The symbolical forms of representation of the sacred or holy are to be understood as references to or transparencies of the sacred or holy. The sacred manifests itself in time and space, so that time and space themselves become diaphanous indications of the holy. The holy place--a shrine, forest grove, temple, church, or other area of worship--is symbolically marked off as a sacred area. The signs, such as a stake, post, or pillar, that delimit the area themselves are endowed with sacred symbolic meanings, which often can be noted by their particular designs. The ground plan of the sacred building and its orientation, walls, roof, and arches are all utilized to symbolize the sacred or holy. Prehistoric places of worship--e.g., Stonehenge (in England) and other megaliths of Europe and the shrines and holy places of ancient Egypt, Babylon, China, and Mexico--were invested with symbolical meanings.

Sacred places are often pictorial reflections of the universe and its design and partake of its holiness. The domes of Christian churches are symbols of heaven, the altar a symbol of Christ, the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem a symbol of Yahweh, the Holy of Holies in Shinto shrines (honden) a symbol of the divinity, and the prayer niches in mosques a symbol of the presence of Allah. In many instances shoes may not be worn on holy ground (e.g., Shinto temples), and hands and feet are to be washed before entering into a holy place. The woodwork of demolished Shinto shrines, when taken to private homes, makes the sacred or holy present in the homes of pious Japanese families.

Time as a transparent symbol of the sacred may be represented by means of the cycle of the sacred year and its high points--e.g., New Year's (as in ancient Near Eastern religions), the times of sowing and reaping, and the solstices and equinoxes. Or the lapse of time may be represented in signs and pictures. Cosmic, mythical, and liturgical time and destiny are portrayed, for example, in the Buddhist symbol of the wheel of life, bhava-cakra, with its causal chain of human deeds and succession of existences, entwined by the claws of a devouring monster; the figures of Aion (Time) in late Greco-Roman and Persian antiquity show a figure with a winged lion's head standing on a globe and encircled by a snake. Time itself, its course, division, and fixed points, is both an allusion and the bearer and mediator of the sacred or holy.


Cemetery is a place set apart for burial or entombment of the dead. Reflecting geography, religious beliefs, social attitudes, and aesthetic and sanitary considerations, cemeteries may be simple or elaborate--built with a grandeur that over shines the community of the living. Also, the places may be regarded as "holy fields" or taboo areas. In countries such as Japan and Mexico, cemeteries are festival places on certain occasions set aside to honour the dead. In other countries and among other religious groups, they are simple and stark and generally shunned.

In most cultures, providing a place for the dead was originally a family obligation because of the widespread belief that ties of kinship last beyond death. The land bought by the biblical Abraham from the sons of Heth had as a principal feature a cave in which his dead could be buried. Having a family mausoleum or graveyard is a custom that has endured in many parts of the world. Their locations have often been selected with great care: in China feng shui ("augury") experts picked sites calculated to provide "good wind and water"; Koreans traditionally hired geomancers to divine auspicious locations, out of the range of vision of "baleful spirits." The desire to be united with ancestors has been very strong. Dutiful Asian sons return the bodies of their parents to Japan and China at sometimes enormous cost; in the Western world, bodies are frequently shipped by air, rail, and boat "back home." Even when the tribe or the community took over the obligation, burial in the communal graveyard was a jealously guarded privilege. Strangers could dwell in towns and cities but could not be buried in their cemeteries. Special cemeteries for criminals, foreigners, and the poor were set up by the ancient Jews, the Romans, and other peoples. In Europe from the medieval period until well into the 19thcentury, convicted witches and murderers, along with suicides, were excluded from cemeteries.

Sanitary precautions have influenced the nature and location of cemeteries. Romans and Jews, for example, regarded cemeteries as hazardous and established their graveyards outside the walls of Rome and Jerusalem. The ancient Egyptians and the Chinese also shared this concern for sanitation. Christians, on the other hand, had no such concern: they used catacombs as combined mass graves and places of worship, and, when they were allowed to practice their religion freely, they buried the dead in churches and churchyards. Overcrowding became very common after the 6th century, when many secular authorities decided to revert to the Roman custom of permitting burial only outside the walls of the city. Church land was not subject to secular sanitary laws, however, and during the European Middle Ages and Renaissance the problem intensified.

By the middle of the 18th century the consequences of overcrowded churchyard burial and the lack of adequate space for further burial within city limits had become a matter of public apprehension. The vaults under the pavements of the churches and the small spaces of open ground surrounding them were crammed with coffins. Many such buildings became direct sources of disease to those who frequented them. In the churchyards, coffins were placed tier above tier in the graves until they were within a few feet (or sometimes even a few inches) of the surface, and the level of the ground was often raised to that of the lower windows of the church. To make room for fresh interments, the sextons had recourse to the surreptitious removal of bones and partially decayed remains, and in some cases the contents of the graves were systematically transferred to pits adjacent to the site, the gravediggers appropriating the coffin plates, handles, and nails to be sold as waste metal. As a result of these practices, the neighbourhoods of the churchyards were usually unhealthy and their sight intolerable.

In all the large towns these practices prevailed to a greater or lesser degree. In London, however, because of the immense population and the consequent mortality, they more readily attracted public attention; and, after more than one partial measure of relief had been passed, the churchyards were, with a few exceptions, finally closed by law in 1855. Several London cemeteries had been established by private enterprise earlier, but the Burial Acts of 1855 marks the start of general development of cemeteries in Great Britain and Ireland. Burial within the limits of cities and towns was almost everywhere abolished, and where it was still allowed it was surrounded by safeguards that made it practically innocuous.

From 1860 churchyard burials have gradually been discontinued in many countries and have gone through a transition from single burial plots on private property, to church graveyards, to cemeteries and now to memorial parks where the graves are marked with flat metal markers instead of the customary gravestones. One of the largest 19th-century projects was England's Brookwood, organized by the London Necropolis Company. It had a private railway station in London and two in the cemetery, its own telegraphic address, and special areas for different religions, nationalities, social organizations, and professions. Perhaps the most famous of the type is California's Forest Lawn. In the United States there continue to be public cemeteries, cooperative cemeteries, church cemeteries, and large, mutually owned cemeteries. In addition to state, county, and municipal cemeteries, the federal government operates a complex of national cemeteries in the United States and abroad for military servicemen and members of their families. In the modern cemetery, lots are sold by the government, religious, commercial, or other organization that has charge. A definite fee is charged for perpetual care, and a charge is made for opening the grave and other duties performed by the sexton or superintendent.


Burial is the disposal of human remains by depositing in the earth, a grave, or a tomb, by consigning to the water, or by exposing to the elements or carrion animals. Geography, religion, and the social system all influence burial practices. Climate and topography determine whether the body is buried under the ground, placed in water, burned, or exposed to the air. Religious and social attitudes determine how elaborate the burial should be; rank, for example, may determine whether the body is placed in the shallow trench of a simple burial or in an underground chamber of impressive dimensions and construction.


Burial in the ground by hollowing out a trench in the earth for the body or covering it with rocks or dirt dates back at least to Middle Paleolithic times. Grave burial, or inhumation, may be simple or elaborate. Some Eskimo people cover the corpse with a pile of stones or, if stones are not available, with a small ice igloo; the old Norse people built barrows that sometimes reached enormous heights. In North America, large burial mounds were characteristic of eastern Indian cultures from 1000 BC to AD 700.

Graves may be mere shallow pits, or they may be intricate and beautifully fashioned subterranean palaces sunk deep into the earth and spacious enough to accommodate vast numbers of persons. Excavations of the royal graves of Ur (dating back to about 3000 BC) revealed, in an inner chamber of one, the body of a ruler with a few intimate attendants and, in surrounding chambers, servants, ministers, dancing girls, charioteers with vehicles and animals, and other persons who had been slain to provide service in death. Recent discoveries in Peru revealed that the Paraca burial chambers, hewn out of solid rock 18 feet (5 m) below the surface of the ground, were large enough to accommodate as many as 400 corpses with all of the belongings that it was thought they would need in the afterworld. Customarily, however, graves have been planned for the burial of individuals.

Caves, a natural refuge of humans, have also been used for the dead. The ancient Hebrews used natural single-chamber caves and hewed oblong recesses lengthwise into the walls to accommodate the dead, a custom that encouraged the building of mausoleums. At first regarded as sacred places, they came to be considered unclean; by the time of Christ they were coated with lime so that they could be recognized and avoided--the literal origin of the metaphoric "whited sepulchres." Among many people, however, sepulchral caves continued to be regarded as sacred and eventually became places of worship. Among them are thousands of rock temples in western India and in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), some of which received elaborate architectural and sculptural treatment. Both caves and earth graves encouraged the development of other burial practices: the use of coffins and rich grave clothes and burial goods.

Even the positioning of the body came to acquire significance, generally of a religious nature. Customarily the body is placed in an extended position, in or out of a coffin, as if in sleep. Bodies of Muslims are laid on their right side and facing Mecca; those of Buddhists are laid with the head to the north. The bodies of ancient Egyptians were placed to face toward the west, perhaps as an indication of the importance of the land of the dead. Not all groups prefer the sleeping position. Early cultures buried their dead in a crouching or squatting position. In Babylon and Sumer, the sleeping position was reserved for the more exalted; servants killed and buried with their rulers were placed in a crouching position so that they would be ready to serve at royal command. Indians of the Americas often buried their dead in a fetal position, sometimes in a basket or clay urn, with knees under the chin and the body neatly tied into a death bundle. Upright burial has been favoured by other people, particularly for warriors.


The association between water and immortality is reflected in the myths of many cultures, myths that often centre on a god-hero who sails away from his people in death with the promise to return again. The bodies of chiefs and heroes, therefore, have often been set adrift on rivers and oceans in death ships. Among the Norse, even those who were interred were sometimes given such a bier--a custom that was widespread from Iceland to England during the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Perhaps the most famous of such ship burials that have been excavated was that at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England. In one mound, archaeologists found the remains of a wooden boat for 38 rowers, 85 feet (26 m) long, that had been dragged a half mile (about 1 km) from the river and lowered into the ground.

Water burials have been common in other cultures. In the South Pacific it was customary to place the dead in a canoe and launch that on the water. Not all water burial involves a ship or raft, however. In the Solomon Islands, bodies are simply laid on a reef to be eaten by sharks; in other places they are wrapped and weighted with stones. In Western cultures, water burial is still employed on occasion when people die during a sea voyage. Scattering ashes on water is widely practiced, especially in Asia; in Laos, for example, the ashes of the cremated are often strewn at sea. In India a bone-throwing ceremony concludes the Hindu death observances. Within a year after death the remains are taken to the Ganges River and thrown into the sacred water; if it is not possible to do that, they are thrown into another river or stream with the hope that they will eventually make their way to the Ganges.


Placing the body where it may be eaten by scavenging birds and animals or weathered to its essential elements has been held by many groups to be the most desirable form of disposal for spiritual as well as material reasons. The Zoroastrians have been perhaps the most widely known practitioners of this type of burial, which developed out of the belief that the corpse is so unclean that to inter or to cremate it would contaminate the "pure elements" of earth, fire, and water. Since the6th century BC it has been their custom to leave bodies on mountains or hills at a distance from the community. In Bombay the Parsis (as the Indian descendants of the Persian refugees are called) maintain "towers of silence," high circular structures. The dead are carried to them, and funeral servants place them on stone beds surrounding a central pit. After the hovering vultures have stripped the flesh from the bones--usually within a few hours--the bones are gathered and dropped into the central pit.

A number of people who expose the dead use trees and platforms (tree burial). Among them are the primitive Balinese, the Naga tribes of India, the tribes of central Australia, and the Sioux and other North American Indian groups. Commonly, the Sioux robed the dead in their best clothing, sewed them into a deerskin or buffalo shroud, and carried them to a platform about 8 feet (2.5 m) high. Various possessions and gifts were placed on the scaffold, and the body was allowed tore main there for a year; at the end of that time it was taken down and given an earth burial.


Among many people, particularly in primitive cultures, a period of waiting occurs between the first and a second burial that often coincides with the duration of decomposition. The origin of this practice is considered to be the different concept of death held by these peoples. In modern societies, death is regarded as instantaneous; it is not so in many non literate societies, where it is held to involve a slow change, a passage from the visible society of the living to the invisible one of the dead. During the period of decomposition the corpse is sometimes treated as if it were alive, provided with food and drink, and surrounded by company. Some groups, the Indonesians, for example, attached mystical importance to the disintegration of the body, collecting and carefully disposing of the liquids produced by decomposition--sometimes mixing them with rice to ingest them.

Western burials in the 20th century have become fairly standardized. The dead are interred in cloth-lined and simply ornamented coffins called caskets, and after ceremonies of eulogy and farewell the casket is lowered into a rectangular hole, usually dug 6 feet (2 m) deep into the soil, which is then filled up with earth. Beginning in the 19th century, burials increasingly took place in cemeteries, which are special areas set aside as sites for graves.

Copyright 1995, Encyclopaedia Britannica.