Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Death and the Afterlife

By Alli Sinclair

Call me morbid, but I’ve always held a fascination for the way different cultures deal with death. It’s not uncommon for me to take a Sunday stroll with hubby through a cemetery and us spend time imagining what kind of lives the people now buried there used to lead. When I was in Bali, I was fascinated and honored to be included in a burial celebration for a distant relation of a tour guide I met and Varanasi in India had me entranced with the funeral pyres. And every year, while I lived in South America, I liked celebrating Dia de los Santos Difuntos--Day of the Deceased Saints, with my friends and their families.

When I first started writing VESTIGE, I researched Incan weddings and funerals for the historical component of my story. I was lucky enough to meet an anthropologist with a passion for all things Inca and we spent many afternoons discussing the various practices used throughout the Incan empire. His incredible knowledge could easily fill five hefty books, but alas I’m limited to one blog post, so here goes:

According to the Incas, when a person passed from this world, their thirsty spirit travelled the land in search of chicha (Incan fermented maize), and in need of food. The loved one’s dressed in black and grieved, and for five days mourners would be accompanied by musicians and sing songs of sorrow, drink alcohol and eat. The women closest to the deceased would cut off their long tresses or tear out their eyelashes as a sign of grief.

People would gather at the deceased’s most favorite place or where his or her greatest success had been achieved, and while there, the loved ones could recount significant events and fond memories.

When the commoner’s were buried, they would be accompanied by their tools of trade and perhaps some food or chicha, while the Lords would be dressed in their finery and buried with their wealth. Occasionally their wives and servants accompanied them.

The funeral for a kuraka, a regional ruler entailed the mummified body placed in a pucullo, a burial chamber, along with various goods to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. The community would band together and offer llama sacrifices, textiles, cuy (guinea pig), and ceramics at the burial site.

The death of a royal was celebrated in much the same way as a commoner, but on a grander scale. Once the ruler died, his passing would be kept secret until a successor was named. The ruler would be embalmed and placed in Qorikancha Temple Qorikancha Temple. Of course everything was on a grander scale, including the sacrifices. Unfortunately, the Incas not only sacrificed llamas when their ruler died, but 1,000 children were sacrificed in pairs at mountain shrines throughout the region.

The mourning period for a ruler spread across ten days and a further couple of weeks were spent traveling to the ruler’s significant sites—battle victories, agricultural fields, and monuments—where people would speak of the emperor’s greatest acts and victories.

Royal mummies were dressed in a fine tunic and jewelry then wrapped in six layers of precious textiles woven with vicuña fur and feathers, shells, and threads of gold. A piece of silver or coca leaf was placed in his mouth and the emperor’s grave contained several changes of clothing, food, and weapons for the afterlife.

A group of relatives, known as panaqa, were charged with the care of the deceased emperor and they ensured the mummy was kept in food and water. Often, the mummy would be consulted in difficult matters and the people carried on as if the mummies were still living. They even went so far as to gather mummies together for celebrations.

Traveling through the regions that were once part of the Incan Empire, it’s easy to spot pucullos of both the commoners and royalty. Which type of pucullos people were buried in depended greatly on where the deceased person lived.

In the eastern quarter of the empire, in Antisuyu, the people in this rain forest buried their dead in hollowed out trees. The northern quarter, Chinchaysuysu, people held open-air burials where the mummified remains were left out in the elements for five days before being placed in the pucullo.

In the southern quarter of the empire, in Collasuyu, the people were placed in pucullos away from the towns of the living. The cluster of pucullos were commonly known as the “village of the dead.” And in Cuntisuyu, the south western corner of the Incan Empire, the people utilized the dry, mountain environment and placed their dead in natural nooks and crannies.

Some pucullos were made from the traditional method of fitting stones together without mortar (Cuzco is famous for this work), while other regions used adobe bricks. Along the coast, pucullos had numerous chambers and in the mountains, some pucullos towered over 30 feet in height.

I could go on, but I’ll stop here for now. Death, like life, has many facets and through exploring the different belief systems of cultures from around the world, we can learn so much.

How about you? Have you ever experienced or read about a burial from a culture you find fascinating?

1 comment:

  1. That's fascinating about gathering the mummies together for consultations and celebrations. It reminds me of a friend in Europe whose family used to always set an empty place at the table on holidays and put dead relatives' photos there. They'd include the deceased in their toasts as well.