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Excarnation; Defleshing the Dead Before Burial

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his many interests and his favorite topic.

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Discussing how one wants to go is not a desirable topic. Nevertheless, things could turn hilarious if you got this person in the group who takes death lightly. I knew this girl who is not afraid to voice her desire to go in the most bizarre way. Once she planned to donate her corpse to science, and she fancied being displayed as a preserved plasticized cadaver. We are not sure what’s so pleasant about being exhibited as an oddity, and we find such prospect disturbing. But the disgusted look in our faces never stopped her from sharing her morbid fascinations, like how she will look like in her coffin, or if mummification works for her, or how it felt to be stabbed in the stomach (much to our disgust).

But even a hardcore goth like her will flinch at a prospect of being ripped to pieces before burial, or even turned into animal feed.

And yes, there is a form of burial, or disposal as what it looks like where the dead is basically mutilated, defleshed, butchered or be fed to waiting scavenging birds. It might look extreme, or even defiling to outsiders, but these forms of burial has deeper, or even more practical purpose.

Excarnation; Defleshing the Dead

Technically, when you want to remove the flesh of the dead before burial, the term for which is “excarnation.” And yes, it’s as macabre as it sounds.

In the modern times when someone dies, you might see overly emotional relatives crying themselves dry as the body is prepared for a chosen method of disposal. Burial is the usual method. You will dig a hole and throw the body there, as easy as that. A funeral is usually held before that, where mourners pay their last respect to the embalmed remains of the deceased.

At times, the body could be cremated upon the wish of the relatives, or the deceased through his last will and testament. We all know how cremations work. Just slide the body in the oven where it will burn to ashes. The remaining ashes kept in urns can be stored in places like columbaria, or just be scattered in chosen locations.

These two are often seen as the most respectful way of disposing the dead at modern times. And for the people used to these customs and traditions, defleshing the dead sounds like desecration.

Below are the forms of excarnations which varies according to belief, custom and sometimes needs. In here we could see the deeper meaning behind the morbid act.

Platform Burial

The Tower of Silence. Frankly a cool sounding name.

The Tower of Silence. Frankly a cool sounding name.

Platform burial sounds meeker than it is, but it will a stomach turn if you’re not used to it. It’s practiced by various traditions and civilizations, and this involves leaving a body on places like altars or structures and letting mother nature do the work of defleshing the dead. Usually, scavenging birds will do the deed until bones are left. The remaining bones will be removed from the site.

A good example is the “Tower of Silence”, a raised structure used by the followers of Zoroastrianism to expose the dead to carrion feeders

But one might ask, why would anyone do this to a dead relative.

Let’s go back to Zoroastrianism. They consider the dead as unclean and a potential pollutant. Zoroastrians also believed that demons would possess a dead body and will contaminate anything it meets. Hence dumping the body in a raised platform where it won’t touch anything as it rots makes sense for them.

Native Americans (the Comanche) also practice a variant of platform burials. And in some places, platform burials are still being practice. As in the case of a funerary custom in Tibet, where the dead is even butchered for the vultures to feast on their flesh.

Sky Burial in Tibet

A corpse being fed to the vultures.

A corpse being fed to the vultures.

According to the Vajrayana Buddhism, a dead body is just an empty vessel. Hence there is no need to preserve or keep it as its spirit go into transmigration. Most of the people of Tibet adheres to such belief, and with the ground too hard to dig a grave and the fuel too scarce to start a funeral pyre, the people then came up with the way to generously dispose the corpse.

And certainly, it’s generous indeed for the scavenging birds of prey.

When someone died in Tibet, a custom known as jhator is performed. It’s done in specific locations, with the Drigung Monastery as one of the most important sites. Now, if other sky burials involve leaving the bodies and allowing natural process to break the body down, jhator sometimes took it a step further. This time the body is cut to pieces before being fed to the vultures.

The jhator usually takes place at dawn on a large flat rock, or sometimes around a temple. The process could be expensive, and for budget reasons relatives could simply leave the body on a high rock for the birds to feed on. But if they can afford it, the body will be dismembered by an assigned person. Now a ceremony involving monks chanting mantra and incense burning will take place, usually a day before the rites. Then the rogyapas (“body-breakers”) will do the dirty work of taking the body apart.

In some account, the leading rogyapa will cut the limbs and dismember the body to pieces. The parts are handed to his assistants, who pound the flesh and bones and mix it with tsampa, a barley flour mixed with tea, yak butter or milk. The pieces of pounded flesh and bones will be given to the waiting scavenging birds.

This form of burial is heavily influenced by Buddhist beliefs, and by giving the corpse to sustain the living, this is considered an act of generosity from the dead and the relatives. It is also practiced in other places, like Inner Mongolia.

Mos Teutonicus

Death of Saint King Louis IX. His remains underwent defleshing so it could be taken home.

Death of Saint King Louis IX. His remains underwent defleshing so it could be taken home.

When someone was boiling wine in the Medieval Age, they were not doing it for some exotic dishes. It’s a part of defleshing process of the dead who died far away from home.

People who perished during the Second Crusade never fancied being buried in a Muslim territory. Yet in the absence of fast transport (like military planes), and a reliable embalming process in the field, there are no way to bring home the body without the risk of rotting.

Hence people will do the funerary custom Mos Teutonicus (The German Way).

When a noble died in a faraway land, the cadaver was first dismembered so it will be easy to remove the flesh. The pieces will then be boiled in wine or water for a few hours to facilitate the excarnation process. The remaining flesh will then be scraped off, until all was left was the bare and clean bone.

And now, the noble’s remains could be taken home hygienically and without the risk of putrefaction.

In case you are wondering, the entrails were considered as ignoble, and they are disposed unceremoniously. The other internal organs or the remaining flesh could be buried or salted like a jerky, to be taken home with the bones.

Some Examples

Captain James Cook was also defleshed after death.

Captain James Cook was also defleshed after death.

The Saint King Louis IX of France served during the Eight Crusade underwent the Mos Teutonicus rites to safely return his remains to his home France. Captain James Cook was thought to be cannibalized, or savagely mutilated when he was killed by the native Hawaiians. But being a respected person, even by the people he antagonized (the Hawaiians believed he was the god Lono), he was given a local rite of excarnation in his death (which was reserved only to important people, like elders). Then there is Christopher Columbus, whose remains were also defleshed, and the American General Anthony Wayne who underwent a form of excarnation.

Other societies who practice defleshing include the Kalash of Pakistan, the Bali Aga of Trunyan Village and the Moriori people of New Zealand.

References:

1. Hugh T. Harrington and Lisa A. Ennis.(n.d.) ""Mad" Anthony Wayne: His Body Did Not Rest in Peace". americanrevolution.org

2. Hannon, Elliot (5 September 2012). "Vanishing Vultures A Grave Matter For India's Parsis".

3. Boyce, Mary (1979), "Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices".

4. Westerhof (October 16, 2008). "Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England".

5. Dechen, Pemba (2012), "Rinchen, the Sky-Burial Master". Manoa.



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