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Buried Twice?

I studied European history for a pretty selfish reason. I think everyone else is boring. It’s not really true (actually Native Americans are dreadfully boring, fact), there are interesting tidbits elsewhere in the world, but in Europe after 300 AD or so, you had a powerful church that was never satisfactorily brought into submission to temporal powers and vice versa, powerful Kings that were never really mastered by the church. That made for an incredibly hectic and competitive world that I find endlessly fascinating as that special environment gave rise to the only peoples ever to truly conquer the world.

Obviously I haven’t got to my point yet, since all that has nothing to do with my title.

One of the interesting tidbits that captures my attention is a custom that still goes on in parts of Southeast Asia, notably in Vietnam. They bury their dead, and after 3 years, dig them back up! They believe that the dead are sort in a state of unrest after death and require reburial once decomposition has mostly taken place.

Once those three years have elapsed, usually at night, the remains are exhumed, washed, and stacked in a certain way in a new container. That container is typically made from ceramic and lined with paper, the special stacking is supposed to be reminiscent of a human skeleton, although it takes a bit of imagination to get there. The relatives who have been keeping vigil at the graveside also burn a set of paper clothing for the deceased to “wear” on their trip back to their ancestral home.

Once that has all been accomplished, the bones washed and stacked and swaddled in their box and so forth, the box containing the remains are transported for final interment in the deceased’s ancestral home (not a building but the village or town)  to rest alongside their family.

It seems a bit alien to those of us who live in the “christian” west who, regardless of religious belief, usually consider a persons trip to their grave to be the last journey they will make. In most places a family must give consent and a magistrate, judge or other official must bless the exhumation as necessary for religious, legal, medical or development reasons. Really this idea of allowing remains to decompose and than be moved into a new container is not as strange as you might think in the west. In many places that has been the custom.

Look at photos of various catacombs in Europe. Places where bones are stacked into attractive patterns or the Jews, who after decomposition in ancient times would end up in stone boxes called an ossuary, a word that describes not just those stone boxes, but the catacombs, crypts and tombs common in Europe and many other places which keep the bones of many, albeit most of the time intermingled.

Odd? Yes, but at least in the west, economics dictate that you aren’t likely to keep your burial plot forever, someone else is dying to get in. (Yes, that just happened.)

Addition: The Romans had similar structures called columbarium’s. Many people joined burial clubs, to which they paid dues while living, which in turn established these buildings to hold the ashes of many, many people. We still have them today, and they still do the same thing. Usually the future inhabitants simply buy a slot as we do with burial plots these days, but you still find columbarium’s dedicated to particular groups, most of the time based on religion. In ancient Rome it was more common for them to be dedicated to a particular trade, today that is rare, but common enough in places like veterans cemeteries. Obviously those hold the remains of people whose trade was war.

Charnal houses are also similar, albeit a bit more macabre, if that’s possible. These hold the bones of unknowns dug up, usually while digging new graves, but from other places as well.

Addition 2: I was grumpy I couldn’t find any decent photos or a video, but it just occurred to me that Google Maps might have something for me. If you go to Google and search for, “20.944943,105.829305” , without the quotes and make sure you are looking at the satellite layer. That should put a little green arrow on a bank of concrete sinks that are expressly for this purpose. It is almost impossible to give a hyperlink to a google map, so suck it up.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. 2012/01/02 at 01:32

    I’m more of an American history guy, at least until we’re talking about the history of science, but this is all much more fascinating than I thought it would be. Good post.

  2. 2012/01/02 at 10:27

    Native American history: 10,000 years we did nothing. White man comes. He kills us. We kill him. We build casinos. The end.

  3. 2012/01/02 at 14:05

    How we humans have treated the dead historically is fascinating. It is one of those aspects that distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom – no other organism finds it necessary to care for and memorialize its dead. I think it is actually one of the cornerstones of culture and civilization. Thanks for bringing it up Nate.

    Oh, and Happy New Year Nate.

  4. 2012/01/02 at 14:50

    It gets better, or at least stranger. I just checked to see if wordpress had done my bidding, and indeed it has posted what I told it to. Although, I think its one of the draft saves and not the final work, but it’s good enough until I get back home.

  1. 2012/12/13 at 02:13

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