Believing in a great beyond

Illustration by Kaylyn Dunn

Throughout history, different cultures have formed beliefs surrounding the only unavoidable aspect of life: death. These beliefs vary in attempt to create meaning for the afterlife and undead.

In A.D. 300, the Mayans were one of the ancient civilizations who ruled South America. NAU Anthropology professor Claire Ebert said she has gone on archaeological trips to study them.

“During [the Mayan] height, we know they had very sophisticated ideas about spirits and how they interacted with each other, especially spirits of the ancestors,” Ebert said.

Ancestral worship was common among early civilizations and Ebert said the practice can be seen from early Asian countries all the way to where the Mayans were in South America. While early civilizations had different ways of evoking their ancestors, the Mayans did so by practicing what many other Mesoamerican people did: sacrifice. However, the Mayans had their own unique methods.

“Ancestors could include a dead king, a dead relative, but also included mythical spirits that speak to you and help guide you,” Ebert said. “Often what [ancestral communication] entailed was self-sacrifice. It was often making yourself bleed in some way, and the blood would then soak these pieces of paper, which they would burn. The smoke that would come up from the bowl of paper would invoke the ancestors.”

Ebert explained the Mayans also had many beliefs in different deities and spirits. They did not worship one god in particular but believed in spirits associated with different plants and animals that were constantly present. Their funeral rites were also similar in the sense that a person was buried according to their class.

“Different people did [burial] in different ways. The common folk would bury the dead underneath the floors of their houses, and they did this for two reasons,” Ebert said. “One was to keep their ancestors very close to them, and the second is that it was a great way to claim property rights. Common folk were also buried very simply, without many items with them. Royalty had very elaborate burials. They were buried with vessels, beads, blades and hairpins.”

Many Native American tribes, such as the Navajo Nation, also have their own unique ways of handling the dead and spirits.

Sophomore Myron Bryant, a Native American Cultural Center tutor, said the culture’s burial grounds are usually hard to get to and are located away from their homes.

“We’re not really supposed to grieve as much or do any [services] unless we’re burying the body,” Bryant said. “Basically, it’s just two people bury the body somewhere. Before those people can return, they have to take certain herbs and [go through] a cleansing for all the bad inside their bodies. Burial is usually done by whoever is available, but typically you want someone who is not closely related to the [deceased].”

Bryant said contrary to cultures that encourage visiting the graves of loved ones, Native American culture often discourages even setting foot on burial grounds. If someone sets foot on burial grounds, a bad spirit can attach itself to them and bring about negative emotions.

Two other burial rituals in Navajo culture are the enemy way ceremony and the blackening. The enemy way is performed on soldiers who come back to relieve them of the spirits of those they have killed.

NAU Asian studies professor Di Wu said that while some Chinese traditions were lost when the Communist party took over in 1949, a few beliefs still hold true.

“Tradition is that if family passes, the person should be properly buried ... so the spirit can go to rest,” Wu said, “In China, there is an unofficial holiday on July 15 of the lunar calendar called the Ghost Festival. That night, even though it is not officially encouraged, Chinese people burn various things to send to family members that pass to the underworld. Parents will also tell their kids not to go out on that night ... [or] the evil spirits attack.”

The cycle of life is one that will continue until the end of time. Whether one believes in spirits or not, death is a constant, and it may be closer than they think.