Preparation of the corpse is usually most elaborate in the case of burial (see coffin; embalming), but it is a general practice to wash and clothe the body. Many of the observances connected with death recall the rites of passage associated with other life crises. The body is then taken to a resting place, sometimes only temporarily. It may be laid on a scaffold, to await later cremation, or it may be buried until the flesh has rotted away, after which the bones are exhumed for a second burial. Such secondary burials are quite common in traditional societies. All of these customs derive from a belief that the soul remains in this world for a brief period before departing for the next. Final disposition of the corpse implies final disposition of the soul, and the mourners have certain ritual obligations toward the deceased until then. In the past, the spirit of the deceased was regarded by certain peoples as potentially both harmful and helpful. Attempts to discourage it from returning and disturbing the living were made by placing near the corpse such foods and personal possessions as would help the spirit during its journey and equip it for the other world. As the social and economic status of the deceased was often reflected by the quality and quantity of their burial goods, the systematic analysis of funerary remains can provide archaeologists with an important means of investigating the social organization of an ancient culture.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.