How Cultures Disposed of Cadavers

What happens to the body after death? How did cultures bury their dead? How did they dispose of the cadavers?
Cultures all over the world have buried their dead differently. Sometimes, you may ask: what informed the choice on how to dispose of the remains of the dead. Here is a round-up of how different cultures treat their dead.


Vultures feed as mourners watch| Painting by Ronan Boyle

The Tibetans have a pretty simple position on the remains of dead people. As a culturally Buddhist society, the body is merely a shell and of no value when the spirit leaves it. Hence, Tibetans place the body of their dead on elevated planes in an open view of carrion birds or other animals. This is referred to as SKY BURIAL. There is another consideration for this sort of burial; Tibetans live in mountainous terrain and so it makes better sense to complete the cycle of life in that manner.
Other cultures in similar environmental terrains have found resourceful use of holes and fissures in mountains. Cultures on the Adamawa mountain range in North-East Nigeria have a practice of burying their dead in such geological features.


While essentially SKY BURIAL, it is Sky Burial for forest-dwelling people. Tree Burial was common among some indigenous people of the Americas, Aboriginal Australians as well as the Naga people. Among native Americans, this form of burial came in two forms- burial on actual trees or burial on scaffolds. In this type of disposal, corpses are wrapped or put in coffins and placed in forked branches of trees or tied to the trees as their final resting place. Alternatively, scaffolds were built, typically above 6ft, and the corpse laid on the platform. It seems plausible that forest-dwelling people adopted scaffolds as they migrated into the plains. Some tribes retrieve the bones for the final burial. This form of burial was in some places an alternative to below-ground internment during winter when digging became laborious.

Tree Burial among aboriginal groups in Australia.


The difference between this and TREE BURIAL or SKY BURIAL is the elevation. Arctic dwelling Native Americans left remains of their dead on ice for wild animals to devour. If you lived in an environment where everything is at risk of being cryogenically preserved, there is virtually no unsanitary way of disposing of cadavers. This form of disposal was also practiced by non-arctic dwellers such as Zoroastrians and Sasanians. Zoroastrians believe that Fire, Soil, Air, and Water are sacred and so should not be polluted; to prevent the pollution of earth or fire, the cadavers are placed upon a tower exposed to carrion birds; however, the Sasanians collect their bones into an ‘Ossuarium’.


A cremation

Many cultures are known to dispose of cadavers by cremation. Some of the cultures include California tribes of the indigenous people of the Americas, the Scandinavians, the Athenian Greeks, the Romans, also in Hinduism, and Jainism. Cremation was, in earlier times, of an open-air pyre type. In some traditions, the remains from cremation- ‘Cremains’- are collected in urns for safe keep or for burial. Cremation was also the practice in pre-Zoroastrian Persia.


An image of a Mausoleum in Mali. The Mausoleum of Alpha Moya
Mausoleum of Alpha Moya. Photograph: Sebastien Rieussec/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes, elaborated structures form the final resting place for the remains of the dead. Egyptians famously embalmed their dead and placed them within pyramids. Another of these structures is the magnificent Taj Mahal in India. These structures are often made for people of importance or people with the means and they are found all over the world. In this form of burial, treatment of the bodies often involves cremation or embalmment.


  • Topography/Environment influence beliefs which influence the choice of disposal practice.
  • Disposal practices have developed independently in different cultures; it is amazing how seemingly separated cultures have similar practices without having had any contact.

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