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Modern Burial Practices

Buddhist Burial | Christian Burial | Green Burials | Islamic Burials | Jewish Burials

Human burial practices are the manifestation of the human desire to demonstrate respect for the dead and provide closure for those who grieve. Cultures vary in their mode of respect. Among the reasons for this are:

  • Respect for the physical remains. If left lying on top of the ground, scavengers may eat the corpse, considered disrespectful to the deceased in many (but not all) cultures. In Tibet, Sky burials return the remains to the cycle of life and acknowledge the body as "food," a core tenet of some Buddhist practices.
  • Burial can be seen as an attempt to bring closure to the deceased's family and friends. Psychologists in some Western Judeo-Christian quarters, as well as the US funeral industry, claim that by interring a body away from plain view, the pain of losing a loved one can be lessened.
  • Many cultures believe in an afterlife. Burial is sometimes believed to be a necessary step for an individual to reach the afterlife.
  • Many religions prescribe a particular way to live, which includes customs relating to disposal of the dead

Most modern cultures mark the location of the body with a headstone. This serves two purposes. First, the grave will not accidentally be exhumed. Second, headstones often contain information or tributes to deceased. This is a form of remembrance for loved ones; it can also be viewed as a form of immortality, especially in cases of famous people's graves. Such monumental inscriptions may subsequently be useful to genealogists and family historians.

Buddhist Burial

Burial of the deceased is not generally performed in the Buddhist tradition, which teaches rebirth. Rather, most modern Buddhists practice cremation of the deceased. A notable exception to this is the practice of sky burial by Tibetan Buddhists, in which a human corpse is cut in specific locations and placed on a mountaintop, exposing it to the elements and animals. Birds may eat it, or nature may let it decompose. So the function of the sky burial is simply the disposal of the remains. In much of Tibet the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and with fuel and timber scarce, a sky burial is often more practical than cremation.

Christian Burial

Historically, Christian burials were made supine east-west, with the head at the western end of the grave. This mirrors the layout of Christian churches, and for much the same reason; to view the coming of Christ on Judgment day (Eschaton). In many Christian traditions, ordained clergy are traditionally buried in the opposite orientation, and their coffins carried likewise, so that at the General Resurrection they may rise facing, and ready to minister to, their people. Christian burials are typically performed with a service by an ordained clergy member, with friends and family in attendance.

Green Burials

An emerging Maine trend in modern burial is the concept of natural or "green" burial, the process by which a body is returned to the earth to decompose naturally in soil. Popularized in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s by Ken West, a professional cemeterian, the practice is gaining ground rapidly and has now expanded to Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, North America, China, Japan. There are presently two green cemeteries registered in Maine, Rainbow's End, in Orrington and Cedar Brook, in Limerick.

Islamic Burials

Following the ancient sunnah of the Prophets and cultures influenced by the teachings of the divine Prophets, Muslims bury their dead. Before burial the corpse is washed for ritual purification and clothed in simple cloth. Muslims offer a funeral congregation and then place the dead in the grave which is dug mostly rectangular. The corpse is laid in such a position as its head is in the direction of the Ka'bah in the city of Mecca. The body is placed directly into open grave without a casket. Graves should be raised, up to a maximum of 12 inches above the ground. Grave markers are simple, because outwardly lavish displays are discouraged in Islam. Many times graves may even be unmarked, or marked only with a simple wreath. However, it is becoming more common for family members to erect grave monuments.  Muslims believe that they bury their dead to show respect to them and also because the humans will be resurrected from the earth of which he was first made. Islamic burials are typically performed with a service by a clergy member, with friends and family in attendance.

Jewish Burials

The Torah requires burial (kevura)as soon as possible after death, generally on the same day as death, or, if not possible, the next day. Some Reform and other congregations delay burial to allow more time for far-flung family to come to the funeral and participate in the other post-burial rituals. When the interment service has ended, the mourners come forward to fill the grave. One custom is for people present at the funeral to take a spade or shovel, held pointing down instead of up, to show the antithesis of death to life and that this use of the shovel is different from all other uses, to throw three shovelfuls of soil into the grave. When someone is finished, they put the shovel back in the ground, rather than handing it to the next person, to avoid passing along their grief to other mourners. This literal participation in the burial is considered a particularly good mitzvah (good deed) because it is one for which the beneficiary - the deceased - can offer no repayment or gratitude and thus it is a pure gesture.


The preceding information has been gathered from a variety of sources and is accurate to the best of our knowledge here at If you have spotted an error, we’d be pleased if you would contact us about it.




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