MARIO VAZQUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Quick notes:

  • Neanderthals buried their dead 50,000 years ago with a spiritual purpose.
  • A small community in Indonesia exhumes their dead for a special death ritual.
  • Día de Los Muertos was meant to help the deceased venture through the nine levels of the underworld.

In 2017, 2.8 million people died in the U.S. — that’s 864 deaths per population of 100,000 (according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Death is inescapable and doesn’t care about age or circumstance, and can neither be bought or bribed. Although death is inevitable, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mourn. 

Humanity has been burying their dead for thousands of years — 50,000 years, according to anthropologists. Neanderthals reportedly were the first to purposely bury their dead, creating pits exclusively for funerary purposes.

One example is found in the remains of a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in southern France. Not only was the find a marvel, but it answered a multitude of questions for anthropologists, one of which is the root of culture and spirituality. 

National Geographic wrote: “The idea that Neanderthals buried their dead fits with recent findings that they were capable of symbolic thought and of developing rich cultures.” The culture the article described is ornamentation, our ancestors decorated themselves using pigments and jewelry made of feathers and shells, rituals that marked the beginnings of civilization. 

Humanity has been taking care of their dead since before the creation of language. In our ancestor’s ancient grave, the body was curled in the fetal position, a pose that may have represented a life completing its cycle. 

Mehdi Fedouach/AFP via Getty Images

The Torajans wake the dead

As humanity evolved, so did customs and beliefs. Aside from establishing cemeteries and practicing embalming, not much has changed as far as how the deceased are treated. 

What has changed is how we view the deceased. All around the world, cultures have associated death with something much more connective and personal than in western cultures. 

Over time, people created their own lore about death, and they have grieved with fascinating rituals and customs.  One of these rituals is the Torajan death ritual, or Ma’nene, where death doesn’t necessarily mean goodbye. 

In the remote region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, individuals remember their dead by exhuming their bodies and displaying them in their homes.

Ma’nene happens once every three years. When a family member passes away, their bodies are embalmed and preserved until their living relatives come up with the finances to pay for a funeral, which can be a costly expenditure.

Depending on the family’s class, having a proper burial can take anywhere between a few weeks to a few years. Until the bodies are buried, they are often kept at home or in a Tongkonan, a traditional Torajan house. 

Family Members Perform Ma'nene Ritual To Honor The Spirits Of Their Mummified Ancestors
Family Members Perform Ma'nene Ritual To Honor The Spirits Of Their Mummified Ancestors
Agung Parameswara via Getty Images

In her novel, From Here to Eternity, Caitlin Doughty (who also works as a mortician) describes witnessing a Torajan funeral firsthand while visiting the Indonesian community.

“In Toraja, during the period of time between death and the funeral, the body is kept inside the home … During that time, the family cares for and mummifies the body, bringing the corpse food, changing clothes, and speaking to the body.” 

To the Torajans, they’re just sleeping

For the Torajans, the deceased are far from gone. In their eyes, their departed are still alive, and are considered either ill (to makula’) or simply sleeping.

Some family members even offer cigarettes to a to makula’, wedging a cigarette in their mouths and lighting the butt so that their ancestors can enjoy a smoke. 

For most foreigners, the idea of sleeping under the same roof as a corpse is enough to give them the heebie-jeebies. But for the Torajans, it’s about respecting their ancestors. It’s about grief and mourning and holding on to their loved one’s memory.

It’s a spiritual connection that connects the community’s old animistic Aluk To Dolo religion (meaning ‘the way’) with newer Christian influences. 

When the bodies are finally put to rest, the community sacrifices live bulls and pigs in honor of the deceased. It’s customary for extended family members to gift a bull to the immediate family of the deceased.

Presenting a bull shows a sign of respect, the kind of respect that says, “I hope you can return the favor.” The ceremonies can sacrifice up to 24 bulls (vegetarianism never looked so good). The more bulls sacrificed to the family, the wealthier the soul.

The bull is also seen as a sacred animal of transport that is meant to help the soul find Puyathe Torajan version of heaven. Once the bulls have been sacrificed, the body is deemed deceased. 

Family Members Perform Ma'nene Ritual To Honor The Spirits Of Their Mummified Ancestors
Family Members Perform Ma'nene Ritual To Honor The Spirits Of Their Mummified Ancestors
Agung Parameswara via Getty Images

The ritual lasts between three to five days. Once the ritual is complete, the dead are placed in wooden coffins and then placed in a mausoleum for the next three years, until they are once again brought out, cleaned, and dressed.

Torajans see the tradition as the dead visiting the living. The Torajans exhume corpses that have been buried anywhere between a few weeks to several years (the oldest being 80 years since their death). 

Día de Los Muertos is not Halloween

The idea of the dead “visiting” the living is the kind of thing most would expect out of a zombie flick, or something dreamed up by Guillermo del Toro.

But the idea isn’t completely far-fetched or off-putting. Just ask Mexico, a country where their dead is honored with flowers, food, and candlelight (talk about romancing the dead). 

For those who are not familiar with Día de Los Muertos (or the Day of the Dead), the festival occurs once a year on Nov. 1 and 2.

Like the day’s namesake implies, Día de Los Muertos is a day where family members celebrate the dead, remembering their ancestors and reinstating the importance of family.

Charles A. Perez, curator and design director of Merced Multicultural Arts Center, emphasizes the cultural significance of Día de Los Muertos, and is careful to distinguish the celebration from just a “Mexican version of Halloween.” 

“There is a difference in the perspective of death. The Mexican mentality versus the mentality of say, Halloween. They recognize death, it’s assured. They look at it straight in the face and they just take it on as an accepted part of life. They make it theirs; we talk about the afterlife, it’s not afterdeath.”  


It’s called the afterlife, not ‘afterdeath’

Perez explains that Día de Los Muertos carries symbolism — from the marigolds, or cempazuchitl, the flowers used to guide the dead from the underworld to the world of the living; to the sugar skulls, which represent mortality and the underworld.

Food, candlelight, and even Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) is offered on a family altar (or ofrenda), which the dead can enjoy while visiting their families. 

Relatives gather around cemeteries and proceed to clean the graves of their departed ancestors. Marigolds and baskets are placed over their graves, which are meant to carry food and provisions when the spirits of the dead return to the underworld. 

What might be even more fascinating is the origins of Día de Los Muertos. Celebrated in the central and southern parts of Mexico, the celebration was primarily celebrated by the indigenous people of Mexico, 2,500 to 3,000 years ago.

It had Aztec origins and connected with the goddess of the underworld, Mictēcacihuātl. Before European Christian influences in the 16th century, the celebration was previously held in August and lasted for a month.

Originally, when the dead passed on, they were tasked with passing through the nine levels of the underworld, Mictlan. The altars offered tools to help them progress through the underworld and its trials before the souls could be at rest. 

“It is typically the Aztec underworld, which had nine levels of Mictlan,” says Perez. “Basically it was purported within their mythology to take four years of passage before they were out of it.”

Day of the Dead Celebration in Michoacán, Mexico
Day of the Dead Celebration in Michoacán, Mexico
Jan Sochor/Latincontent via Getty Images

Day of the Dead is celebrated around the world

The customs eventually changed when the Spaniards introduced Catholicism. The holiday was pushed toward All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day nearer to Halloween, which is why many associate the pagan based holiday. 

And so, a hybrid of cultures was born and evolved into today’s version of Día de Los Muertos. 

Make no mistake, the Torajan and Mexican cultures are not the only ones who celebrate life through death. A multitude of cultures and peoples each have their own way of respecting the departed.

Japan has the Obon Festival, Tibet has open sky burials, and Guatemala has an All Saints’ Day kite festival. Despite these cultures being vastly different, they all share one thing in common, and that is honoring the life and memory of the dead.

Whether it’s in the remote regions of Indonesia or in the cemeteries of Mexico, death is treated with care and is accepted with open arms.

To openly face death not only exposes us to our own mortality, but it gives us the opportunity to grieve and properly mourn for our losses; to take the time in saying that final goodbye or take the time to understand that death is not about saying goodbye, but saying hello to life.

“It’s about people that we love,” Perez says. “The essence of it is about remembrance, about honoring, about love on that day.”

Death reminds us to cherish the living and remember the dead, whether that is a family member or the family pet. Maybe we can learn something from our neighbors and put our disdain toward death to rest.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

Surprise, surprise, funerals are approached in a wildly different way in the U.S.

If you think other cultures’ funerary traditions are odd, just wait until you find out that an extinct species is soon to be endangered. 

Visit Chernobyl and its fascinating history over on History 101 (or visit literally, if you want to — it’s now a tourist hot spot).