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I have a primitive tribal group that lives deep in the woods and has a deep spiritual connection with nature. I've come to the part about how they treat the dead, and looking at historical examples of similar tribes it seems all the ones that I know of practice ritual burial. But what I don't know is why, from a practical standpoint, do they do this?

Looking at it from the other side, what's wrong with leaving corpses above-ground to be consumed as they would naturally? No other species that I'm aware of buries its dead. So is there some practical reason to do it, or did it just become the norm by coincidence?

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    $\begingroup$ Where is the worldbuilding problem here? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Dec 23 '19 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ Because they have noses. Corpses smell. $\endgroup$ – Renan Dec 23 '19 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ From what i recall, in Tibet they have tradition to leave corpses for vultures to eat. $\endgroup$ – Guy with jewels' names Dec 23 '19 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ Burial is probably a little over represented in our archeology because other means of corpse disposal didn't leave records. Cremation and other methods probably were practiced, but we don't know how much. Google "Sky burial" to see what another comment is talking about with Tibet. $\endgroup$ – Luke Dec 23 '19 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica I'm trying to craft a realistic tribe for this setting, and I'm working through all the details of their culture and traditions. Now I'm trying to figure out how and why they treat their dead, based on real history and problems they might face. $\endgroup$ – thanby - reinstate Monica Dec 23 '19 at 17:11
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Usually spirituality follows practicality.

People marry to form family and, from a very religious point of view, to procreate - but such bonding and procreation happen with or without religion.

People have rituals to let boys and girls cease being children and become adults, but puberty and adulthood happen with or without those rituals.

People have rituals for cleansing and forgiveness but unless you are a sociopath you can be neat and generally be nice and have friends with or without that.

So, just the same...

People bury their dead with spiritual celebration, but they would have to bury those dead with or without religion anyway.

The role of spirituality is not to cause these things, but to give them meaning.

As for the practical reason why you have to bury the dead: animals in general live in a constant state of struggle for life and nutrition. When an animal dies in the wild, many creatures from different kingdoms and niches break the corpse down and reinsert its matter into the circle of life. Fungi do it everywhere. On land we have hyenas, ravens, crows, vultures, roaches, flies etc. Underwater crabs, some starfish, shrimp and many kinds of fish eat up carcasses leaving only bone behind (and often not even that).

But humans have a tendency to scare wild animals away from their territory. This has to do with fire, the pollution that we cause, how we are noisy and, in ancient cultures, the fact that everything that moves is game when it comes to hunting. So if you leave aunt Karen's corpse on the lawn to rot, it will stink for a long while. It may even explode and spread ooze. It will only attract the worst kind of carrion eaters like roaches, which will later make a home in our homes. And since her carrion wasn't fully eaten by vultures and such, a lot of that will become poisonous and make the ground less fertile. The accumulating bacteria may spread disease.

Better to either burn her away, or to bury her deep. And since we are at it, might as well do some social things to bring the tribe together. Because, you know, in the ancient times you can't just leave a sad reaction in a social network. You have to be there if you don't want to be a stranger.

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  • $\begingroup$ So what you're saying is that humans living in communities is the root reason? Because that causes the animals to leave which causes corpses to rot instead of be consumed which causes the disease and so on. $\endgroup$ – thanby - reinstate Monica Dec 23 '19 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ @thanby-reinstateMonica yes. $\endgroup$ – Renan Dec 23 '19 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ Your second and third example of rituals feels quite wrong. Forgiveness is a (broadly) psychological concept, and people are frequently encouraged by the psychologists to actually do some ritual things to achieve the feeling of having forgiven somebody. Likewise, adulthood is a social and psychological concept, and includes (frequently ritual) acceptance of roles and responsibilities. Without which no adulthood in societal terms happens -- just ageing. $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Dec 24 '19 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Gnudiff about forgiveness, the Bible describes a ritual to ask for it in Mathew 5, verses 22 and 23. Jewish tradition has its own rules too. As for ageing, again jewish tradition has something to say about it (bar mitzvah), and numerous cultures around the world have some rites of passage which are spiritual, such as Okuyi in Africa for teenagers. $\endgroup$ – Renan Dec 24 '19 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Renan Exactly. My claim would be that (many/most) people would find it not possible to do without some kind of rituals, which seems contrary to your description of " you can be neat and generally be nice and have friends with or without that" as well as other "but ..." in your examples. $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Dec 28 '19 at 21:49
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Corpses need to be put where they won't attract predators or scavengers to human habitations, or spread diseases, from a practical perspective, and they need to be handled ritually from an emotional perspective.

Burial is just one way to do this. Other ways include:

  • Cremation (with ashes held or scattered.)

  • Burial at sea

  • Sky burial (put in a tree for raptors to consume)

  • Tree burial (put in a special tree that people paint every year in your honor. Once nobody remembers you enough to paint your tree every year, the grave fades away.)

  • Let the body decompose and then house the bones in an ossuary.

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    $\begingroup$ corpses are also disease vectors moving them away from contact is also important. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 23 '19 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Added, thanks, John $\endgroup$ – arp Dec 23 '19 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ You're missing one further method, which is more common where protein is scarce. Eat the dead. This can be formalized into absorbing their mana or something like that. Unfortunately our world has kuru which makes this dangerous, but perhaps the OP's world doesn't, or the kuru prion hasn't reached those tribes. $\endgroup$ – Graham Dec 24 '19 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham I hadn't thought about the cannibal side of the equation, good point, maybe kuru just isn't a thing. $\endgroup$ – thanby - reinstate Monica Dec 26 '19 at 16:01
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There is a revolting carrion eating creature in your forest. The creature spreads disease where ever it slithers to. And if there is no nearby stinky aroma of carrion, it sits there, making spores, festering and revolting and diseasifying up the neighborhood until something else dies, summoning the critter by the delicious rotty stench. Your tribal fellows bury dead to avoid getting overcome by carrion slime. Watch out for the pranksters who nail dead fish high up in trees around the villages of people they dislike.

The woods are a tropical forest. Like most tropical forests, there are very few nutrients in the soil - all of the energy is stored in the plants. Your tribal fellows bury the dead to feed the trees, to return past members to the forest and canopy above that showers us all with life, food and abundance. If you were a very very good person, you will be reborn as a tree. If you were a slacker, then a weed.

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You want your dead to become trees.

And specifically fruit and nut trees. This is where people are buried - the orchard. Among the roots, the bodies of the dead are broken down and their essence moves into the trees. These trees offer their gifts of fruit and nuts. Through the trees, your people can continue to give to the community and support their families and neighbors.

When a tree in this orchard dies, the wood is used to build, not to burn.

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  • $\begingroup$ Reminds me of a series that is being streamed now where the dead literally become fruits, but I can't tell which series otherwise it will be a massive spoiler of yet-to-be-filmed episodes. $\endgroup$ – Renan Dec 23 '19 at 22:04
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I think there is also a practical aspect that relates to human relationships and our fragile psyches. Unlike many animals, humans form close connections and attachments to others. It's respecting those that you loved by placing them underground, safe from the unsightly and disturbing nature of scavengers (which as others mentioned, removes an attractant for predators from permanent communities).

It also protects those living from the experience of coming across disemboweled remains. If bodies were just left on the ground to rot or be torn apart, it's a very visceral and disturbing reminder that they're gone. I can imagine that prior to burial, our ancestors would come across grisly remains of their family and community. Burying would be an easy way to respect the dead while sparing the community from such sights.

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I guess the “practical” reasons for burial do involve containing the spread of scavengers, parasites, and disease, as others have said. If overpopulation weren’t so bad, I wouldn’t really buy that, though. Scavengers are not the scourge that humans make them out to be; they give life to the world, as the Vermont ecologist Bernd Heinrich explains at length in his book “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death.”

The real reason we bury people is sentimentality, especially when it comes to the rituals involved with funerals, coffins, and graveyards. A lot of that is wrapped up in judeochristian tradition. Sadly, though, sealing corpses in boxes as opposed to just leaving them on the forest floor or burying them (beyond the reach of scavengers) does little more than deprive the earth’s nutrient cycle of its feedback. We spend all of our lives eating food and drinking water, but upon death, we hoard it to ourselves.

That’s also why many indigenous cultures and even Western ecologists offer themselves up the ravens upon death. The first example that springs to mind are Tibetan sky burials, but there are many such traditions among cultures not far removed from hunter gatherers. They don’t bury their dead because they are animists who understand that the ecological cycle needs to be fed, not starved. Vultures and ravens do a very thorough job of cleaning off bones, and there are many others willing to lend a talon, beak, fang, or claw. Even the glorious bald eagle is a scavenger of carrion. The remains are then broken down by the bacteria and fungi that permeate the soil, and they in turn feed our forests. Coffins, on the other hand, keep your dead flesh sealed inside, and grave robbers have told stories of opening old caskets to find a gelatinous green soup inside. That’s the afterlife for you.

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