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Cultural Spotlight: Ancient Mayan Funeral Traditions

by | Feb 2, 2018 | Cultural Spotlight, For Families

Ancient Maya Chichen Itza Mexico

Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.

But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.

This article looks at ancient Mayan funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Zambian funeral traditions and French funeral traditions, among others.

Ancient Mayan Death Beliefs

The ancient Mayan people of Mesoamerica believed in reincarnation. They believed the soul was bound to the body at birth and parted at death. After death, the soul began their afterlife journey. They also believed the deceased could still contact the living and give them advice.

If someone died by suicide, sacrifice, in childbirth, or in battle, they believed their soul went directly to heaven. For example, sometimes people sacrificed themselves in the ball game called Pok-a-Tok.

Preparation of the Body

The ancient Mayan people practiced both burial and cremation. To prep the body for burial, they put a piece of corn in the deceased’s mouth. They believed corn symbolized the rebirth of the soul and provided food for the afterlife journey. Then, they wrapped the body in cotton cloth.

If cremated, the ashes were put in pots or idols designed to hold cremated remains. On special holidays and festivals, the deceased’s family brought food to the idols.

Burial Practices

Burials usually were in graves near significant buildings, sometimes with multiple bodies. The graves faced north or west in the directions of the Mayan heavens. However, Mayan rulers had extravagant tombs in funerary pyramids filled with pottery, masks, food, and other goods.

They buried the deceased with rock whistles carved in the shape of animals or gods. They also covered the graves and remains with cinnabar, a red mineral. Red was the color of death and rebirth. They also believed the mineral could help the soul through their afterlife journey. A few years later, they reburied the body after cleaning the bones and removing the flesh. They saved the bones to use for other purposes.


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