1694 memento mori painting in the Augustiner Museum in Germany (photo by Wolfgang Sauber)
For some cultures, death is the beginning of a purification process that starts with decomposition and ends with skeletonization. These people believe that when a loved one takes his or her final breath, it is the beginning of a journey to the land of the ancestors, and the corpse must completely decay before a soul is considered purified and can ascend to the afterlife.
There are typically two burial phases in some of these societies: initial and secondary burial. During the first, or initial, burial, the body may be buried or exposed while it decays, and the funeral ceremony during this phase marks the beginning of the soul’s journey. Once the remains are completely skeletonized, the bones are collected, cleaned, and placed in a secondary burial, like an ossuary. At this point the deceased is considered truly dead and the soul is resurrected to join the rest of their ancestors in the Land of the Dead.
Secondary burials have been practiced by many cultures throughout history into the modern era. Below is a discussion of burials customs of Jews of the early Roman Empire; burial customs of Southern Italy that were practiced until the early 20th century; and the Malagasy famadihana, or turning of the bones, which is practiced today.
The Jews of the early Roman Empire practiced a burial custom called ossilegium between 30 BCE and 70 CE. Ossilegium, a Latin word that means the collection of the bones, was a two-part process. During the initial burial, the corpse was placed in a niche or on a bench in a tomb. Secondary burial occurred one year later, after the soft tissue had decayed. Family members collected the bones and placed them in an ossuary, a container that holds human bones, which was then placed in a niche in the family tomb. A single ossuary could be used for the bones of more than one individual.
A first century Jewish ossuary (via Walters Art Museum)
Jews of this era believed the deceased’s soul was purified during decomposition, which was essential for resurrection. Catholics in southern Italy had similar funerary customs based on the belief that death was as a slow process that started with decomposition and ended with the collection of the skeletal remains.
Some Catholic churches in southern Italy, like Santa Maria del Purgatorio in Naples, had architectural structures built into underground crypts beneath the church for initial and secondary burial. According to these Neapolitan funeral customs, the soul traveled to Purgatory immediately after death and stayed there during decomposition. It was believed that while the soul of a family member was in Purgatory, the living could atone for the sins of the deceased to ensure safe travel to the afterlife. They also believed that if they took good care of the decomposing remains the dead would look favorably on the living and reciprocate those good deeds.
Lay people of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy used structures called terresante and sitting colatoio to facilitate decomposition up until the early 20th century. Terresante were underground crypts that contained rows of loose dirt where bodies were placed for their initial burial, with only a few inches of loose dirt to cover them. On All Soul’s Day, people would visit the dead to put fresh clothes on the decaying bodies. The bodies were exhumed shortly before complete skeletonization and placed in niches along the walls, where they continued their decomposition. After the body had fully decomposed, the skulls were either placed on a long ledge above the niches or all of the skeletal remains were put in an ossuary.
Putridarium at the Cimitero delle Clarisse in Ischia, Italy (photograph by Orric/Wikimedia)
Sitting colatoio, or putridarium, were masonry structures built into underground chambers of Catholic churches. Sitting colatoi were a row of masonry seats within niches along walls, each colatoio had holes in the middle of wooden seats that were connected to drainage canals. Corpses were dressed in cassocks and placed in a seated position on the colatoio. During decomposition, fluids would pass through the hole, and the remaining bones were collected and placed on altars or in ossuaries.
Once the soul was purified and the body had skeletonized, thanks to the terresante or sitting colatoio, Italians believed the soul could ascend from purgatory into the afterlife — a very similar idea is at the center of a Malagasy funeral tradition practiced today.
Famadihana reburial in Madagascar (photograph by Hery Zo Rakotondramanana)
The famadihana (fa-ma-dee-an), or “turning of the bones,” is a funerary celebration practiced every seven years by the Malagasy people of the highlands of Madagascar. During this ritual, they remove bodies of their ancestors from family crypts and swathe them in fresh shrouds and spray expensive perfume over the remains. Once the bodies are rewrapped, the Malagasy play music and dance around the tomb with the bodies. When the dancing ends, the bundled corpses are placed on the ground, where family members touch the bodies. This is a tradition that strengthens family bonds between the living and the dead.
Famadihana is a centuries old custom that may have been adapted from pre-modern funeral customs of southeast Asia. The “turning of the bones” is related to the Malagasy belief that the soul of a deceased family member can only enter the Land of the Dead when the corpse completely skeletonizes. Until this happens, the Malagasy lovingly take care of the bodies of their ancestors until the body completely decomposes.
If you’re interested on reading more on this subject, I highly recommend a couple of blogs:
The Order of the Good Death has more information and a more colorful discussion on the putridarium.
Atonement for the Afterlife: The Jewish Practice of Ossilegium. (2014 January 31). Retrieved on April 19, 2014 from: http://maa.missouri.edu/exhibitions/finalfarewell/jewishpracticesintro.html
Madagascar’s dance with the dead. (2008 August 16). Retrieved on April 19, 2014 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7562898.stm
Bearak, B. (2010 September 5). Dead Join the Living in a Family Celebration. The New York Times. Retrieved on April 19, 2014 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/06/world/africa/06madagascar.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Fornaciari, A., Giuffra, V., and Pezzini, F. (2010 August 9). Secondary burial and mummification practices in the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. Retrieved on April 19, 2014 from: https://www.academia.edu/1178271/Secondary_burial_and_mummification_practices_in_the_Kingdom_of_the_two_Sicilies