Secondary burial

The secondary burial (German: Nachbestattung or Sekundärbestattung) is a feature of certain prehistoric grave sites of all types, identified since the New Stone Age, which is a frequent feature of megalithic tombs and tumuli. Secondary burials were also a mortuary custom among many Native American cultures.

Arch Wanderpfad Fischbeker Heide Station 09
Partially reconstructed tree trunk burial - without burial mound - with a secondary burial in a semi-circular extension (background: centre left)
Arch Wanderpfad Fischbeker Heide Station 09 younger burial
Detail of the secondary burial. In the foreground is the stone arrangement of the old burial mound. In the background is that of the more recent extension


From an archaeological and ethnographic perspective, the types of burial ceremonies for the dead are divided into two categories: primary burials and secondary burials. Primary burials refers to the initial burial, with temporary or final severance of all physical contact of family and community members with the deceased.[1] Secondary burials may (but do not always) occur after the primary ceremony. Any remains are the focus of the secondary ceremony. These remains are used to alter the spiritual condition of the deceased.[2]


Artificial mounds and other, clearly visible, above-ground structures have been re-used since the New Stone Age (and even in later times, often by much later cultures) for burials of bodies, bones or cremated remains (in urns). These more recent burials, of whatever form, are referred to by archaeologists as secondary burials. They are found in grave mounds, usually in those areas of the site that could at the same time be extended. In larger dolmens, passage graves, stone cists, etc. the re-use of the interior space available was usually closer in time to the original burial (e.g. by the Globular Amphora culture), if necessary also accompanied by the removal or addition of secondary chambers (as in the Megalithic tombs of Hagestad). The mounds of the megalithic tombs, which were usually covered with earth, were re-used following a similar shape as the original grave mound.

Secondary burial in the Holy Land involved an initial interment in a tomb, for example, prone on a bench, until the body decayed. Subsequently, the decayed remains would be relegated to a nearby receptacle within the same tomb. Later, another person, typically a later member of the same family, would be placed on the same bench, and the process would continue. This practice is described in the article on Ketef Hinnom.

This practice of secondary burial should be distinguished from the continual use of natural caves, even when this falls during the same historical period, because they did not involve artificially constructed monuments.

Insights and Analysis

Much of the recordings of burial ceremonies were from the observations of explorers, missionaries, and administrative personnel who lived amongst native peoples.[2] In the late 19th and early 20th century. Three important figures in analyzing these accounts were Hertz, Schärer, and Stöher. These scholars characterized the secondary burials of the Ngadju-Daya communities. These communities were part of the Dayak culture in Indonesia, and had a very structured approach to secondary burial ceremonies.[2] These highly structured ceremonies helped the community feel as though they had some semblance of control over death.[1] The translation and interpretation of Hertz’ thesis was seminal in the field, and is still used as a basis for understanding and interpreting current cultural practices of secondary burial. The overarching theme for Hertz was that in the Ngadju-Daya communities there was a moral obligation from both the family and community to benefit the deceased in the afterlife.[2] In addition to providing for the deceased, this ceremony emphasized the greater good of the community over individualism.[1] However, it is important to note that neither Hertz, Schärer, or Stöher lived amongst these native people, leaving room for misinterpretation and bias.

Secondary burials are also seen in many cultures over the centuries outside of the Ngadja-Daya. The unique characteristics and frequency of secondary burials are often used to help identify and characterize past settlements.[1] These traditions have left a strong impression on people’s minds today, and hence have affected how we view past cultures in general. Some more well-known examples include the megaliths from the late Funnel Beaker culture, the stringent procedures in the single burial graves of the Battle Axe culture, and the uniqueness of the Pitted Ware Culture.[1] Some cultures even contain the remains of multiple individuals being subjected to fire, but defleshing as well.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Miles Douglass: Socio-Economic Aspects of Secondary Burial. Oceania, Vol. 35. 1965.
  2. ^ a b c d Märta Strömberg: Die Megalithgräber von Hagestad. Zur Problematik von Grabbauten und Grabriten. Acta Archaeologica Lundensia, Vol. 8. Bonn and Lund, 1971.

Further reading

Asa Larsson: Secondary Burial Practices in the Middle Neolithic-Causes and Consequences. Current Swedish Archaeology, Vol 11, 2003.


Burial or interment is a method of final disposition wherein a dead person or animal is placed into the ground, sometimes with objects. This is usually accomplished by excavating a pit or trench, placing the deceased and objects in it, and covering it over. A funeral is a ceremony that accompanies the final disposition. Humans have been burying their dead since shortly after the origin of the species. Burial is often seen as indicating respect for the dead. It has been used to prevent the odor of decay, to give family members closure and prevent them from witnessing the decomposition of their loved ones, and in many cultures it has been seen as a necessary step for the deceased to enter the afterlife or to give back to the cycle of life.

Methods of burial may be heavily ritualized and can include natural burial (sometimes called "green burial"); embalming or mummification; and the use of containers for the dead, such as shrouds, coffins, grave liners, and burial vaults, all of which can retard decomposition of the body. Sometimes objects or grave goods are buried with the body, which may be dressed in fancy or ceremonial garb. Depending on the culture, the way the body is positioned may have great significance.

The location of the burial may be determined by taking into account concerns surrounding health and sanitation, religious concerns, and cultural practices. Some cultures keep the dead close to provide guidance to the living, while others "banish" them by locating burial grounds at a distance from inhabited areas. Some religions consecrate special ground to bury the dead, and some families build private family cemeteries. Most modern cultures document the location of graves with headstones, which may be inscribed with information and tributes to the deceased. However, some people are buried in anonymous or secret graves for various reasons. Sometimes multiple bodies are buried in a single grave either by choice (as in the case of married couples), due to space concerns, or in the case of mass graves as a way to deal with many bodies at once.

Alternatives to burial may include cremation (and subsequent inurnment), burial at sea, promession, cryopreservation, and others. Some human cultures may bury the remains of beloved animals. Humans are not the only species which bury their dead; the practice has been observed in chimpanzees, elephants, and possibly dogs.

Cave of the Guanches

The Cave of the Guanches, or Archaeological area of the Cave of the Guanches (Spanish: Zona Arqueológica de la Cueva de los Guanches), is an important archaeological site located in the north of the island of Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain).

Death messenger

Death messengers, in former times, were those who were dispatched to spread the news that an inhabitant of their city or village had died. They were to wear unadorned black and go door to door with the message, "You are asked to attend the funeral of the departed __________ at (time, date, and place)." This was all they were allowed to say, and were to move on to the next house immediately after uttering the announcement. This tradition persisted in some areas to as late as the mid-19th century.

Death rattle

Terminal respiratory secretions (or simply terminal secretions), known colloquially as a death rattle, are sounds often produced by someone who is near death as a result of fluids such as saliva and bronchial secretions accumulating in the throat and upper chest. Those who are dying may lose their ability to swallow and may have increased production of bronchial secretions, resulting in such an accumulation. Usually, two or three days earlier, the symptoms of approaching death can be observed as saliva accumulates in the throat, making it very difficult to take even a spoonful of water. Related symptoms can include shortness of breath and rapid chest movement. While death rattle is a strong indication that someone is near death, it can also be produced by other problems that cause interference with the swallowing reflex, such as brain injuries.It is sometimes misinterpreted as the sound of the person choking to death, or alternatively, that they are gargling.

Dignified death

Dignified death is a somewhat elusive concept often related to suicide. One factor that has been cited as a core component of dignified death is maintaining a sense of control. Another view is that a truly dignified death is an extension of a dignified life. There is some concern that assisted suicide does not guarantee a dignified death, since some patients may experience complications such as nausea and vomiting. There is some concern that age discrimination denies the elderly a dignified death.


In medicine, dysthanasia means "bad death" and is considered a common fault of modern medicine.Dysthanasia occurs when a person who is dying has their biological life extended through technological means without regard to the person's quality of life. Technologies such as an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, artificial ventilation, ventricular assist devices, and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation can extend the dying process.

Dysthanasia is a term generally used when a person is seen to be kept alive artificially in a condition where, otherwise, they cannot survive; sometimes for some sort of ulterior motive. The term was used frequently in the investigation into the death of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna in 1994.

Fontbrégoua Cave

Fontbrégoua Cave is an archaeological site located in Provence, Southeastern France. It was used by humans in the fifth and fourth millennia BCE, in what is now known as the Early and Middle Neolithic. A temporary residential site, it was used by Neolithic agriculturalists as a storage area for their herds of goats and sheep, and also contained a number of bone depositions, containing the remains of domestic species, wild animals, and humans. The inclusion of the latter of these deposits led the archaeological team studying the site to propose that cannibalism had taken place at Fontbrégoua, although other archaeologists have instead suggested that they represent evidence of secondary burial.

The original excavators of the site, under the leadership of Paola Villa, argued that the treatment of human remains at the site constituted strong evidence of cannibalism. This conclusion was criticised by M.P. Pickering, who instead suggested that the evidence was better explained by defleshing rituals involved in secondary burial, drawing ethnographic comparisons with certain Indigenous Australian practices. Pickering's views were supported by the archaeologist Paul Bahn, but in turn came under counter-criticisms from Villa.


Ghassulian refers to a culture and an archaeological stage dating to the Middle and Late Chalcolithic Period in the Southern Levant (c. 4400 – c. 3500 BC). Its type-site, Teleilat Ghassul (Teleilat el-Ghassul, Tulaylat al-Ghassul), is located in the eastern Jordan Valley near the northern edge of the Dead Sea, in modern Jordan. It was excavated in 1929-1938 and in 1959-1960, by the Jesuits. Basil Hennessy dug at the site in 1967 and in 1975-1977, and Stephen Bourke in 1994-1999.The Ghassulian stage was characterized by small hamlet settlements of mixed farming peoples, who had immigrated from the north and settled in the southern Levant - today's Jordan, Israel and Palestine. People of the Beersheba Culture (a Ghassulian subculture) lived in underground dwellings - a unique phenomenon in the archaeological history of the region - or in houses that were trapezoid-shaped and built of mud-brick. Those were often built partially underground (on top of collapsed underground dwellings) and were covered with remarkable polychrome wall paintings. Their pottery was highly elaborate, including footed bowls and horn-shaped drinking goblets, indicating the cultivation of wine. Several samples display the use of sculptural decoration or of a reserved slip (a clay and water coating partially wiped away while still wet). The Ghassulians were a Chalcolithic culture as they used stone tools but also smelted copper. Funerary customs show evidence that they buried their dead in stone dolmens and also practiced Secondary burial .

Settlements belonging to the Ghassulian culture have been identified at numerous other sites in what is today southern Israel, especially in the region of Beersheba, where elaborate underground dwellings have been excavated. The Ghassulian culture correlates closely with the Amratian of Egypt and also seems to have affinities (e.g., the distinctive churns, or “bird vases”) with early Minoan culture in Crete.

Jar burial

Jar burials are human burials where the corpse is placed into a large earthenware and then is interred. Jar-burials are a repeated pattern at a site or within an archaeological culture. When an anomalous burial is found in which a corpse or cremated remains have been interred, it is not considered a "jar burial".

Jar burial can be traced to various regions across the globe. It is noted to have been practiced as early as BCE 900, and as recent as CE 15-17th centuries Particular areas of studies on jar burial excavations include India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Palestine,Taiwan, Japan, Cambodia, Iran, Syria, Sumatra, Egypt, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Vanuatu, and Vietnam. These differing locations call for different methods, accoutrements, and rationales behind the jar burial practices. Cultural practices ranged from primary versus secondary burial, burial offerings (bronze/iron tools, weapons and bronze/silver/gold ornaments, wood, stone, clay, glass, and paste) in/around burials, and hierarchical structures represented in the location/method of the placement of jars.Among many cultures, a period of waiting occurs between the first burial 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 cultures. In such societies, death 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 on the island of Borneo, for example, attach mystical importance to the disintegration of the body, sometimes collecting and carefully disposing of the liquids produced by decomposition.

Kong Asgers Høj

Kong Asgers Høj is a large passage grave on the island of Møn in Denmark.

The megalithic structure dated to Neolithic Funnel Beaker culture. The grave consists of a chamber (10 m long by 2 m wide) with a long passage (7.5 m long). This type of graves is found primarily in Denmark, Germany and Scandinavia, and occasionally in France and the Netherlands.

Study of King Asger Høj began in 1839, when the Danish merchant Gustav Hage tried to find a treasure, found it empty. The grave is structurally untouched since ancient times, but may have been cleared then. It was used as Secondary burial for Corded Ware culture period.

Lazarus sign

The Lazarus sign or Lazarus reflex is a reflex movement in brain-dead or brainstem failure patients, which causes them to briefly raise their arms and drop them crossed on their chests (in a position similar to some Egyptian mummies). The phenomenon is named after the Biblical figure Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raised from the dead in the Gospel of John.

Maitum anthropomorphic pottery

The Maitum anthropomorphic burial jars are earthenware secondary burial vessels discovered in 1991 by the National Museum of the Philippines' archaeological team in Ayub Cave, Barangay Pinol, Maitum, Sarangani Province, Mindanao, Philippines. The jars are anthropomorphic; characterized by a design that suggests human figures with complete or partial facial features of the first inhabitants of Mindanao. Furthermore, they give emphasis to the Filipinos’ popular belief of life after death.

According to Dr. Eusebio Dizon, head of the archaeological team, this type of burial jars are “remarkably unique and intriguing” because they have not been found elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Thus, many archaeologists from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Indonesia gained interest on this initial find and a number of archaeological - either government or privately sponsored - excavations have been conducted to recover these artifacts.

These jars have characteristics that belong to the Developed Metal Age Period in the Philippines [calibrated date of 190 BC to 500 AD]. According to the laboratory results determined through radiocarbon dating, these secondary burial jars date back to the Metal Age. Two conventional dates were 1830 +/-60 B.P. [calibrated date of AD 70 to 370] and 1920 +/- 50 B.P. [calibrated date of 5 BC to 225 AD]. Experts used soot samples taken from the walls of a small earthenware vessel found inside one of the larger burial jars.

Manunggul Jar

The Manunggul Jar is a secondary burial jar excavated from a Neolithic burial site in the Manunggul cave of the Tabon Caves at Lipuun Point in Palawan. It dates from 890–710 B.C. and the two prominent figures at the top handle of its cover represent the journey of the soul to the afterlife.

The Manunggul Jar is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest Philippine pre-colonial artworks ever produced and is considered a masterpiece of Philippine ceramics. It is listed as a national treasure and designated as item 64-MO-74 by the National Museum of the Philippines. It is now housed at the National Museum of Anthropology and is one of the most popular exhibits there. It is made from clay with some sand soil.


Megadeath (or megacorpse) is one million human deaths, usually caused by a nuclear explosion. The term was used by scientists and thinkers who strategized likely outcomes of all-out nuclear warfare.


An obituary (obit for short) is a news article that reports the recent death of a person, typically along with an account of the person's life and information about the upcoming funeral. In large cities and larger newspapers, obituaries are written only for people considered significant. In local newspapers, an obituary may be published for any local resident upon death. A necrology is a register or list of records of the deaths of people related to a particular organization, group or field, which may only contain the sparsest details, or small obituaries. Historical necrologies can be important sources of information.

Two types of paid advertisements are related to obituaries. One, known as a death notice, omits most biographical details and may be a legally required public notice under some circumstances. The other type, a paid memorial advertisement, is usually written by family members or friends, perhaps with assistance from a funeral home. Both types of paid advertisements are usually run as classified advertisements.


An ossuary is a chest, box, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains. They are frequently used where burial space is scarce. A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary. The greatly reduced space taken up by an ossuary means that it is possible to store the remains of many more people in a single tomb than if the original coffins were left as is.

Pallor mortis

Pallor mortis (Latin: pallor "paleness", mortis "of death"), the first stage of death, is an after-death paleness that occurs in those with light/white skin.

Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars (Lao: ທົ່ງໄຫຫິນ [tʰōŋ hǎj hǐn]) is a megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos. It consists of thousands of stone jars scattered around the upland valleys and the lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau. The jars are mostly arranged in clusters ranging in number from one to several hundred.The Xieng Khouang Plateau is located at the northern end of the Annamese Cordillera, the principal mountain range of Indochina. French researcher Madeleine Colani concluded in 1930 that the jars were associated with prehistoric burial practices. Excavation by Lao and Japanese archaeologists in the intervening years has supported this interpretation with the discovery of human remains, burial goods and ceramics around the jars. The Plain of Jars is dated to the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500) and is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia.


Sandung or sandong is the ossuary of the Dayak people of South and Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. The sandung is an integral part of the Tiwah ceremony of the Ngaju people, which is basically a secondary burial ritual where the bones of the deceased are taken from the cemeteries, purified and finally placed in a sandung.

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