Since the Paleolithic era, groups of people have intentionally engaged in burial practices guided by spiritual beliefs. Burying loved ones is an ancient practice that has slowly evolved over time.

Reasons for burial appear to be relatively uniform regardless of culture, with showing respect for the dead being chief among them. The details of the custom vary considerably, but burial is present in some form in most cultures. It’s worth noting that some other species bury their dead, including elephants and chimpanzees, indicating that a biological drive helps inform these choices.

Burying the dead prevents scavengers, such as birds, from eating a decaying body. While the decomposition process still occurs underground, of course, the importance of preserving the physical body after death is a concept that has stayed with humans through the centuries. Mummification and embalming are techniques that have been used historically to slow the decomposition process. Today, the cryopreservation process (extremely cold temperatures used to preserve the physical body) is employed in a similar way.

There is an exception to underground internment in Tibet, where “sky burials” are standard practice. This leaves a body exposed to the elements so it can easily re-enter the life cycle as food.

The art of burying the deceased has developed and changed over the years to involve burial in above ground dwellings such as tombs and crypts. The tombs comprised some of the oldest man-made structures in the world, such as the Cairn de Barnenez in France, dating to around 4800 BC. Many of these early tombs were crude, but they set the stage for similar and more elaborate dwellings over the centuries. Egypt perfected the elaborate tomb as a means of ensuring the immortality of royalty. The deceased were often buried with “grave goods” thought to be useful or necessary in the afterlife, a belief that had been around for thousands of years.

In the 21st century, a variety of alternatives are available, driven in large part by growing concerns about environmental factors and changing beliefs. Underground burial still makes up almost half of funeral care worldwide, with cremation making up the majority of the rest. While burial practices have evolved to reflect the modern world (and to accommodate population growth), burying the dead remains the most widely used method. Being buried in a pyramid is probably not an option for everyone. However, other options include green burials, cremation, or even being pressed on a vinyl album. There is no shortage of options for one’s afterlife.

Very Underground: A Brief History of Burial

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