.

The Morrigan

As a result, in part, sometimes a deity was assigned the dual role of presiding over both life and death since the two were so interconnected. Life must fill the vacancy of death and death must come to claim life that requires transformation. In Celtic mythology, this dual role was given to the goddess known as The Morrigan.

Presiding in the underworld, as with in most other traditions of afterlife deities, she could appear as either a young woman, a mother figure, a hag or in the form of an animal, usually a crow. As the legend tells us, if you were to encounter her in the form of a hag, washing blood from your clothes or armor in a ford, you were certain to die soon. There was a long-standing tradition of washer women, or “bean nighe,” who were portents of death from the Underworld, seen washing the grave clothes of the soon-to-be departed.

The Morrigan was often referred to as a triple-goddess, or maiden, mother, crone, encompassing the entire life-cycle of a living existence. And having the duty as soul keepers of the dead, she held the responsibility to offer spiritual guidance and to escort and the deceased towards rebirth. This function clearly shows the regenerative aspect of The Morrigan, an aspect that is often repeated throughout other ancient traditions all over the world.

Warriors were typically prepared to sacrificed their lives in order to preserve their lands and the well-being of their loved-ones and quite often, a romanticized view was taken of death. It was thought that they would be met by a goddess, god or other type of deity to escort them to the afterlife and to reward. This was not so true with The Morrigan’s function. Her primary role on the battlefield was to select who would live and who would die, by rousing either a warrior’s courage or fear, often a deciding factor of battle.

Cu Chulainn was an especially famous Celtic warrior hero, linked in legend with The Morrigan and often times, his story is interpreted as a tale or morality. Essentially, he spurned her advances with such disrespect and arrogance, that The Morrigan took action to see him come to his death, by conspiring with Cu Chulainn’s enemies. Although a great warrior, on a level with Achiles, he seals his fate for an upcoming battle when he is tricked by The Morrigan into breaking a taboo against eating a certain type of meat, which would result in a spiritual weakening.

During the battle, Cu Chulainn is struck with a magic spear, causing a mortal wound. But before he dies, he ties himself to a large stone so that he will meet death standing up. Because he was such a ferocious warrior, his enemies would not believe him to be dead until a crow landed upon his shoulder and began to pluck out his eyes. As was mentioned before, The Morrigan was often seen in the form of a crow, a well-known symbol of death throughout the world.

Perhaps the triple-goddess got her way after all.

Animals As Portents Of Death

CeberusHumans have had a close association with the natural world to some degree, despite the number of walls built, concrete poured or lights lit to keep the wild where many think it should be in check. But despite how civilized the world may appear, there can be many reminders that our fate is not always in our control.

In nearly every tradition around the world, animals have often been seen as symbols as a bridge from world of the dead. Sometimes, their physical appearance or behavior in the wild could be reason enough for the association with death. But, with others, the roots of their origins as harbingers have become as lost as the undergrowth of a dark woods.

Black Dog

For centuries, English folklore has told of a creature typically seen at night along a deserted road or bridge, red eyes glaring from an enormous canine head, blacker than shadows. If you were foolish enough to pass by the beast, you were certain to die. However, avoiding a black dog did not always guarantee life. Black dogs were often associated with the devil and sinners had much to fear about the underworld.

The origins of this myth could have sprung from the pool of Greek and Roman traditions that spoke of Ceberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Hades. Given the influence Rome left upon Briton during and after the invasions, it would stand to reason that more than Roman roads and fortifications were left imprinted into Celtic soil.

But then, canines have often become symbols of death, in a variety of ancient traditions, such as with the jackal-headed god Anubis. Perhaps due to their habits of scavenging to survive by lurking cemeteries for fresh graves, battle sites and field hospitals, they have been linked with death and dying.

Crows And Ravens

This is but one more animal that, as a result of often being found scavenging the dead, has worked its way into our fear of death and ultimately, into our mythology. Nearly everyone is familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” who torments the narrator with portents of unending gloom:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!
~~Edgar Allan Poe

The color black has also come to represent death in many ways in many traditions, symbolizing the unknown, the decay of flesh and the opposite of illumination and light. It may be no wonder that crows and ravens fill the role of being omens of our end quite naturally.

For the ancient Romans, to hear an owl’s hoot meant that death was certain to be close. Even Julius Caesar was not immune from mortality, as his death was thought to have been predicted by an owl. Hopefully, for the offending owl, it did not fall to the custom of being killed and nailed to Caesar’s door as a talisman against death.

Some Native American tribes, held the belief that owls were messengers of a family member’s sickness or even their demise, while others saw them as living creatures that held the spirits of the departed, requiring respect and observance. Other people, like the Hopi, l saw the owl as a living god of the dead. There were likely as many variations of the owl’s myth as there were tribes, but typically, the agreement was that the owl was a creature to be listened to, that it talked of transition from life to death with the silence of its wings.

Death Personified Part I

KaliKali, Hades, Anubis — all well-known figures of mythology that are associated with the process of death and the transition to the afterlife. Throughout history, death has been symbolized in some kind of physical image, often to help us understand mortality, to find comfort in it as a natural part of existence. For many people, the fear of death can often be replaced with great spiritual importance instilled in the belief of guidance from deities whose duty it is to meet them at their last breath and ensure safe passage to the afterlife.

Oho! Oho! Rise up, O Teti!
Take your head, collect your bones,
Gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh!
Take your bread that rots not, your beer that sours not,
Stand at the gates that bar the common people!
The gatekeeper comes out to you, he grasps your hand,
Takes you into heaven, to your father Geb.
He rejoices at your coming, gives you his hands,
Kisses you, caresses you,
Sets you before the spirits, the imperishable stars…
The hidden ones worship you,
The great ones surround you,
The watchers wait on you,
Barley is threshed for you,
Emmer is reaped for you,
Your monthly feasts are made with it,
Your half-month feasts are made with it,
As ordered done for you by Geb, your father,<
Rise up, O Teti, you shall not die!

(excerpt from Teti I’s pyramid)


As civilizations evolve and change, so do the names and functions of their goddesses, gods and other deities. The ancient Egyptians were no exception. The Old Kingdom pyramid texts, the oldest known religious texts in the world, offer the first mention of Anubis –- god of mummification, cemeteries and guide of the dead into the afterlife. He kept his image as a jackal-headed god until he was replaced by Osiris, a more human-like figure, during the Middle Kingdom.

Jackals, being scavengers, were naturally often seen near cemeteries. This could help to explain why their image came to represent the face of Anubis and the Egyptian’s idea of death, while the black soil of the Nile Valley, rich with nutrients, represented rebirth and therefore, the color of the god’s head. There is often a concrete basis in the natural world for the origins and threads of many deities, something that the average person can relate to through the course of daily living. But, some roles of an underworld goddess or god cannot typically be seen in ordinary existence.

Tuat/Duat, the Egyptian underworld, was a dangerous place, dark and easy to become lost in. The dead required guidance. The Book of Coming Forth by Day, was a text helpful with that journey. However, it was the job of Anubis to ferry the dead and to empower them with magic to avoid harm during other phases of the journey.

Anubis was also given the duty to measure the weight of the hearts of the dead, a judgment that decided the fate of the deceased. He placed the heart upon a scale to be measured against an ostrich feather, representing Ma’at, goddess of truth and justice. If the heart was equal to the weight of the feather, the soul was granted permission to continue on it’s journey into the realm of paradise and towards rebirth. But, if the heart was shown to be lighter or heavier, it was eaten by The Devourer Of Souls and the deceased was not allowed to continue on their journey, forced to remain a restless spirit for eternity. Obviously, the life one chose, followed over into death, a point well made in the imagery and symbols of ancient Egypt.

Funeral Rites Of Ancient Times Part V

Tapa clothAs you have looked into the history of funeral rites in this series, you may have come to the understanding that the treatment of death by various peoples from all around the world can be linked to the basic feeling of grief over the loss of a loved one. Although there may be some differences in the details of rituals, customs and views of death and the afterlife, great care is typically given to the deceased out of respect and love and to ensure safe passage to the next existence beyond the physical world.


Although the influence of European missionaries has altered the ancient customs of Hawaii, the practices of old ways still exists in some places today. Many of the funeral rituals have been preserved in part, due to the strong belief that the spirits of the departed remain to watch over the living. This thread that connects the present to the past, life to the afterlife, can be a balm to ease the loss of loved ones and important authority figures.

The bones of the deceased were considered to be powerful, full of life energy and useful as protection against injury or harm to whoever possessed them, usually a relative. The skull, leg and sometimes the arm bones were believed to hold the most power, or manna.

Caves were commonly used as a place of entombment for men, women and children, however secret caves were reserved for the nobility, guarded by the family retainer. Sometimes, the body would be laid out flat, but more often, the knees were drawn up towards the chest. Then, a rope was tied around the legs, wrapped around the neck and pulled tight in order to create a more rounded shape. A beautiful layer of Tapa cloth was then used to cover the remains.

Sand dunes were often the burial place of warriors who had died in battle, although the skeletal remains of women and children have also been found in dunes, causing some debate and speculation among scholars. The sea was also another place of interment, used primarily for the bodies of fishermen who were eaten by sharks and then thought to inhabit their bodies to offer protection for living fishermen. Shark attacks were a common hazard for those whose lives were spent at sea and any assistance that could be granted from ancestors was sought out.

The Hale o Keawa Temple, otherwise known as The Place Of Refuge, was a depository for the bones of kings, who were believed to become deities after death. By 1829, the sets of 29 bones had been placed there, accounting for generations of rulers who overlooked their people and history.


From the Journal of William Ellis
, 1825

We were desirous of witnessing the interment of the person who died last night, but were disappointed; it was, as most of their funerals are, performed in secret. A few particulars, relative to their mode of burying, we have been able to gather from the people of this place and other parts of the island. The bones of the legs and arms, and sometimes the skull, of their kings and principal chiefs, those who were supposed to have descended from the gods, or were to be deified, were usually preserved, as already noticed. The other parts of the body were burnt or buried, while these bones were either bound up with cinet, wrapped in cloth, and deposited in temples for adoration, or distributed among the immediate relatives, who, during their lives, always carried them wherever they went. This was the case with the bones of Tamehameha; and it is probable that some of his bones were brought by his son Rihoriho on his recent visit to England, as they supposed that so long as the bones of the deceased were revered, his spirit would accompany them, and exercise a super natural guardianship over them. They did not wash the bodies of the dead, as was the practice with some of the South Sea Islanders. The bodies of priests, and chiefs of inferior rank, were laid out straight, wrapped in many folds of native tapa, and buried in that posture; the priests generally within the precincts of the temple in which they had officiated.

Death and Photography

PhotographsMemento mori — translated from Latin means “remember your mortality.” For many people, it can be difficult to accept this inevitability, or even keep the thought of it present as they drive through traffic, walk across a dark parking lot or have that serving of deep-fried heart attack at the county fair. However, some do wish to remember the mortality of loved ones, and want to keep a small token from death such as a lock of hair, a facial casting from wax or plaster or even a photograph.

With the invention of the first photographic image by Joseph Niepce in 1814, an entire new art form and a world of possibilities was begun. And when the first human image was made public, the world of portrait artists was changed forever. People no longer were required to sit for hours to have their portraits done, nor pay large sums of money. Anyone could have their image preserved for a small fee that took only a few minutes of posing. Naturally, the popularity of photographic portraiture grew on a large scale and the demand was high for skilled camera operators. As photographic technology advanced, so did the ease of transporting equipment to a wide variety of locations, one of which was the funeral home.

In the late 19th century, life expectancy for males was 42.5 years old. For women, it was only slightly higher at 44.5 — if they survived childbirth. The infant mortality rate was 48.3. These statistics point to a bleak expectation for children to grow into adulthood. And even if they did survive, life was still comparatively short by 21st century standards. As a consequence, there was an unfortunate amount of circumstance that gave cause for people to say goodbye their loved ones.

During the Victorian era, postmortem photographs were at the height of their popularity. They had become well-integrated into North American funeral rites. It became quite common for people to memorialize their loved ones by displaying their death images at home, or worn in lockets. Sometimes, copies of these images were made and sent to relatives as a way of including those who could not be present for funerals.

Often, the deceased were posed to appear lifelike, such as holding an object of some meaning to them, or even standing upright with the help of specially constructed frames. Occasionally, an elaborate set or background was constructed that might include flowers, chairs, pets and family members, who sometimes would pose with the deceased as if they were still alive, occasionally applying blush to their cheeks and opening their eyes. Some mourners went so far as to paint pupils on on the photograph if the eyes could not be kept open.

For some families, this custom of memorializing their loved ones provided an unfortunate opportunity to create the only photographs of the deceased. It appears that their motivation to pose the deceased was simply out of respect and to preserve some aspect of their personality.

Shortly after the end of the Edwardian Era, which lasted from 1901-1910, the practice of post-mortem photography hit its peak. Photographic technology had begun to take another leap and soon after, so-called snapshot photography became a more commonly used means of image making. Shortly thereafter, a sharp decline in the popularity of memento mori imagery took hold in popular funeral customs. However, that’s not to say that it has been entirely removed from practice.

Although greatly diminished, there still is a small demand in modern times for the skills of sensitive photographers. Some funeral homes do incorporate the practice of photographic memorials in their services at the families’ request. Perhaps this rite shows that there is still a need, even in the 21st century, to preserve the image of our loved ones, safekeeping for a failing memory.

Funeral Rites Of Ancient Times Part IV

Oseberg shipWhen it comes to the idea of death in modern times, many people seem to fall into one of two schools of thought: death is either feared and therefore avoided; or, it is greatly romanticized and observed with much bluster. Rarely does anyone seem to be able to accept the end of life as a part of existence and meet death head on, let alone with great fanfare.

The Vikings

With little doubt, the Vikings could sometimes die the same way that they lived — violently and with abandon. In turn, their funerals could also mirror both circumstances. Nearly everyone is familiar with the tradition of a fallen Viking being cast to the sea in the funeral pyre of a burning ship. And although this story is true, it not the only truth of how the dead were laid to rest.

To help clarify things, let us look at what exactly the term Viking means. It may be more accurate to label a Viking as being a Norse warrior, signifying what part of the world they originated from. Although the exact definition of Viking has been somewhat debated, in essence it can be appropriate to say that these people were much like pirates who conducted coastal and inland raids that extended from the British Isles to the Black Sea. Most often, their victims were chosen because of their lack of defense and rich plunder, many of which were churches.

Viking Funeral Prayer

Lo, there do I see my father.

Lo, there do I see my mother.

Lo, there do I see my sisters

and my brothers.

I see the line of my people

back to the beginning.
They do call to me to take my place

in the halls of Valhalla

where the brave may live forever.

This prayer was translated from an original text thought to be nearly 1,000 years old. As some people may already know, Valhalla is a reference to the afterlife for those who died in combat, obviously of great importance to the warrior class. Led by Valkyries who had chosen which warriors were to die, the fallen were taken to the hall of the slain to await the battle of Ragnarok, a great cleansing battle that would result in only two human survivors. The last two were to repopulate the earth.

It was of great importance for a warrior to take weapons with him into the afterlife for this ferocious battle. This included a double-edged sword, spear, or axe. But he would also need food, beer or mead for his long journey as well. Thunderstones, fist-sized stones that were shaped like hammerheads, have also been found during grave excavations. These were talisman’s thought to protect the bearer against lightening strikes.

Another Viking burial practice was to inter the deceased aboard a ship and then bury both beneath a great mound of earth. The most spectacular archeological discovery of one of these mounds resulted in the Oseberg ship. Surprisingly to some, the two skeletal remains found in the ship were both women, one of which appeared to be of very high status, possibly a queen or high priestess judging from her clothes. The other is thought to have been a servant of some kind. It was often the practice in Viking culture to sacrifice slaves to accompany high standing warriors, kings and other members of the elite class. It was also of importance to bury or cremate the deceased as quickly as possible to continue in death as he had done in life, thus avoiding becoming homeless.

Grieving for Animals: Is it Less Real?

CatM. Scott Peck argues, inThe Road Less Traveled, that because the true meaning of love is deep caring about the spiritual growth of another person, we can’t actually love animals, because animals do not grow spiritually. He has a word for what we do to animals, instead of loving them: we “cathect” them, in other words we invest emotional energy in them, which implies that it is more or less a one-way street.

It is possible to cathect a person, but in that situation the person probably doesn’t cathect in return; even if the person does, what is at stake in not the spiritual growth of either the subject or the object of the cathecting. It is also possible to cathect an object or idea, which would bring that object or idea, an inanimate thing, to life for us. Presumably, then, when our animals, or specifically our pets die, we don’t grieve in the same way we would over the loss of a beloved human being.

There is a let-down when something we have invested emotional energy in is no longer available — not much more than that. I have instinctively disagreed with M. Scott Peck for decades, now I will attempt to argue that a) we do love our pets, and that b) our grieving for them, while it may be in most cases quantitatively different from our grieving for the human animals we have lost, is not qualitatively different.

It will be difficult to show that dogs and cats experience spiritual growth in the same way that humans do, especially if spirituality is defined as some kind of awareness of a higher power. Or? Does not the affection and attention which dogs lavish on their closest humans (and sometimes on strangers) seem akin to worship? When humans reciprocate, and treat dogs with respect and kindness while training them to respond to commands (and I’ve read that there is at least one Border Collie with a vocabulary of more than 1000 human words), do dogs not appear to flourish, to be happy, even blissful at times? Is it not arrogant on the part of humans, who do not comprehend dog language very well, to write this behavior off as instinctive, and refuse to compare it to the flourishing that humans do when they are on a positive spiritual path?

Cats? A cartoon shows a dog who says “My owner feeds me, plays with me, pets me, takes care of my every need; he must be a god,” while in the next frame a cat says the same thing but concludes: “I must be a god.” It’s a cliche that cats are more independent than dogs; does that make them any less spiritual? What about the way they respond when they are stroked, when they purr and purr, and then, if their owner is very friendly and strokes them often, they may begin to purr even just at the sight of their owner. Who is to say that a cat does not, in cat’s terms, achieve a higher consciousness when it is well and lovingly cared for? And that a human, in administering this type of care, is not caring for the cat’s spiritual development?

Some of us avoid the trouble of caring for a pet, some of us have one or two, and some of us apparently don’t like to walk into a room and not find it dotted with furry beings; we have several cats and/or dogs in the house. When a human has only one pet, the pain of loss is arguably greater, or when a human has been bonding with a particular pet for well more than a decade.

I’ve heard it argued by somewhat religious folk that God gave pets shorter lives because they’re not quite as important, heard it argued by other religious folk that pets (and animals in general) don’t have souls; another religious argument would be that God made pets to humanize us, to exercise our capacity to care for another living thing — to have enough compassion to do so even when that living thing is not our own child. And while we may not always grieve an individual pet as hard as we would grieve a mother or father, husband or wife, or child, sometimes we do grieve that hard. Sometimes we find charisma and empathy enough in our dog or cat — whether we’re living alone with that animal or in a human family—that its loss completely breaks our hearts.

Funeral Rites Of Ancient Times Part III

PalenqueIn 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.

The Mayan

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.