Pyres have been a part of funeral rites throughout many time periods and geographical areas in history. A funeral pyre is a wooden structure on which a body is burned.
Perhaps the origin of this cremation technique, people in India have been performing open air cremations for thousands of years. Hinduism required cremation as it was believed to help with transmigration: the separation of the body from the soul. Hindus believed transmigration was necessary in order for the soul to enter a new body during its next life.
Traditionally, the cremation ground was located near a river, ideally right on the banks. Once a suitable location was found, the corpse was laid on the prepared pyre with its feet facing South so that it could walk in the “direction of the dead.” The closest male relative of the deceased acted as chief mourner and walked around the pyre three times, keeping the body to his left and sprinkling water onto it. Next, he lit a small fire in the mouth of the deceased before the entire structure was set alight with a flaming torch, signalling the beginning of the mourning period. Family and friends waited for the body to be fully consumed by fire before going home. One or two days later, the chief mourner returned to the place of the cremation, collected up any remains and placed them in an urn. Finally, the remains were immersed in the holy waters of the Ganges river, or other local rivers for those who lived too far away.
In many instances, Hindu cremations also included a custom called suttee or sati, which translates as “good woman” or “chaste wife.” The custom was for the widow of the deceased to throw herself onto the funeral pyre of her husband. In some instances this was voluntary, other times the wife would be forced into the flames. Suttee was outlawed in 1829 under British rule.
Vikings, famous for their funeral pyres, once participated in a similar open air cremation ritual, but the tradition ended when Christianity was introduced around 1050 AD. In India, this type of cremation is still practiced today. With both Hindu and Viking funeral pyres, a common reason for cremation and the specific rituals surrounding it was to make sure the spirit of the dead would not return to haunt its successors.
Funeral pyres remained important in future cultures such as ancient Greece and Rome.