Maya death rituals
Death rituals were an important part of Maya religion. The Maya greatly respected death; they were taught to fear it and grieved deeply for the dead. They also believed that certain deaths were more noble than others.
Before Spanish influence, there may not have been a common idea of the afterlife. The Yucatec Maya believed that there were different routes after death. A pot from a Pacal tomb depicts ancestors of Maya kings sprouting through the earth like fruit trees and together creating an orchard. The Maya had several forms of ancestor worship. They built idols containing ashes of the dead and brought them food on festival days. Alternatively, a temple could be built over an urn. The most common way of sacrifice was cutting the abdomen, and taking out the heart.
The Maya dead were laid to rest with maize placed in their mouth. Maize, highly important in Maya culture, is a symbol of rebirth and also was food for the dead for the journey to the otherworld. Similarly, a jade or stone bead placed in the mouth served as currency for this journey. Often, whistles carved from rocks into the shapes of gods or animals were included in the grave offerings to help the deceased find their way to Xibalba. The Maya associated the color red with death and rebirth and often covered graves and skeletal remains with cinnabar. The bodies of the dead were wrapped in cotton mantles before being buried. Burial sites were oriented to provide access to the otherworld. Graves faced north or west, in the directions of the Maya heavens, and others were located in caves, entrances to the underworld.
Burial practices of the Maya changed over the course of time. In the late Preclassic period, people were buried in a flexed position, later the dead were laid to rest in an extended position. In the late Classic period, the elite constructed vaulted tombs, and some rulers ordered the construction of large burial complexes. In the Postclassic period, cremation became more common.
There have been many archaeological discoveries of lavish tombs within ceremonial complexes from the Classic period. However, only a Maya city’s most important ruler was buried in this way. These aristocrats were placed in tombs at the bottoms of funerary pyramids that sometimes consisted of nine stepped platforms, perhaps symbolizing the nine layers of the underworld. Other temples were constructed with 13 vaults symbolizing the layers of the heavens in Maya cosmology. These temples reflected the continued worship of these nobles. In some instances, members of the royal family or young attendants would be sacrificed to accompany the lord in death.
The tombs were filled with precious goods including fine polychrome pottery, effigy figurines, jade and marble pieces, masks, mushroom figures. While these figures were found in Maya tombs, many of these items were also used in the service of food, drink and for additional ritual purposes. Obsidian and exotic shells have also been found in Mayan tombs. In the Tomb of the Red Queen inside Temple XIII in Palenque, the remains of a noble woman and all the objects inside the sarcophagus were completely covered with bright red vermilion dust, made of ground cinnabar, perhaps intended to suggest blood, the symbol of life.
Other elite members of society were buried in vaults. The bodies of higher-ranking members of society were buried inside sarcophagi. They sometimes were buried in crypts or underneath the family home. These funerary constructions of the royal often destroyed the residence itself. Commoners were also buried near or under their houses. These graves did not have extensive burial offerings, but often contained objects that identified the individual: a tool or possession.
- Bunson, Margaret R., and Stephen M. Bunson. "Death rituals, Maya." Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1996.
- Foster, Lynn V. Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2001.
- Gallenkamp, Charles. Maya: The Riddle and Rediscovery of a Lost Civilization. New York: David McKay Company, Inc, 1976.
- Birmingham Museum of Art (2010). Birmingham Museum of Art : guide to the collection. [Birmingham, Ala]: Birmingham Museum of Art. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-904832-77-5.