The Mayan Ritual: Death and Its Ceremonies

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For the Maya, a highly religious people, death was something to be both feared and revered. Their fear of their gods’ anger and judgment weighed heavily on them, making them fearful of the world beyond, even as they believed in a heaven-like afterlife. They treated their dead with great respect, mourning them extensively and keeping their memory alive through retellings of their accomplishments in life. Though the process of burial changed over the years, the one thing that didn’t was the elaborate way that they would perform it.

The Mayan Heaven and Hell

The ancient Mayans believed that certain deaths were nobler than others. Those who gave themselves for sacrifices, died on the battlefield, or passed away because of childbirth were considered to have died nobly and thought to have been taken straight to heaven to enjoy the afterlife.

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People who lived their lives in greed and sin, however, were damned to suffer for all eternity in the Xilbalba, the Mayan version of the underworld or hell. For the ones that didn’t fall into these two categories, it was believed that they went on a journey, with heaven as their goal, and might be given a second life on earth through rebirth. Those of important lineage, however, were made into deities that watched over their surviving families and the descendants that followed.

Ancient Burials

The dead themselves were buried at sites that that oriented around access to the other world. Some grave sites were made so that they pointed north or west, the directions of the two heavens that the Mayan believed in. Others were buried in caves, since they were thought to be the entrances to the other world. Whether they were buried in a cave or in a monument, or even underground, in the case of commoners, great preparation and ritual went into making sure that they would have a safe journey to the other side.

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Almost all of the bodies were buried with maize in the mouths, as their family wanted them to have food for their journey into the other world. Currency for this journey was also provided in the form of jade or stone beads, also commonly placed in their mouths. Objects like whistles and small carvings of deities and animals also were placed as a burial offering, as they were supposed to help the deceased find their way to the spirit world. Red, the color of death and rebirth, was often painted on the walls of the tomb and on the bodies themselves.

The actual burial of the individual often depended on the era in which they lived and died. Early on, they bodies were laid to rest in flexed position, but, later, they were buried flat on their backs, like how we bury our dead today. At one time, cremation became a more popular way to bury someone, as opposed to the elaborate sites.

Social Status

Social status also influenced the way a body was buried. Commoners usually buried their dead near, or even under, their homes. Individuals of high-rank often were buried in family crypts, but it wasn’t uncommon for them to be buried under the family home as well. Only the city’s most important ruler had the funds, man-power, and right to build elaborate tombs within ceremonial buildings, such as a pyramid.

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