Skip to content

Burial rituals as noble lies – an Australian perspective

Abstract: Burial rituals serve a variety of functions in maintaining the social structure of human societies. These rituals comprise common elements, such as being a response to death itself; and a number of differences, including the significance of burials, and belief in the concept of life after death. Conditioning the differences in various societies are variables such as social class, age, sex, and religious belief.

Based on accounts of burial rituals in Aboriginal and Anglo-Saxon societies in Australia, this article demonstrates that burial rituals are essentially noble lies that help survivors of the deceased to live consistently and, eventually, happily with the reality of death, while at the same time facilitating social cohesion. Noble lies are fictions that appeal to reality of another kind; for without a consistent framework for understanding the meaning of death, life itself might become meaningless for many. While the content of the noble lies of burial rituals might differ from society to society, the individual and societal significance appear to be universal. However, the noble lies of burial rituals appear to be transcended by other noble lies, such as those related to suicidal terrorism.

Burial rituals – a mundane, or a sacred, activity?

Death, defined as an irreversible loss of consciousness, or capacity for social interactions (Ewin, 2002), is an irremediable feature of human existence. Individual and societal responses to death frequently imitate life, and provide a rich source of data for cultural studies of different societies. The rituals adopted for the disposal of human remains exemplify one of the most visible responses to death. Although the disposal of the dead is a universal practice, the methods of such disposal are often dependent upon certain attitudes that are socio-culturally determined. John Davies (1994) calculated that 100 billion humans have died in the last 10,000 years. Of those that have died, relatively few retained a degree of personal fame or left durable monuments for posterity; their death was to some extent transcended in contemporary memory and literature. The urbane voices that reach us from the past come from the few who had opportunities to speak or act; which was at the expense of armies of faceless, nameless strugglers with little hope but that, in an afterlife, they might have a chance of a less grim existence.

It is only since the last two centuries that an increasing proportion of general population has been able to ‘individualize’ their death, especially through a ritual over which they had some degree of control. For instance, during the Middle Ages in England, decent burials and durable funeral monuments were a privilege of the upper and middle classes of society, whose deaths were commemorated with permanent effigies in churches. In contrast, the best commemoration that most of the peasant classes could hope for following death was burial in a coffin (Houlbrooke, 1998).

Historically, some societies developed elaborate structures for the disposal of human remains, while others appeared not regard such burial rituals as an important aspect of their social structure. As an example of the former, burial and commemoration ceremonies were intimately linked to Christian doctrines of a ‘good death’ during the later Middle Ages in England. The Protestant church provided the most coherent body of guidance concerning rites for both the dying and survivors, the certainty of a life after death, and what to do about human remains. During this era, it was a Christian duty to bury the bodies of the dead. By the mid-18th century, a coffin came to be regarded as indispensable in a ‘decent burial’. Subsequently elaboration of coffins, as well as embalmment, became status symbols. Similarly, in ancient Rome, cemeteries had been located outside towns, but Pope Gregory (590 – 604 AD) authorized burials in the immediate vicinity of churches, so that the souls of the dead might benefit from the prayers of worshippers reminded of them as they passed their graves (Houlbrooke, 1998).

The Egyptians were exemplary, but not unique, in their full-scale preparation for afterlife. They looked forward, not to death, perhaps, but to a life that followed. In particular, the upper classes of society therefore accorded obsessive attention to the disposal of body remains, as may be inferred from the practice of mummification as well archeological findings of valuable ornaments from the gigantic burial tombs, referred to as pyramids. Religious and security factors largely conditioned the evolution of pyramids’ construction. The pyramid was supposed to be the means by which a dead Pharaoh ascended to the sky, hence its original stepped appearance. Pyramids however failed to provide security for the dead monarchs and the treasures placed in their tombs, as its very nature proclaimed the location of the noble burial, and the associated valuables. From the Egyptian Old Kingdom onwards, the introduction of mummification resulted in a change in the posture of the inhumation of human remains, from a contracted posture (a pre-natal position apparently symbolizing hope of rebirth), to an extended posture, in which the corpse was laid on its back – a ‘rest in peace’ posture (Grinsell, 1975).

On the other hand, although Buddhists viewed death critically as a mix of cosmic graduation and karmic condemnation, their belief in the concept of Impermanence partly explains the low priority accorded rituals related to the disposal of human remains. It was documented that, during his lifetime Gautama Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist faith in about 6 BC, instructed his followers to meditate on decaying corpses, as a means of understanding Impermanence, as well as to free themselves from sensual attachments (Truitner, 1990).

Psychological factors apart, the specific content of burial rituals in different societies are conditioned by rank, sex, age, social organization, environmental, moral and religious differences. This article attempts to demonstrate that, in most societies, burial rituals are essentially ‘noble lies’ (Rue, 1991), designed to make members of a given community believe that that deceased individuals still have value even following mortality, and that the living should not pursue self-fulfillment without regard to social coherence. In relation to burial rituals, noble lies incorporate the values of religion, culture, science, and the realities of warfare and mass deaths to construct a schema for how the manner of disposal of human remains may demonstrate our value of life, and reflect on the aspects of deceased individuals’ lives that were most highly valued. Concurrently, such schema also strives to maintain the social structure of societies, even after death – State burials or extravagant burial rituals, for example, are usually reserved for privileged members of society.

I posit that burial rituals are ‘lies’ in the sense that they are fictions that trick and coerce us to maintain the status quo, to live beyond self-interest, facilitate social coherence, emotional stability, and to safeguard public health. However, such ‘lies’ are ‘noble’ because the disposal of human remains is not synonymous with refuse collection, and deceased humans are more than a chunk of petrifying protein. Like many of society’s fundamental beliefs, most aspects of burial rituals are fictions – mundane behaviors that contribute to the social, emotional, and physical survival of the human race. Such mundane aspects of burial rituals apparently serve to leave good examples to survivors as they inevitably reflect on their mortality, reconcile them to their loss, mirror the tender sympathies of societies, their respect for the rule of law, as well as their loyalty to high ideals.

The thoroughly mundane view of burial practices, (i.e. ‘pure’, as opposed to ‘noble’, lies), is commonly associated with agnosticism, and a lack of belief in the concept of afterlife. It is noteworthy that while some Islamic extremists imbibe the concept of death fetishism (Solomon, 1998), they appreciate the symbolism of disgraceful burial practices in bringing the causes deceased individuals represent into disrepute. For instance, the images of the corpses of 18 killed American soldiers being dragged on the streets of Mogadishu on 4 October 1993 by Islamic militants created extreme distress among most Americans, irrespective of their opinions on corpses and burials, and resulted in the ignominious departure of the American peacekeeping forces from Somalia (Kepel, 2002). I am yet to come across any individual who believes that since, once diseased her body is merely a mass of putrefying protein, her corpse should be fed to lions in her local zoo! Even for those who believe that it matters not what happens to the perishable body, horror nevertheless fills the heart at the thought of human remains being devoured (to our visual knowledge – after all, earthworms eventually feed on most buried corpses!) by animals.

Media ratings provide a proxy indicator of what is valued by humankind. The introduction of satellite television has added a global dimension to the capacity of the media to reliably perform this role. In the last decade of the 20th century, the most widely watched program worldwide was the funeral of Princess Diana, on 6 September 1997. On the face of it, what was there to sustain such phenomenal global interest; her casket draped in the Royal Standard? a gun carriage drawn by six black horses flanked by soldiers from the King’s Troop and the Welsh Guards? our feelings about Diana’s life and the meanings of her ghastly end? (Charles, 1999). While opinions may vary, it was apparent that this high public and media interest indicated that individuals and society attached a significant value to the manner in which Diana’s remains are disposed of, and that dignified burial rituals mattered to most.

Most humans tend to agree with the moral, legal, and theocratic premise that all human remains should be treated with dignity – it is difficult to comprehend how one could care deeply about one’s partner or daughter as she lay dying and then suddenly regard her as no more than a piece of putrefying protein as she lay dead. England’s Anatomy Act of 1984 specifically defines abuse of the dead as including the prevention of proper burial. Apart from safeguarding the dignity of the dead, such laws also assist in protecting the public’s health, and relieve distress of relatives who would like to give their dead a ‘decent burial’ (Harte, 1994). In Christian theology, prolonged exposure of a corpse to the elements was a mark of ignominy, rendered more horrible by the dismemberment of traitors’ remains and exhumation of the remains of deceased notorious public enemies. For instance, as punishment for Oliver Cromwell’s overthrow of the English monarchy of King Charles 1, from 1648-1650, Restoration forces exhumed and dismembered Cromwell’s corpse – the final ‘resting place’ of the head of Oliver Cromwell’s remains is reputedly a wall in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Harte, 1994; MacLachlan, 1996). Such undignified treatment to a corpse could hardly have served as a warning to other revolutionaries, were it not ‘Cromwell’ who was being treated in such a disrespectful way.

Similarly, the post-mortem treatment of Argentinian-born guerilla fighter, Che Guevara, underscores the socio-cultural and political significance attached to how human remains are treated. Following his capture in Bolivia on 8 October 1967, by forces loyal to President Rene Barrientos, Che was executed and his corpse cosmetically enhanced to prove to the world press that it was indeed Che’s remains. Subsequently, Che’s corpse was cemented into an unmarked part of Bolivia’s international airport tarmac. The symbolism was unmistakable – Che could never ‘rest in peace’, as President Barrientos and his loyalists, whose authority he aimed to usurp, periodically taxied over his corpse as they flew in and out of Bolivia. It took almost three decades of relentless pressure from the Cuban government to relocate Che’s remains to Cuba, where he was subsequently accorded a State funeral (Sandison, 1997).

Thus, it may be surmised that although societal beliefs in the cultural and theological (as opposed to public health) significance of burial rituals are essentially fictions, such rituals help the living to value their existence, and facilitate societal cohesion. The fiction of burial rituals is an appeal to reality of another kind – without such rituals, the very existence of the human race as a rational species might be threatened. Faith is the antithesis of proof. As the examples above demonstrate, humans have tremendous faith in the significance of burial rituals. Consequently, this article examines the manner in which societal faith in the value of the noble lies associated with burial rituals help individuals to value their existence, and to facilitate social cohesion. This analysis is undertaken with reference to two societies in Australia – Aboriginal society, and Anglo-Saxon society.

Aboriginal burial rituals in Australia

The Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia have been the object of curiosity and racially biased anthropological studies since Captain Arthur Phillip, led the First Fleet to Botany Bay, Sydney, on 26 January 1788. Moreover, there was little archaeological interest in the prehistory that lay behind the native culture with which the early colonialists were confronted. Early reports presented Aboriginal people as exemplars of the brutish, the noble savage, the last survivor of that stone-age from which the rest of mankind had progressed to civilization, a view which suited the Terra Nullis ideology of British colonization of Australia (McGregor, 1998).

Nevertheless, fairly recent historical studies indicated at least 9 different ways by which the various Aboriginal communities disposed of corpses in pre-colonial Australia; (1) interred at full length, (2) lying on its side with the lower part of the legs from the knees folded up behind, (3) trussed up in a bundle, (4) erect pit, (5) placed in a shallow tree and leave it there, closing up the aperture with a sheet of bark, (6) placed on a high raised platform, (7) body not interred, but laid in a cave-like structure, (8) body smoked over a slow fire, and afterwards buried, (9) cremation. This wide variability in burial practices underscores the heterogeneity of Aboriginal society prior to European settlement, since a homogenous race is generally conservative in regard to burial rites. Unlike tribes such as the Kurringgai, who practiced the first three types of burial rituals, most Aboriginal societies practiced only one of the listed types of burial ritual (Bendann, 1971).

One of the most extensive archeological surveys of Aboriginal burial practices during the pre-colonial era was that conducted in the New England region of New South Wales in 1964. This survey revealed a rich history of Aboriginal people in this region, stretching over at least 30,000 years (McBryde, 1974). With regards to the disposal of human remains, the most significant find from this survey was at an Aboriginal burial site in Blaxland’s Flat, near Grafton. This site was marked by a unique stone arrangement, as well as rock shelters adorned with symbolic drawings in red ochre, suggesting that the area was traditionally regarded as sacred. Within this burial site were found nine human remains, which were carbon-dated to 860 AD or earlier. The remains were covered with bark sheets, and packed in with large blocks of sandstone. These remains were deposited rather than buried in the cave, so to refer to them as burials is convenient but technically inaccurate. Archeological evidence suggested that the remains were successively placed in the site over at least a century. The partially burnt bodies found on the cave floor, and charcoal there, suggested cremation rites, or the effects of bushfires, which raved this area periodically. Successive deposition would suggest that the site was one traditionally reserved for disposal of the dead by several generations of native Australians.

Other pre-historic Aboriginal burial sites discovered in this survey revealed earth burials on the sides of hills, with the body tightly contracted in the sitting position, and sometimes wrapped in bark, and the deceased’s hunting weapons placed beside them. In Aboriginal culture, such burial rituals were meant to prepare the spirit of the dead for the “Big Walkabout”. In contrast, the bodies of Europeans murdered during the early years of British colonization were ‘buried’ in fissures and cervices of rocks, with the aperture subsequently filled with stones (McBryde, 1974).

The Blaxland Flat burial site survey findings provided several indications of the roles played by burial rituals in helping Aboriginal people to value their existence, and facilitate social cohesion. First, most Aboriginal people believed in the Cyclical concept of existence; i.e. Life-Death-Life. Death is perceived as a condition of life, constituting half its rhythm. Hence, burial rituals represented aspects of the ‘returning’ process, the beginning of the process of rebirth. The symbolism attached to this cultural belief in the cycle of life is underscored by the high priority and sanctity accorded burial ceremonies in Aboriginal society to this day. Profuse wailing during burials, especially by women, as well as confessions of misdemeanors against individuals whose remains were being buried, are meant to signify to the dead that her passing on was profoundly missed, and to seek forgiveness, thus freeing the living from the presumed likelihood of being hounded by spirits of the dead. In Aboriginal culture, it is widely believed that unless a measure of solicitude is shown to a deceased’s remains, its restless and disgruntled spirit, deprived of a resting place and means of sustenance, might return to haunt the survivors. Consequently, perception of spirits by survivors is usually regarded as an indication that a deceased’s burial rituals were incomplete. In addition, Aboriginal burial rituals, past and present, encourage catharsis, as a way to reconcile mourners to their loss.

Second, the symbolic identification of Blaxland Flat as an Aboriginal ceremonial site through unique stone arrangements and symbolic rock shelters suggested that this burial site was regarded as sacred. Thus, human remains were regarded as worthy of being buried in sacred sites by Aboriginal people over the centuries. It is plausible that, in view of the cultural belief in the Life-Death-Life cycle, Aboriginal people laid their death in burial grounds instead of actually burying them, so as to ease their ‘reincarnation’. Third, the use of wood and bark from a number of varieties of trees to serve as coffins suggested the practice of funeral rites among Aboriginal people. Such coffins may serve several purposes; as charitable solicitude for the corpse – hiding it from view, protecting it from disturbance by wild animals, as a mark of social status, or as a sanitary measure to limit the spread of diseases from putrefying remains. As some of the bark used in the covering of the human remains at Blaxland Flat were to be found many miles away from the burial ground, it may be surmised that, at least as at the 19th century, the dead were prepared for burial in their homes, a further indication of the reverence associated with the disposal of human remains.

Fourth, the possibility that some of the human remains at Blaxland Flat might have been cremated is of cultural significance. In pre-modern Aboriginal societies, cremation was widely practiced on the belief that it was the most effective way of preventing the possible return of the dead; that it dispelled pollution caused by death; that it protected human remains from being devoured by wild animals; that it removed the deceased from the machinations of evil spirits; and that it secures warmth and comfort in a future world.

The belief of Aboriginal Australians in the afterlife could be inferred from the manner in which deceased members’ remains are buried. In contrast to the beliefs associated with burial in the fetal position in ancient Egypt, most pre-colonial Aboriginal communities buried their dead either lying flat, or in the sitting position, with the deceased’s hunting or initiation implements placed by her remains, apparently in the expectation that the corpse would ‘rise from the dead’ and continue earthly existence. Most of such burial sites were marked by mounds (i.e. “tells”) and covered by sticks or logs, apparently to deter wild animals. In contrast to the soft earth burials for natives, individuals killed because they were regarded as enemies of a given community were reportedly buried between rocks, underscoring an Aboriginal cultural belief that such a burial site would deny traitors life beyond the grave.

Burial rituals in pre-colonial Aboriginal society also highlighted social class differences among the deceased. Usually, the same tribe disposes of the corpses of various classes of people in different ways. Among the Dungog tribe, for example, when deceased venerable men of distinction died, they were generally buried in what might be regarded as family cemeteries, with elaborate pageant, while the burial rites of ordinary men and females were generally perfunctory. Also, ‘revenge expeditions’, to avenge a supposedly premature death, was a privilege reserved for deceased influential individuals, usually male. Thus even in death, Aboriginal society was stratified by gender and social class, and native burial rituals served to reinforce this social structure.

Aboriginal people considered death a most significant and important social event, since it regularly weakened group dynamics and threatened future social cohesion (Elkin, 1974). Valued community members’ deaths meant the loss of an element that made the lives of some community members meaningful. Their world is never again entire after bereavement. Most Aboriginal people do not get over the death of loved ones; they learn to live with the reality of such deaths. Thus, the elaborate nature of Aboriginal burial rituals may be viewed as strategies for minimizing this threat to social cohesion. For instance, apart from launching revenge expeditions against those deemed responsible for an influential person’s death, the community practiced rituals that were thought to facilitate the removal of a deceased’s soul from its worldly contacts. Here lies the paradox of Aboriginal burial rituals; although death was viewed as unnatural, and cultural practices to preserve life were generally meticulously observed, the rituals performed for a dead person appeared primarily aimed underscoring the finality of death in a material sense, while simultaneously severing the deceased’s spiritual links with the living.

Thus, Aboriginal people appreciate both the need for a befitting burial in enabling the dead to rest in peace, as well as the need to ensure closure of the mourning process of a loved community member, so that the rest of the community may move on with their lives. With this perspective to burial rituals, Aboriginal people learn to live with the sorrow caused by losing those most loved, and to live despite it, making living a richer experience – important ingredients for maintaining social cohesion. We experience death only in losing others, and the experience is usually one of grief. Accordingly, our own deaths are not part of our personal experience: each of us experiences only life, of which dying is part. The very expressive process of mourning in Aboriginal burial rituals, followed by a process of closure whereby even names or pictures of the deceased are not permitted to be mentioned or shown for several years after the burial, apparently serves to do justice to a conception of what a deceased’s best and kindest wishes for survivors would be: to come to terms with the loss, to remember the best of the past with joy, and to continue life hopefully.

Aboriginal Australians may be described spiritually as ‘pagan’ in the sense that they honor nature – ‘pagan’ is Latin for countryside. For most pagans, the physical is the manifestation – sometimes the only manifestation – of the divine. Most pagans honor death as part of honoring nature or the earth. The near-universal attitude of pagans towards human remains is mystical and supernatural, and innumerable mourning customs, death taboos, purification rites, and various rituals are adopted presumably to prevent the return of a deceased’s ghost.

This perspective of the meaning of life and death partly explains why Aboriginal Australians actively seek decent burials for their dead, including the remains of their ancestors removed by colonialists seeking to perpetuate the myth of racial inferiority of indigenous Australians (Poignant, 1997). The distressing impact, on survivors, of showing pictures of deceased Aboriginal people in Australian media has recently been acknowledged, and all Australian television stations are currently obliged to carry an advisory message prior to the showing Aboriginal programs that such documentaries might contain pictures of a deceased. Thus, the burial rites and ritual practices of Australian Aboriginals appear to mirror their beliefs in Afterlife (i.e. Eternal Dreaming), sacredness and eternal life of human remains, as well as underscore their close bonds with nature. These noble lies regarding the disposal of human remains have enabled pre-colonial Aboriginal communities to value their existence, and to develop a meaning of life and death that facilitates social cohesion.

Anglo-Saxon burial rituals in Australia

The ways in which the noble lies of burial rituals influenced social cohesion and individuals’ appreciation of the meaning of life and death in Anglo-Saxon Australian community are conveniently discussed under the following themes; sea burials, bush burials, cemetery development, cremation, and war memorials. Apart from the convict population, the bulk of the ‘free population’ of first European migrants to Australia’s shores were, in general, malcontents. Most first generation migrants were aware that they would never see their homes and friends again. There needed to be a major incentive to prompt them to take such a decision. For most it was dissatisfaction with their lot and a conviction that more was possible. At best this emerged as a sense of idealism. At worst, it produced intolerance and greed.

Australia is about 13,000 nautical miles apart from Britain, and a typical pre-20th century sea voyage was hazardous, lasting about four months. Consequently, one of the first experiences with death that new migrants experienced was death at sea. During this era, death at sea was a particularly ‘un-Christian’ way to die, for the deceased was robbed of the opportunity of final farewells from family and friends. There was no cemetery or plot at sea, no fixed place for burial as a lasting memorial, and no visits to the grave pending the resurrection. Cabin passengers often tried to reconstruct at sea the conditions of a ‘good death’ back home as much as possible. The frequency with which this was achieved varied considerably according to social class, gender, and age. Throughout the 19th century, British and Irish cabin passengers with high social status made up less than 10% of total passenger numbers migrating to Australia, but that were accorded priority in death, as in life. While the privileged classes were buried with a ritual that simulated typical burials in their homelands (such as being interred in the sea placed in a coffin), the remains of the poor were accorded little respect. The subdivision of steerage passengers into small groups, ostensibly to organize provision of meals, accentuated religious and cultural differences. For instance, in addition to the ‘double standard’ existing between cabin and steerage passengers in life and at death, Irish Catholics were further discriminated against within steerage (Jalland, 2002).

Excerpts from diaries of survivors revealed psychological scars from this form of disposal of human remains, which contrasted sharply with deathbed scenes that dominated burial rituals in Victorian England. Some diary extracts, such as those of Francis Taylor, who traveled to Australia on board the Stag in 1850 speculated about a sea-buried corpse’s fate: “although it matters not what becomes of the perishable body, still a thrill of horror fills the heart at the thought of human creatures being undoubtedly devoured by some of the innumerable inhabitants of the ocean” (Jalland, 2002). The sights of dead bodies floating in the ocean made voyagers fearful, with none wishing to share such a fate. These vivid forms of disposal of human remains made death ubiquitous, more present and familiar than most of life’s pleasures.

Perceived feelings of ‘abandonment’ – by the ‘Almighty’ and the cabin crew – at the hour of death of poor passengers might have undermined the religious faith of the less privileged survivors. Such conditioning might have contributed to the larrikin, agnostic attitude of poor sea voyagers to Australia in the 19th century. Most of the less privileged classes resided in the Australian countryside, a difficult and alien environment, compared to the European environment with which they were familiar. During this era, the idealized ‘bushman’ was idealized as the distinctive Australian, a newly colonized nation whose national character was forged through a heroic struggle with a harsh environment. Death played a vital role in this heroic ordeal. Death came quickly to a disproportionately large number of the poor migrants pioneers, already weakened by the effects of an arduous voyage and communicable disease. Consequently, a burial ground was one of the earliest necessities for the new migrants.

The death of the heroic bushman was a dominant cultural image of death in colonial Australia, in marked contrast to the peaceful, domesticated deathbed scene, surrounded by family, so popular in Victorian England. The characteristic images of bush deaths largely excluded religion and most Christian rituals of mourning. Such burials were generally conditioned by the circumstances of the deaths – a large proportion of young Anglo-Saxon Australians perished from dehydration and sheer exhaustion in the late 19th century in the line of duty as explorers and gold diggers. Death played a crucial part in the creation of young male heroes, changing the perceived nature of their enterprise. Interestingly, the facts of their dreadful bush deaths were regarded as more significant than the quality of their achievement. Greed, inexperience of climatic conditions, stupidity, bad judgment and alcohol were significant factors in bush deaths, as were heroism and mateship. But the results remained the same: terrible lonely deaths, and the corpses buried with little ritual, if buried at all (Jalland, 2002).

The diverse presentations of bush burial rituals in the late 19th century provided an indication about how these rituals facilitated the coping mechanisms of survivors, while serving to enhance social cohesion. The harsh practical circumstances of a bushman’s death usually made elaborate burial rituals impractical. When considered within the context of skepticism to institutionalized Christianity, European-style burials were probably not sought by pre-20th century rural Anglo-Saxon Australians. Bush graves served Anglo-Saxon Australians, and especially Irish Catholics, to maintain a sense of belonging to their new land. An exuberant communal alcoholic wake was a central aspect of bush burials. Other aspects of bush burials included stoical acceptance of the inevitability of death, commitment to accord human remains a decent burial where practicable, and a casual, non-conformist attitude to burials (Jalland, 2002).

Apparently, from perspective of survivors, Anglo-Saxon rural dwellers were pragmatic because they believed that there was no more to be done for the dead, and that they must work towards facilitating their own survival and the survival of their mates. Nevertheless, they accorded due attention to the dignified disposal of corpses. The noisy, exuberant alcoholic burial rituals that characterized most bush burials might represent the survivors’ coping mechanism for numbing the pain of loss while burying their deceased colleagues. Their general lack of respect for institutional codes of conduct may be inferred from their preference to invent their own burial rules, and to adopt more casual burial rituals. Graves were typically shallow, and not marked by stones, an indication of a belief in morbid solipsism (Solomon, 1998).

The pageantry associated with death in Australian cities was one of the enduring features of urban Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The good death and a good send off were values that usually transcended denominational division in newly colonized subcontinent. In most Australian cities, the church took responsibility for funeral and burial rites, as was the case in England. Initially, most cemeteries were sited close to churches in Australia. From the 1840s, however, the miasmic movement of diseases, led by Edwin Chadwick, was to prove a major stimulus for the reform of cemeteries in Australia. In relation to burial rituals, Chadwick’s 1843 “Report on the Practices of Internment in Towns” made a powerful case for the reform of burial rituals that might threaten the public’s health, such as the practice of deferring burial for up to twelve days after death. He posited that burial grounds were among the chief sources of miasmas, which cause pollution and diseases such as cholera. He advocated for the standardizing of burial rituals, and for cremation (Nicol, 1994).

The reforms advocated by Chadwick in Britain filtered very slowly into urban Australian burial rituals, partly because of the sentimental attachment of 19th century urbanized Anglo-Saxon Australians to Victorian burial rituals, complete with the accompanying pomp and pageantry. In fact, the world’s largest 19th century cemetery was Sydney’s Rockwood cemetery, and burial rituals of influential citizens (e.g. Lady Way’s funeral in Adelaide, 1914, and Burke and Willis in Melbourne, 1863) were organized to rival ostentatious British royal burials, such as the 1852 State funeral of England’s Duke of Wellington (Nicol, 1998). Elaborate burial rituals, culminating in internment in a cemetery and befitting tombstones, were the enduring ritual of burial in urban Australia throughout the 19th century. This burial mode was in line with the 19th century notion of a ‘good death’. The Church and the majority of the Australian community perceived interned human remains as ‘resting in peace’.

Irrespective of factual information provided by Chadwick and other public health experts regarding the putrefaction and decay that inevitably resulted from buried corpses, the noble lies of earth burial served as examples to survivors of the types of final pageant that exemplary conduct within the community would earn then when they die. These burials also served to maintain social cohesion, particularly with reinforcing social status, even in death. While influential members of the society were accorded dignified funeral rites when they died, the corpses of prisoners and the destitute were used as anatomical specimens, and eventually interned in mass graves, usually without any religious funeral rites (Nicol, 1994).

At the forefront of the cremation movement in Australia were sanitarians, liberal politicians, and medical doctors, who were enthused by the public health, and economic benefits of this burial ritual. While the supporters of cremation were heavily influenced by utilitarianism and secularism, its opponents were Christian fundamentalists, who attacked cremation as un-Christian, an earthly hell, and disrespectful to the dead. Dr. Mildred Creed, a medical practitioner and member of the legislative council of New South Wales was a prominent pro-cremation advocate in the 19th century. He countered the arguments of the anti-cremation activists from three standpoints; religious, sanitary, and sentimental. The Christian burial ritual, he argued, was inherited from the Jews, and was adopted as a means of distinguishing the new faith from the pagans, who used cremation. On the sentimental question of resurrection, he opined that God was undoubtedly capable of reconstructing the body from ashes as from dust. He laid major emphasis on the sanitary benefits of cremation, as the only effective solution to the health hazard posed by the decaying body (Nicol, 1994).

The first crematorium in Australia was opened at West Terrace cemetery, Adelaide, in 1903, but it took another half a century before the practice became widely accepted. Cremation was a major milestone in forcing changes to the noble lies of burial rituals. Currently, about 70% of funerals in Australia now end in the furnace. The increasing acceptance of cremation progressed concomitantly with a decline in Christian religious belief among Australians, and the rising cost of earth burials. Nevertheless, the public disgust following the 1895 open cremation of the first European, Elizabeth Henniker, in Melbourne led to the institution of rules that observation holes of the cremation furnace should not be viewed, even by officials, during the process of cremation. This rule was to minimize discomfort of survivors (Nicol, 1994). Thus, like the denial of the reality of putrefaction that accompanies earth burials, survivors of cremated Australians appeared to deny the incineration that accompanied the burial ritual of cremation.

From the beginning of the 20th century, intercontinental wars, and economic depression, challenged earlier notions concerning extravagant burial rituals, and proponents of simple burial rituals were increasingly in the majority. From the Boer war, to the two World Wars, thousands of young Australian lives were sacrificed in the defense of the nation. For instance, it was estimated that, during the First World War, there were 8.8 million military fatalities and about 1 million civilian fatalities. Death on this scale inevitably leads to a degree of dehumanization, and for most dead soldiers, a dignified burial was impractical, and most were buried in war zones. ‘Compensatory’ burial rituals for dead soldiers took several unique forms. A fairly universal practice is the establishment of tombs of ‘unknown soldiers’ – mostly those buried in unmarked graves, or in no graves, in the heat of battle. The survivors know that the remains of their dead are not in the tomb of the ‘unknown soldier’. But their memories are prompted there, as such sites serve as the symbols of deceased soldiers lives.

The Anzac memorial in Sydney, and the war memorial in Canberra, are meticulously maintained by Australian governments as any slight to the physical reminders of the deceased soldiers is a slight to the hearts of the nation in general, and the soldiers mates and relatives in particular. Most nations’ presidents, who lay wreaths at the tombs of the ‘unknown soldier’ reinforce the noble lies of war memorials. These lies are noble, however, because they constitute an attempt to provide some sense of dignity and peace to millions of men and women who have suffered an undignified, violent death in the defense of their fatherland. In Australia, Anzac Day is a yearly public holiday to reflect on the sacrifices of soldiers who fought, and some of who died, in the defense of Australia.


Burial rituals provide us with two great consolations: that the dead once lived, and that one loved them and mourned their loss. Burial rituals help to formalize these consolations across cultures. Such rituals remind us of our mortality, and that, provided we accord by community norms, we would, on death, live in the hearts of those we love, and who love us. Burial rituals also provide an opportunity for the living to contribute to how they would like to be remembered after their death. Such contributions may take the form of detailed funeral plans (Redfern Legal Centre Publishing, 1995) or noble earthly conduct that may provide survivors with good reasons to honor their memory.

Honoring the memories of the dead means to care about what happens to the dead as if they were not dead. And it means to care for others as if we had been given a second chance. Honoring our dead is honoring life –theirs and ours, seen and unseen (Kellehear, 2000). There is a Japanese proverb that translates as; “it is only after his death that one can estimate a man’s true worth”. The expectation that one’s memories would be honored if one’s life is sacrificed for the defense of ‘a greater good’ is a major motivation for developing a heroic, warrior mentality, including suicidal terrorism (Nagatsuka, 1972).

The Noble Lies of burial rituals help us to understand the meaning of death, as much as religion helps us to understand the meaning of life. Leo Tolstoy, in his autobiography titled “My Confession” admitted that he nearly committed suicide because he found life meaningless at the height of his literary career, and was only able to appreciate life when he reverted back to the Christian faith, and associate more with the underclass, who seemed to fully understand the meaning of life, primarily through the framework of religion. (Klemke, 2000). While mainstream religion played an important role in defining the meaning of death until the late 19th century, terrorist propaganda by Islamic extremists and militant ideologues especially since the 1980s, call for new frameworks that would provide a meaning of death that would make living worthwhile, protect the public’s health, while facilitating societal cohesion.

In this context, the former Israeli deputy public security minister, Gidon Ezra, advanced a novel proposition for combating suicidal terrorism – bury the identified remains of Palestinian suicide bombers with pig skin in order to defile the corpse, thereby making the bombers’ souls ineligible for holy martyr status (Internet communication, 2001). Apparently, this proposition seeks to counter the noble lie of suicide bombing martyrdom with the noble lie of burial rituals. In my view, however, the former noble lie transcends the latter, and Ezra’s strategy is therefore unlikely to provide an effective antidote to suicide bombing.

For instance, many Palestinian suicide bombers disguise as Israelis to ensure the success of their operation. Such a disguise is tantamount to being wrapped in pig’s skin, yet it has not changed the perception that the suicide bombers would be accorded martyr status and a promised place in heaven. Also, for this strategy to have any significant impact, such a corpse-defiling ritual must be undertaken by a Muslim cleric. To date, no notable Muslim cleric has issued a fatwa, or religious decree, denouncing suicidal terrorism, presumably because such a decree would be suicidal in itself (Kushner, 1996). Thus, if such a humiliating burial were to be conducted by Israelis, it would have no impact, as supporters of suicide bombing would assume that Allah is fully aware of the bombers absolute devotion. In fact, such a strategy might backfire, stimulating more suicide attacks in response to Israel’s ‘disrespect’ for Islam.

As I watch the unfortunate disaster of the disintegration of the Colombia space shuttle about a quarter of an hour before it’s scheduled landing on 1 February 2003, I further appreciate the significance of the noble lies of burial rituals in helping society to cope with loss from death. While President Bush lamented that the Colombia did not return to earth, he was hopeful that the souls of the deceased astronauts had returned ‘home’. While State memorial services were taking place in Texas, the shattered remains of the seven astronauts were being picked up and shielded from the mass media as they were placed into funeral limousines. The names of the deceased astronauts would soon go up in NASA’s Roll of Honor, the list of dead astronauts. Even the families of the deceased, partly because they realized that their relatives have not died in vain, were unanimous that the space missions must go on regardless of the tragedy. Already, the survivors and the larger society are coming to terms with their loss, and wanting to continue living normally, and hopefully happily. Such is the power of the noble lies of burial rituals.

Works Cited

Bendan E. Death customs: an analytical study of burial rites, Michigan: Gryphon Books, 45-82, 197-234, 1971.

Charles G. The Media of the Republic, Greensborough: Steele Wilson Books, 205-22, 1999.

Davies J (ed). Ritual and remembrance: response to death in human societies, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press 1994, 24-39, 1994.

Elkin A. P. The Australian Aborigines, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 336-7, 1974.

Ewin R. E. Reasons and the fear of death. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 109-34, 2002.

Grinsell L. V. Barrow, Pyramid and Tomb: ancient burial customs in Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the British Isles, London: Thames and Hudson, 17-20, 132-3, 1975.

Harte J. D. C. Law after Death, or whose body is it? The legal framework for the disposal and remembrance of the dead, in Davies J (ed), Ritual and remembrance: responses to death in human societies, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994, 200-37.

Internet communication. Suicide bombing: no warning, and no total solution. Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor (author: John Daly), 17 September 2001.

Jalland, P. Australian ways of death: a social and cultural history, 1840- 1918, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 15-48, 2002

Kepel G. Jihad: the trail of political Islam, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 317-9, 2002.

Kellehear A. Eternity and Me: the everlasting things in life and death, Melbourne: Hill of Content Publishing,169-77, 2000.

Kushner H. W. Suicide bombers: business as usual. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 19: 329-37, 1996.

MacLachlan A. The rise and fall of revolutionary England, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 170-207, 1996.

McBryde I. Aboriginal Prehistory in New England: an archaeological survey of North-eastern New South Wales, Sydney: Sydney University Press, 136-53, 1974.

Mcgregor R. Imagined destinies, Aboriginal Australians and the doomed race theory, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 3-24, 1998.

Nagatsuka R. I was a kamikaze: the knights of the Divine Wind. London: Aberland-Schuman Limited, 145-50, 1973.

Nicol R. Final Pageant: The past, Present and future of death, Malvern: Uniting Church Historical Society, 1998.

Nicol R. At the end of the road, Sydney: Allen and Unwin Australia Pty. Ltd, 1994

Poignant, R. Looking for Tambo. The Olive Peak Society Bulletin, 9: 26-7, 1997.

Redfern Legal Publishing Centre. Rest Assured: a legal guide to wills, estates, and funerals, Sydney: Redfern Legal Centre Publishing, 1995.

Rue LD. The Saving Grace of Noble Lies, Address to the American Society for the Advancement of Science, February 1991.

Sandison D. Che Guevara, London: Hamlyn, 1997.

Solomon RC. Death fetishism and morbid solipsism. In, Malpas J. & Solomon RC. (eds), Death and philosophy, London: Routledge, 152-76, 1998.

Truitner K. and Truitner N. Death and dying in Buddhism, in Irish DP. Lundquist KF, and Nelsen VJ (eds). Ethnic variations in dying, death and grief: diversity in universality, Washington: Taylor and Francis, 125-45, 1990.

Author: Niyi Awofeso is a physician who also holds a doctorate degree in Health Administration. He has published several dozen peer-reviewed articles in leading journals, including two articles in previous editions of JMB. He has a strong interest in burial rituals in various societies, and how such rituals help survivors to appreciate the meaning of death, and of life. He would prefer his remains to be cremated and scattered over the grounds of Zaria Leprosy Hospital (where he was medical officer- in-charge between 1990-1993) when he passes on in 2034.

Published inIssue 4.1Issues
© 2000, Journal of Mundane Behavior. Permission to link to this site is granted. All copyright permission and reproduction requests beyond "fair use" must be approved jointly by Journal of Mundane Behavior and the individual author, and should be directed to the managing editor.