We here in the U.S. tend to think of death and burial as little as possible. Someone dies, and we bury them. Perhaps we visit the person's grave or other sacred space on occasion, but that's the extent of our interaction with the dead. In other places and in other times, people weren't so squeamish about death and had a continuing relationship with the dead bodies of their compatriots.
Secondary burial is usually defined as anything other than putting a dead body in the ground/tomb and sealing it up (which is primary burial). Cremation can count as secondary burial, as the dead body is manipulated (in this case by fire) and then disposed of. But what's always been really interesting to me is the practice of post-mortem manipulation of the dead, the extended burial rituals that are generally held to indicate a sort of ancestor worship, for lack of a better term, or a way of honoring the dead and keeping them among the living.
|Bronze Age mummy|
|deBry's engraving "The Tombe of their|
Werovvans or Chieff Lordes" based on
Thomas Hariot's 1590 book on Algonkinans
in Virginia. (Credit: LearnNC.org)
|Skulls of the Toraja|
(credit: National Geographic)
It's been quite a long time since the extended funeral was a part of American burial tradition - since we switched from displaying the bodies of loved ones in the parlor for a viewing and making memento mori photographs to a mechanized form of burial that distances us from the pollution of death (nicely critiqued in the first episode of HBO's Six Feet Under, when Nate refuses to use the sanitary dirt shaker on his father's grave, preferring to get his hands dirty). And yet just as there is a movement in this country to bring birth back into the home, there is a movement to bring death back as well, as shown in A Family Undertaking, a 2004 PBS movie I showed one semester to my Bioarchaeology class.
Various cultures' continued relationships with the dead fascinate me and many other anthropologists, and it's important to remember that our own Western, Judeo-Christian views about death likely influence our interpretations of funerary practices around the world. Learning about practices in other cultures, especially seeking out ethnographic parallels in contemporary funerary practice, will help bioarchaeologists interpret secondary burials and post-mortem manipulation of the dead.
UPDATE 9/19/11 - A new find in Stone Age central Sweden (roughly 6,000 BC) has revealed 11 individuals whose skulls had been mounted on stakes. Archaeologists think it may have been battle-related but aren't ruling out secondary burial treatment. Oddly, the site also boasts the world's oldest dildo.
Hariot, T (1590). A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. [Available at Documenting the American South.]
Hutchinson, D., & Aragon, L. (2002). Collective Burials and Community Memories: Interpreting the Placement of the Dead in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic United States with Reference to Ethnographic Cases from Indonesia Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 11 (1), 27-54 DOI: 10.1525/ap3a.2002.11.1.27
Killgrove, K (2009). Rethinking taxonomies: skeletal variation on the North Carolina coastal plain. Southeastern Archaeology, 28 (1), 87-100. [PDF]
Lawson, J (1709). A New Voyage to Carolina. [Available at Documenting the American South.]
Parker Pearson, M. (2000) The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Texas A&M University Press.
Ward, HT & RPS Davis (1999). Time Before History: the Archaeology of North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press.
Chesson, M, ed. (2001) Social Memory, Identity, and Death: Anthropological Perspectives on Mortuary Rituals. Archeological Papers of the AAA. [Library-restricted access here]
Rakita, G, JE Buikstra, LA Beck, SR Williams, eds. (2005) Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium. University Press of Florida. [Amazon] [Introduction via Academia.edu]
Silverman, H & D.B. Small, eds. 2002. The Space and Place of Death. Archeological Papers of the AAA. [Library-restricted access here]