Skip to main content



TOMBS . In many European languages, to speak of "the tomb" is synecdochically to speak of death. In other places this is not true, since mortuary rites do not involve anything resembling a tomb. Moreover, where they exist, there are a wide variety of structures that may be described as tombs.

Tombless Death Rituals

There are ethnographic instances where corpses are simply abandoned. When a death occurs in the camps of some of the hunting and gathering peoples of the Kalahari Desert, there is an outpouring of grief, but nevertheless the band rapidly decamps leaving the corpse just as it lay at the moment of dying. There is a ritual response in that the site is avoided for years afterwards, but it is about as minimal a response as can be imagined. Corpses abandoned in this way are generally disposed of by carrion creatures, most commonly hyenas. Across much of Africa, hyenas are the subject of black humor, since they are always ready to devour the injured or dig up shallow graves.

The same theme of disposal as carrion is found in the Tibetan practice of "sky burial," in which corpses are ritually butchered by a caste of death specialists, and fed to vultures. What this expresses in the starkest possible terms is the Buddhist contempt for the body, whose transience stands in contrast to the eternal verities of the spiritual world. The Jain "towers of the dead" use vultures in the same way, but the doctrinal emphasis is on avoiding pollution of the earth.

If these cases seem obscure, consider the ancient Hindu tradition of cremation, still followed by millions of people in Northern India. The purpose is to allow the corporeal elements to return to their originsvision to the sun, feeling to the air, and so on. Consequently, rather than retaining the ashes, they are cast into rivers so that they can be dispersed. The most auspicious river of all is the Ganges, and the temples and burning ghats of Benares are a major focus of Hindu ritual.

Imperial Mortuary Complexes

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are examples of royal tombs constructed on such a vast scale that they constitute some of the most spectacular finds of archaeology. When Chinese archaeologists began in the 1970s to probe the mound associated with the Qin Emperor Shi Huangdi, the first to unify the Chinese into one state, they discovered a series of vaults containing an estimated seven thousand life-size terra-cotta statues comprising an entire army of infantry, cavalry, crossbowmen, and charioteers. The figures are extremely lifelike, each face different and thought to have been modeled from life. They comprise a stunning artistic and technical triumph, but it is not clear what ideology lay behind the complex, especially as it was not imitated by subsequent emperors. At first sight it seems to reflect the megalomania of an emperor who evidently thought that he could ride into the afterlife at the head of his army, but there were also sociological effects that may or may not have been part of the emperor's intentions. The organizational challenge of such a project was appropriate to a new state in the process of establishing its infrastructure, especially as it must have trained thousands of artisans in pottery techniques for which China has ever since been famous. Moreover, it augmented a national cult focused on the emperor.

Much the same argument could be made about the massive pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Although the pyramids were all built within a century near the beginning of the pharaonic state, they can also be placed within the context of a religion that developed over several millennia. The most famous archaeological discovery of the 1920s was the tomb of a relatively unimportant pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty obscure enough to have avoided the attention of grave robbers in antiquity. By comparison with the temple complexes of other pharaohs, Tutankhamen's tomb was modest. Nevertheless, it contained a fabulous storehouse of treasures, including enough furniture to equip a small palace. As is demonstrated by the tombs in the Valley of the Nobles at Luxor, such grandeur was not restricted to pharaohs.

Grave Goods

The Qin emperor's soldiers and Tutankhamen's furniture are examples, if remarkable ones, of the practice commonly found all over the world of entombing useful or valuable objects with a corpse. It is often argued that such grave goods are among the earliest prehistoric evidence of ritual activity, and that they demonstrate belief in an afterlife. This does not, in fact, follow. Other motives are possible, such as the desire to prevent the further use of objects sentimentally associated with the deceased. Even so, grave goods often do imply an equipping of the dead. For instance, in parts of Borneo there is an elaborated theory of the journey of the dead to the afterlife by canoe. Consequently, paddles and sun hats are often hung from the sides of mausoleums. These grave goods are of little intrinsic value, and in a similar fashion even humble graves are often found to contain pottery or tools.

Archaeologists are also familiar with finding valuables in gravesites. Often these are goods originating from far away, and so give evidence of ancient trade. Examples are the shell disks and embossed copper sheets found in mounds throughout central North America, and the gold and precious stones found across much of the Middle East. It is a safe assumption that such valuables were not taken out of circulation lightly, but it is often unclear exactly what the goal was. There may have been an element of sacrifice, especially where animals or even humans were immolated at the graveside. In accordance with that conception, in many places grave goods must be broken before they can be transmitted to the other world.

Hierarchy and Tomb Elaboration

Diversity in grave goods from tombs of the same period is often taken by archaeologists as evidence of differences in the social status of the living, and hence a measure of social hierarchy. There are, as usual, exceptions that undermine the validity of the inference. For instance, the funerals of the kings of Bali, an island in Indonesia, were theatrical displays of pomp and hierarchy, yet the king's ashes ended up strewn on the sea according to the Hindu origins of the ancient empire of Majapahit. Noble Balinese families that had lost a member in the previous few years took the opportunity to participate in the grand cremation rites, so that the only graves that remained were those of commoners. Again, the kings of the Shilluk of southern Sudan had no tombs because it was intolerable that the king should die. Since the king's vitality was associated with that of the whole nation, signs of frailty meant that he had to be suffocated by his own wives, or so it was said. However the king died, his body was simply left where it lay, and the door of the hut walled up with bricks. Until the new king was installed, the spirit of the nation passed into an effigy kept for the purpose. Consequently, mortuary structures provide no evidence of the existence of the state. As a further example, Saudi kings are buried in plain graves facing Mecca as a gesture of humility before Allāh.

Nevertheless, it remains true that the tombs most characteristic of a place or an epoch are often those of the elite, especially where there is intense status competition. In Iron Age northern Europe, warrior kings tried to establish their lineages by building impressive tumuli containing stone-lined vaults and passageways. The size of the artificial hill was physical proof of a king's ability to muster numerous followers. A striking variant was the ship burials that have proved such a treasure trove for archaeologists and were particularly appropriate to images of death as a voyage. Ship symbolism is in fact widely found in connection with tombs, and particularly with coffins that resemble dugout canoes.

Primary and Secondary Storage

Tumuli or burial mounds often became ritual centers, incorporating subsequent interments. This was especially true when they were associated with secondary treatment of the dead. This involves the temporary storage of a corpse while the flesh decays from the bones, with final entombment of the bones at a later date.

The technique was employed in ancient times across the Mississippi region. At Cahokia in present-day Illinois, there are over a hundred flat-topped earth mounds, the largest of which is one hundred feet high. The mounds show traces of wooden buildings on top, which probably included charnel houses where corpses were left to rot until the remains were ready for burial in the mound. There are also graves containing whole skeletons, the remains of burials of particularly prestigious people. Bundles of bones were also brought from elsewhere, to produce a complex pattern of interment in one mound. The Cahokia site supported a dense population, but dispersed populations in less fertile regions of the Appalachian Mountains also built mounds, which grew over many generations by accretion of new bones and earth. Exposure platforms were widely used across North America, the corpse dressed and equipped suitably for the gender and role of the deceased.

Secondary treatment is by no means restricted to the Americas. It is found in parts of Southeast Asia and in New Guinea, where corpses are laid out on platforms or set behind domestic fireplaces to dry out. In rural Greece the burial of corpses is only temporary. After some years, the grave is dug up and the bones stored in a communal ossuary. The same process in monastic communities in southern Europe produced crypts lined with anonymous skulls and femurs neatly arranged in patternsa dramatic expression of death as the great leveler. In other cases in Europe, the removal of bones from communal graveyards to make room for others is the fate of paupers buried at public expense.

Burials, Tombstones, Vaults, and Mausoleums

Simple earth burial is often associated with those on the lower rungs of a social hierarchy. It may be argued that this is a matter of practical expedience, the most rapid way to dispose of corpses before putrescence sets in. The carnage of a battle or a lethal epidemic makes mass graves necessary. At Cahokia, however, immediate burial was a privilege of a small elite, whereas paupers in southern Europe were lucky to rest undisturbed in their graves. In the Christian tradition, earth burial is the norm for rich and poor, in accordance with the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Moreover, missionaries have exported Christian practices to the indigenous populations of Africa, the Americas, and Asia. The spread of Islam has had the same effect, so that burial is now more universal than it was in previous centuries.

Accordingly, tombstones provide the most familiar of death monuments. They are found in many varieties, from stones or plain slabs covering a grave to elaborate sculptures. The commonest are headstones inscribed with brief accounts of the deceased, but changing fashions have sometimes produced much more elaborate and imposing structures. In parts of the Islamic world, grave markers are nothing more than short wooden posts, carved in abstract or floral designs, but elsewhere the same process of elaboration has occurred as in Christian cemeteries.

Such changes of fashion date back to classical antiquity. Until sometime in the first century, Romans of any respectability were cremated, and their ashes stored in barrel-vaulted brick and masonry chambers, with niches in the walls to contain urns. Such was the expense of building them that subscribers joined funeral cooperatives called collegia. Meanwhile, the poor and slaves were disposed of casually in pits, initially on the Esquilline Hill. Beginning in the first century, Romans began to copy Greek fashions of inhumation, which had long been the practice throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The motivation appears to have been display, since Greek funerary monuments had developed from amphorae over graves to structures elaborately decorated with an eclectic iconography, including sphinxes and winged lions. Roman versions can still be seen along the Via Appia, some originally displaying bas-relief portraits of the occupants. Also to be seen in Rome are the catacombs of the early Christian era, which represent a continuation of the Middle Eastern practice of burial in caves or rock-cut tombs.

Underground vaults are another common development from simple earth burial, and not only in the Mediterranean. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, graves are roofed with logs before being covered over.

A stone vault built above ground is usually described as a mausoleum, after the massive tomb of King Mausolus in Asia Minor. In central Borneo, ironwood mausoleums were constructed on top of large pilings. Sometimes thirty feet or more high and delicately carved in swirling designs, they are the premier artistic achievements of the region. They may contain coffins, large jars used for corpses, or smaller ones for bones collected after secondary treatment, with sometimes a dozen or more sets of remains in one aerial chamber. Adjacent to them are simple earth burials.

Location of Tombs and Location of the Dead

There are striking differences from culture to culture in where tombs are located in relation to the community. In New Britain, corpses were buried directly under the floor of the house, with the explicit aim of keeping the dead with their kinsmen. Pressure from missionaries and colonial authorities forced an end to the practice, but the dead are still buried as close to their houses as possible. In parts of eastern Indonesia, corpses were buried under the dance ground in the middle of the village. Moreover, kin and neighbors were required to sit by uncomplaining during a long wake because bodily corruption was seen as a positive process that allowed the deceased to return to mother earth. At the same time the dead were associated with ancestral villages in the mountains, so that they had a complex multiple presence for the living.

In Borneo, the elaborate mausoleums described above were sited across the river from communal longhouses, so that flowing water formed a barrier between the living and the dead. The mausoleums were described as houses of the dead; they were raised on pilings like the longhouse, and no one entered this village of the dead without very good reasons for fear that the inhabitants would see the intrusion as the arrival of a new member. This perception was contradicted, however, by long sacred chants at the funeral that took the deceased on a riverine journey to the land of the dead. Consequently, the dead were seen as simultaneously both near and far, and that mystery contributed much to the power and drama of indigenous ritual. The entire community of ancestors was invited to funerals by other chants, but great care was taken to disentangle them from the living after the deceased was delivered to them.

Archaeological data from China show evidence of burials beneath the house, but in recent centuries the living have been careful not to live near graveyards for fear of unquiet ghosts. However, in many Chinese communities, both in China and abroad, ancestors figure prominently in the rituals of extended kin groups, and they are represented by tablets in special ancestor temples. Moreover, the location of the tombs is thought to have a major influence, and the ancient techniques of feng shui, or "wind and water," are designed to site deceased family members so that they deflect evil and funnel blessings towards the living.

Reliquaries, Stupas, and Cenotaphs

A special case of the ambiguous presence of the dead is provided by holy relics. In medieval Europe there was a brisk trade in body parts supposedly belonging to saints, and they were handled lovingly and stored in valuable reliquaries. Yet the virtue of the relics is, to say the least, doctrinally obscure. The saints are presumably in heaven, and there is no reason why their blessing should somehow inhere in their blood or bones. The paradox is sharper in Buddhism, but from its beginnings relics of the Buddha have been enshrined in large stupas that became centers of pilgrimage. Officially, relics, like statues, have no power other than to provide a focus of individual meditation, yet they have become national symbols. When the Portuguese conquered Sri Lanka they seized the relic housed in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, ground it into powder and threw it in the sea. But faith is not so easily destroyed. Within a short time the relic was miraculously rediscovered by a fisherman in his net and restored to its rightful place. Even when there are no remains in a tomb, it may become a national symbol, as with the Cenotaph in London, which honors the dead of both world wars.

Changing Styles of Tombs in England and the United States

Since the eighth century, graveyards in England were located within settlements next to the parish church. Consequently, villagers attending services were reminded of their forebears, now resting under the protection of the church. The elaboration of grave markers also served to remind them of the local social order. Throughout the Middle Ages, senior clerics tried to prohibit burials inside the church, which were seen as desecrating. One thirteenth-century prelate grumbled that such was the clutter of memorials that the graveyard appeared to have moved inside the church. It was difficult, however, to refuse landowners who patronized churches so that they could be buried there. Life-sized effigies were not unusual atop grand family tombs.

The urbanization accompanying the industrial revolution changed this pattern. City churches could no longer provide space, and graveyards had to be moved to the outskirts of cities, where they were often overtaken by further expansion. Consequently, graveyards became an issue of urban planning, although authorities were slow to respond. In the Victorian era, this changed under the influence of a new sentimentalization of death and the afterlife. Graveyards became "cemeteries," a term derived from the Greek koimeterion (a sleeping place), which were filled with fanciful architecture imitating Roman and Egyptian motifs.

A similar development occurred in the United States. In New England the Puritan tradition meant that graveyards were treated as mere necessities, and all affectation in burials was frowned on. Further south, things were not much different, and visitors to the colonies remarked on the chaotic state of graveyards in New York and Philadelphia. In the nineteenth century the rural cemetery movement set out to change this start of affairs. Their best-known achievement is Mount Auburn cemetery outside Boston, which is beautifully landscaped with tombs discretely set into hillocks. A Swedish visitor remarked, "A glance at this cemetery almost excites a wish to die." A parallel innovation was the embalming of corpses, which originated during the Civil War so that distant families could take their sons home for burial. By the mid-twentieth century the entombing of embalmed corpses had become standard among Americans, whether newly immigrant or long established. Cemeteries were made efficient by insetting tombstones flat on the ground to allow regular mowing, but underneath these neat lawns lay massive concrete vaults and luxuriously furnished steel coffins. Cremation came into vogue at the end of the twentieth century, but an archaeologist of the future would certainly conclude that American notions of death paralleled those of the ancient Egyptians.

See Also

Caves; Death; Funeral Rites; Pyramids, overview article; Towers.


Cotterell, Arthur. The First Emperor of China: The Greatest Archeological Find of Our Time. New York, 1981.

Metcalf, Peter, and Richard Huntington. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Morley, John. Death, Heaven, and the Victorians. Pittsburgh, 1971.

Morris, Ian. Death Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Stannard, David, ed. Death in America. Philadelphia, 1974.

Peter Metcalf (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tombs." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 16 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Tombs." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 16, 2018).

"Tombs." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 16, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.