For a while, I believed in the Viking funeral myth, the one where they supposedly take the deceased and lay their body on a ship, set it sail and then the tribes shoot flaming arrows at the ship as it sails off into the distance., shooting their arrows with incredible, nay, unbelievable accuracy. It’s a rather romantic notion, but a false one, only popularised by the film, The 13th Warrior, in 1999. Admittedly, I have never seen the film, but nevertheless, Hollywood has a tendency to spread incorrect details about just about anything across the world.
In reality, Viking funerals were much more conventional. In the tenth century, sea-going vessels were, understandably, much too valuable for such an elaborate send-off. Instead, most corpses were either cremated or buried in nothing more than shallow graves, called tumuli. These tumuli were then piled with stones, grave offerings and other items of significance to the dead person’s life or family. What The 13th Warrior did get correct was the significance of fire in Norse customs. The most important element of their send-offs was the open-air cremation. These funeral pyres were the physical element of the belief that the winds that caught the burning fibre would carry the fallen’s soul to heaven.
“Amongst the Manchu people of China, the xunsui or congxun meant a widow would ritually commit suicide after her husband died.”
A much wilder, more extreme funeral practice involving fire came from Hindu communities from as early as 400 BC, called the sati. In the sati, a widow sacrifices herself on her husband’s pyre as an act of peerless piety. The term ‘sati’ originally referred to just the woman and originated from the Hindu goddess Sati, who had self-immolated because she was unable to bear her father Daksha’s humiliation to her husband Shiva. Despite its origins seeming to be exclusive to the Hindu religion, similar practices have been found in other cultures.
Amongst the Manchu people of China, the xunsui or congxun meant a widow would ritually commit suicide after her husband died. There are a number of theories as to why and how this practice came to be. One of the predominant theories states that during Muslim invasions of India, such an act of self-immolation became a means to preserve the honour of women whose husbands had been killed. It was deemed a selfless act and was believed to purge the widow of all her sins, thereby releasing her from the cycle of birth and rebirth and ensuring salvation for her dead husband and the seven generations that would follow. As expected, the sati is no longer legal. However, similar practices of self immolation have been employed as a means of protest. In Korea, Buddhist nuns have used self-immolation as a form of protest, and during the Vietnam War, a woman named Thich Nu Thanh Quang publicly burnt herself to death in front of the Dieu De Pagoda as a protest against the war.
Depending on your perspective, fire can seem like a less morbid send-off when compared to the Zoroastrian tradition of the Tower of Silence. Zoroastrianism is the ancient pre-Islamic religion that dominated Persia. It had both monotheistic and dualistic features and very likely influenced the later development of Judaism and Christianity. In the Tower of Silence tradition, bodies are essentially placed in massive structures, where scavenger animals can ‘cleanse’ them of the corpse demons believed to have colonised the body upon death. Death was seen as the temporary triumph of evil over good, and this was done to preclude pollution of sacred earth or fire. These tower structures were first documented in the early ninth century, and consist of an almost flat roof, divided into three rings. These towers were enormous – some 20 metres in height and 50 metre in diameter. Bodies of men were arranged around the outer ring, women in the second and children in the innermost. They were exposed to the sun and to scavenging birds and bodies could be disposed of within an hour. Bones became bleached over up to a year, and were eventually collected in an ossuary pit at the centre, where they disintegrated, and anything else that remained was eventually washed out to sea. The mixture of bodies is especially notable – Zoroastrians believed that after death every division of class and wealth will disappear and all deceased would be treated equally. Giving one’s own body to the birds is also considered the Zoroastrian’s final act of charity. When compared to other cultures like the Chinese or Egyptians, who built giant monumental tombs for important figures, this says a lot about Zoroastrian values.
“Indian Parsi communities have also run into an unexpected problem – the lack of vultures.”
In modern times, the usage of these massive tower structures has fallen slowly out of practice. Legislature in places like Iran has outlawed ritual exposure. Unsurprisingly, urban growth also meant that many of these ancient towers have ended up within city regions. Apart from the rather macabre image of corpses being eaten on the top of a tower close to the local park or highway, Indian Parsi communities have also run into an unexpected problem – the lack of vultures. Due to the rapid urban expansion, vulture numbers have been in decline and communities are discussing alternative methods, such as breeding vultures in captivity or even using large mirrors to accelerate decomposition.
Humans have always been fascinated by death and the customs and funeral traditions and customs of many different cultures reflects this. Perhaps the study of death can reveal more about certain cultures or people more than the study of anything else – just think of the Egyptian pyramids or the collections of famous last words out there on the Internet. Freud once said, “The goal of all life is death”. So if we’re all headed towards that same destination, one question remains – what will the people around you do with your body when it becomes cold and hard?