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I've got a society that worships their ancestors and frequently consults their spirits for advice through necromantic rites. I've decided that rather than burying or burning their dead they would instead keep the bones in the temples as an aid to summoning their ancestors spirits.

However they wouldn't want to put the bodies in whole as soon as they died because of a) the smell and b) the likelihood of spreading disease (I know they wouldn't necessarily be aware of this but they'd notice after a while) so they would need a way to clean the bones off so they could store them safely, cleanly and taking up less space.

Ideally this would leave the bones intact and could be considered to be done with respect and deference.

What would be the best method available to Europeans in the 11th century to strip the flesh from a body and leave the bones clean and intact?

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    $\begingroup$ You mean like this (Czermna Skull Chapel)? Or like this (Capela dos Ossos)? Or like this (Sedlec Ossuary)? The point is that they actually did use ossuaries on a fairly great scale. The usual process was to inter the body, leave it in the ground for about three years, then disinter it, clean the bones and place them in a charnel house (or, if merited, a reliquary). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 28 '20 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP not quite as elaborate or grim as those, I was thinking more just stored in elaborate boxes, but yes. Interesting that they'd just bury them first though, I hadn't considered that. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '20 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @adaliabooks so thats ok? i though burying method was forbidden. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Jul 28 '20 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ As you are asking about the recent past you could ask "How did societies around europe clean bones for burial around the 11th century?" $\endgroup$
    – TafT
    Jul 29 '20 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mos_Teutonicus - an actual medieval technique $\endgroup$
    – WoJ
    Jul 30 '20 at 14:16

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I have read that in the real Europe there was an industry developed around preparing relics from passed away bodies.

Usually the bodies were washed, boiled and the flesh (now cooked) was separated from the bones which could be then distributed among the "customers" (usually churches and sanctuaries worshiping saints).

Your people might use a similar approach.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ah, of course. I'd forgotten about relics, it would indeed be a similar process. If it was good enough for saints in the church it should be good enough for my society too. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '20 at 15:36
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Carrion Beetles! Carrion beetles are fairly widespread through the temperate regions, and are very good at cleaning bones (in fact, some research labs use carrion beetles for this very purpose!). In addition, this could tie into the mythology of it, where the flesh goes on to nurture new life. (As a side note, this would probably lead to carrion beetles being spiritually important too).

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    $\begingroup$ Ants are pretty good too. In fact, just leaving a body outside under normal circumstances will get the flesh problem taken care of pretty quickly. I've never seen it done to a person, but deer aren't that different. $\endgroup$ Jul 29 '20 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ @MadPhysicist, the problem with "just leave it outside" is that sometimes the coyotes get to it, and you end up with bones scattered all over the place. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jul 30 '20 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark. Fair enough. The other answers talk about cages to keep them out. With the right infrastructure, outside is the easiest way. $\endgroup$ Jul 30 '20 at 2:26
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You describe an ossuary.

So what you need is a temporary grave.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ossuary

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 ("os" is "bone" in Latin[1]). 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.

I saw a TV article on the catacombs of Paris that described these temporary burials. My recollection is that the cemetery used for this was such that the bodies decayed very quickly. I could imagine this might be so if the decomposers in the soil were fed a steady diet of dead folks. Soil pH might play a role too.

In any case the temporarily buried are out of sight (and smell) but not out of mind. Once the flesh has decayed the bones can move to your temple.

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    $\begingroup$ This can, in fact, be part of the process. A recently dead body has not fully transitioned to the peaceful state of an ancestor. There are cultures in which it is important that this transition does not occur too swiftly. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jul 28 '20 at 23:16
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Bugs

As someone who has skeletonized many animals for museums insects are your best bet. We use dermestid beetles, they are kinda finicky critters. Other insects like ants and maggots work just as well for your purposes.

Bug boxes which prevent larger scavengers are often used outside letting the local scavenger insects do the work. Ours are plastic but you can make something out of wicker, ceramic, or wood just as easily. What you are making is a container that lets insects in but keeps out larger scavengers like rodents which will gnaw bones.

enter image description here

Sometimes we will boil a carcass first to take must of the soft tissue off, but if you are not doing it as an industrial process, just letting ants eat it all is fine. You do have to watch out for termites which will burrow through the bone. Cutting off most of the soft tissue first speeds up the process, but again it is not vital.

Here is a great dirty jobs video of the process.

degreasing the bones for storage is a good idea (soak in soap or low concentration peroxide) but not vital, time will do nearly as good a job as long as you clean them once and a while to prevent mold.

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    $\begingroup$ I suppose we know of boiling horses for glue. Could we venerate ancestors by making things with bits of them or derived products? $\endgroup$
    – TafT
    Jul 30 '20 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ you boils hooves and hair for glue not bones. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 30 '20 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Uncle Bert although wise and kind was also very hairy. We made quite a large pot of glue. $\endgroup$
    – TafT
    Jul 30 '20 at 13:44
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what about sky burial? though i dont know is there a big carrion bird that can eat whole bone though in europe, so maybe the crow or other small flying carrion can suffice to left the bone intact, at least majority part of it.

you can also build tower to place the corpse there to make it out of human contact live bellow and not spreading the miasma if no mountain, and not necessary for you to grind the bone like some of this culture do if you want to keep the bone intact.

Sky burial (Tibetan: བྱ་གཏོར་, Wylie: bya gtor, lit. "bird-scattered"1) is a funeral practice in which a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop to decompose while exposed to the elements or to be eaten by scavenging animals, especially carrion birds. It is a specific type of the general practice of excarnation. It is practiced in the region of Tibet and the Chinese provinces and autonomous regions of Qinghai, Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, as well as in Mongolia, Bhutan and parts of India such as Sikkim and Zanskar.2 The locations of preparation and sky burial are understood in the Vajrayana Buddhist traditions as charnel grounds.

Vajrayana iconography

The tradition and custom of the jhator afforded Traditional Tibetan medicine and thangka iconography with a particular insight into the interior workings of the human body. Pieces of the human skeleton were employed in ritual tools such as the skullcup, thigh-bone trumpet.

The 'symbolic bone ornaments' (Skt: aṣṭhiamudrā; Tib: rus pa'i rgyanl phyag rgya) are also known as "mudra" or 'seals'. The Hevajra Tantra identifies the Symbolic Bone Ornaments with the Five Wisdoms and Jamgon Kongtrul in his commentary to the Hevajra Tantra explains this further.[22]

also here excarnation some copy paste method to defleshing maybe it can help (some contain burial and cremation method though).

Other methods

From the pattern of marks on some human bones at prehistoric sites, researchers have inferred that members of the community removed the flesh from the bones as part of its burial practices.[5]

Neolithic farmers living in Tavoliere, Italy, over 7000 years ago practiced ritual defleshing of the dead. Light cut marks suggest that the bones were defleshed up to a year after death. The bones were deposited in Scaloria Cave and, when excavated, were mixed with animal bones, broken pottery and stone tools.[6]

In the Middle Ages, excarnation was practised by European cultures as a way to preserve the bones when the deceased was of high status or had died some distance from home. One notable example of a person who underwent excarnation following death was Christopher Columbus[citation needed]. The American Revolutionary War general, Anthony Wayne, also underwent a form of excarnation.[7] A practice known as mos teutonicus, or active excarnation, was a German custom. The bodies were broken down differently than solely defleshing, they were cut up and boiled in either wine, water, or vinegar.[8]

In modern Japan, where cremation is predominant, it is common for close relatives of the deceased to transfer, using special chopsticks, the remaining bones from the ashes to a special jar in which they will be interred. However, in ancient Japanese society, prior to the introduction of Buddhism and the funerary practice of cremation, the corpse was exposed in a manner very similar to the Tibetan sky burial. The Kalash people of Pakistan until recently (mid 1980s) practiced above ground burial in large wooden coffins called Bahg'a were the dead were laid with all their best belongings in cemeteries called Madokjal or place of many coffins. This tradition had been dying off with the last being the burial of a shaman in 1985, until the burial in 2016 of Batakeen of Anish village Bumburet. The Bali Aga people of Trunyan village on Lake Batur in Bali practice customs found no where else on the island, these are the mountain Balianese and they practice Animistic traditions that predate the arrival of Hinduism in Bali. The burial custom here is for the bodies to be laid on the ground and left to decompose, with a cloth cover or a bamboo cage . Once the decomposition is complete the bones are placed on a stair shaped altar 500 feet to the north. A large banyan tree called the taru menyan literally called the nice smelling tree is thought to take away bad smells . Pre-contact Hawaiians ritually defleshed the bones of high-ranking nobles (ali'i) so that they could be interred in reliquaries for later veneration. The remains of Captain Cook, who the Hawaiians had believed to be the god Lono, were treated this way after his death. The Moriori people of the Chatham Islands (now part of New Zealand) placed their dead in a sitting position in the sand dunes looking out to sea; others were strapped to young trees in the forest. In time, the tree grew into and through the bones, making them one.

Following the excarnation process, many societies retrieved the bones for burial.[citation needed]

Defleshing during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages in Europe, defleshing was a mortuary procedure used mainly to prepare human remains for transport over long distances. The practice was used only for nobility. It involved removing skin, muscles, and organs from a body, leaving only the bones. In this procedure, the head, arms, and legs were detached from the body. The process left telltale cuts on the bones.

King Saint Louis IX of France is said to have been defleshed by boiling his corpse until the flesh separated from the bones. This was intended to preserve his bones, to avoid decaying of the remains during their return to France from the Eighth Crusade, and to provide relics. The process is known as mos Teutonicus.[9]

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  • $\begingroup$ I had considered having animals eat the bodies, particularly as some of the societies that would practise this would also be very animistic and would revere animals, but I worried that this might lead to the bones being scattered about and lost and therefore not easy to retrieve for internment and keeping. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '20 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ @adaliabooks yeah it probably quite messy maybe lose some small bones like pinky bones but the big bones probably still intact, or you can leave them decompose and chase away the animals, at least thats as far i know regarding that. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Jul 28 '20 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ I may be completely mistaken...I was under the impression that sky burials actually involved an "untouchable" human element to break/butcher the body into pieces for the birds to feed off of. These "untouchables" were typically avoided by the ppl in the communities, but cos they were already deemed "untouchable"/"unclean" etc they were considered perfect for the gruesome task. I don't know if the OP would want something like that to occur to their "ancestors" bones. Also, the birds might fly off with some of the bones... $\endgroup$ Jul 29 '20 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps theres some that keep it whole to be feed like that, yeah OP already mention it, but as far as i see the big bone most of the time still intact, though quite messy but usually not far away even in small tower, but the small bone probably can get taken or missing, but this depend on european carrion animals, since i am not from europe so i dont know much about the animals variety or behavior there. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Jul 30 '20 at 4:39
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Do what museum curators do today... leave the bones in the ocean for a few days and let sea lice go about their business!

See this time-lapse video of a full pig carcass being reduced to clean bones in just a few days by these little critters: https://youtu.be/xXtSw1FPkhM

This apporach requires no technology and would have been known to humans for a very long time.

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    $\begingroup$ Though this requires a nearby ocean. Nor do I think it always works, at least in a few days, as IIRC there are reports of corpses or body parts being recovered from the ocean after longer periods. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jul 29 '20 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ Very interesting, that's got potential possibly. 'burial' at sea is quite fitting, special pools could probably be created to keep most of the bones in the same location for easy recovery and it doesn't require too much gruesome involvement from people. $\endgroup$ Jul 29 '20 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ instead of the ocean we also often use dermestid beetles, they are also commonly used by places like research institutes and taxidermists that skeletonize animals regularly. Although from personal experience ants work almost as well. care and conditions can be found here, bonesandbugs.com/faqs $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 29 '20 at 12:53
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Lye

Lye is the household name for the strong base Sodium Hydroxide. It was known to the Romans and Babylonians so is certainly 11th century friendly. In the modern world it is used for dissolving cadavers, bones and all, in a matter of hours.

Dump the body in a vat of lye and let the flesh dissolve. But be careful to fish out the bones before they dissolve too!

Weak lye was historically used as body soap. Stronger lye was used for disinfecting and in food, for pickling and cooking. This is safe because cooking breaks down the lye so it's safe to eat.

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We could look at what usually did happen. Bad news for you is that that grave is not yours for life... well you know what I mean. Burial is the answer for many european places.

To remove all but the bones you have several options:

  • Mechnical reclimation then disposing of the soft bits (burn them or bury them (think composting) or thrown them in the river or reuse them for some other process
  • Animal processes such as sky burials where you expose bodies for flying carrion
  • Partial cremantion as it takes a lot of fuel to burn a body you might want to just try drying out and burning some of it, either as a whole or as parcels.
  • Natural above ground processes as you may notice there are not dead animals everhwere. Leave a person out somewhere and a combination of the elements and animals will get rid of most of it for you
  • Water process which is just another set of animals
  • Natural below ground processes i.e. temporary burial. If you do not embalm a body it will digest itself in a few weeks. Many graveyards were not places of perminiant burial but an area to put bodies for a few decades before moving them to a crypt or ostuary

Other options are to remove the more unpleasant parts and most of the fluids then put your not quite a mummy on a shelf to gently carry on despensing whisdom and decay. After a while you move what is left further into the structure and stack its remaining parts more efficiently.

Some interesting refences could be found by reading up on Body Farms and how Ossury Burials were conducted.

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    $\begingroup$ the problem is most of those expose bones to scavengers which are more than happy to break up/eat the bones. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 29 '20 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ @John very few animals native to europ have the strength to routinely break larger bones. Humans cook them and smash them with tools to access the marrow. I think hyaenas have the jaw strength to do so but not many other land animals. Yes if you cremate or leave for a very long time the bones might get displaced but I would not expect them to get destroyed. $\endgroup$
    – TafT
    Jul 30 '20 at 9:49
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    $\begingroup$ That is actually not true, rodents for instance will gnaw on bone for calcium, as will deer termites, , and a variety of birds. and they will do a lot of damage to the bone. smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/…. and digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/… $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 30 '20 at 13:36
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They're Necromancers, so get over petty morality - eat them!

If you have a medieval society of ancestor-worshipping necromancers, why not go the extra step and have them just EAT ancestors? Endocannibalism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endocannibalism#) is considered a cultural practice in a variety of societies, especially those who desire to be close to the souls of the dead. What better way to be joined with your dead ancestor than to consume them? This is often seen as a way to save or preserve the life force of the person and is an act of compassion. Sometimes flesh is consumed, while other times the ground-up bones and ashes of the dead are incorporated into food or beverage. This is rarely done as an act of nutrition, but instead as a religious one.

You can still have bones left over at the end, if you want them. There will be some cut marks and pot-polish, but it's all in the family. Just be sure to cook everything well to avoid prion disorders.

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    $\begingroup$ From what I've ready, cooking does not destroy enough prions to be safe. Even modern sterilization techniques don't do it. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Jul 29 '20 at 0:22
  • $\begingroup$ @ NomadMaker Yeah, it MIGHT denature the prion, but not reliably enough to guarantee it's safe. Some prions are near-impossible to get rid of, and I wonder that they even allow people to eat meat. But it IS necromantic.You can always consume the ashes, that's involved in several cultures. Besides, not everyone has a prion disorder. Sometimes you take risks! Besides, what's not fun about a necromancer slowly losing their mind? I could see that being part of a religion - they are god-touched and closer to the spirits. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jul 29 '20 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ eating the head or brain is risky though you can end up get kuru disease, hence most cannibal tribe collect decapitate head rather than eat the head, i know this because the native tribe in my region is cannibal, but dont get it wrong, they only practice this during battle to the enemy. though google say its rare now, its due to many start to not eat the head part thanks to educations. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Jul 29 '20 at 6:58
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Cremation.

If you’re willing to use bone fragments instead of whole bones, cremation is the way to go. There will be plenty of leftover bone fragments following cremation, especially if you use low-temperature open wood fire rather than a high-temperature furnace. Usually, leftover bone fragments are ground up into bone powder, but you can use them for your purposes instead.

Cremation has other benefits as well. Minimal contact with the dead body is required, reducing risk of disease - just plop it into a wood fire and you’re done. It also doesn’t require anyone to do the gruesome and gory “dirty work” of handling or processing flesh to extract bones.

Really, it depends on how “intact” you want the bones to be.

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    $\begingroup$ I think whole bones would be better than fragments, the way I see it the more intact the better for summoning spirits. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '20 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @adaliabooks Fair enough. I figured it just depends on the culture of your people. If they’re not comfortable “desecrating” the bodies of the recently deceased by slicing them up, processing them, or letting them rot or be eaten, then this would be the way to go. But that all depends on what kind of cultural norms you want. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '20 at 15:49

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