10 What Happens When We Die?

Victor Tsao; Emery Martinez-Blas; and Leah McCurdy

Chapter 10 map and artwork timeline
Figure 10.1: Map and timeline of artworks discussed in “What Happens When We Die?” by Marizela Garza. Review image captions below for details about each artwork and copyright information.

What happens when we die?

Death is inescapable. Yikes! There’s really no way to spin that. Death as an abstract concept is confusing and frightening. The threat of an eventual demise feels hard to imagine when we are just living our everyday lives. It becomes somewhat easier to approach when there is a face to put on this mother of all fears. Many cultures have a depiction of death incarnate, which is often presented in quite literal terms and usually gendered male. Along with masculine features, personified death often appears as a skeleton. This makes sense. Bones and skulls serve as a metaphor for mortality, as well as chilling imagery. Death is scary-looking because death is scary!

Let’s take a look at one of these skeletal images of death, in this case probably divine death or a death god. In Skull Vessel (Fig. 10.2) from the Wari culture of Peru’s coastal desert (Fig. 10.1), we see a skull-faced figure with large unnerving eyes and tall protruding horns. These features are rendered on the round ceramic vessel along with a toothy smile that curves with the vessel. This gives the face dimension and simulates the curvature of an actual skull. The depiction of the skeletal nasal openings (not a fleshy nose) exaggerate the skull-like appearance of this face. Twin spouts mimicking horns sit on top with a curved handle that connects the sprouts. This configuration makes this object an Andean double-spout-and-bridge vessel, a common form of pottery the Wari learned from earlier Andean cultures such as the Nazca. While the form is similar, the color palette is unique to the Wari, with the combination of black, yellow, and red. The unsettling quality of this vessel speaks volumes about how the Wari perceived death. In fact, it may represent a Wari death god.

Image of Skull Vessel by Wari Maker(s) of Peru
Figure 10.2: Wari Maker(s) of Pachacamac, Peru. Skull Vessel. ca. 500-900 CE. Earthenware with polychrome slips, 5.75” x 7” x 5”. Cleveland Museum of Art Collection. CC0 Public Domain.

The Wari were very influential on a later culture that is much more well-known today: the Inka. Supay was the Inka god of the dead as well as the demons in the Uku Pacha (underworld). He was characterized as a powerful force of nature, an embodiment of chaos to whom people would plead for a good afterlife. The Wari death god in Skull Vessel is not the exact same as the Inka Supay but there are probably many similarities between them, including their literal and menacing imagery.

You may also be familiar with the literal death imagery of the Aztec and Spanish influenced Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations on November 1 and 2. These traditions relate to the Aztec deities called Mictlantecuhtli (“Lord of Mictlan”) and Mictecacíhuatl (“Lady of Mictlan”). Three guesses what Mictlan is… yep, it’s the underworld! Like the Supay-like Wari deity, Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl were usually represented in skeletal form, oftentimes as a full-body skeleton with various adornments, including flowers. Dia de los Muertos takes on the Aztec tradition of literal death imagery and connection to the souls of the deceased (who return among the living on certain days of the year), but is practiced on Catholic holidays: All Saints Day and All Souls Day. This mixture of indigenous and colonial traditions is called syncretism, and is a facet of many present-day burial customs and traditions related to death. Frida Kahlo incorporated such syncretism into her work. Look back at Four Inhabitants of Mexico (sketched in Fig. 9.10; original here) in “Where Do Babies Come From?” to see how Kahlo incorporated literal imagery of death there.

A good afterlife

In addition to the overarching concern about death itself, most people wonder about what happens after death. Some people think nothing happens and many people believe in an afterlife (existence after physical death on earth). While many traditions have different views about what constitutes an afterlife, many share the overarching idea that there are good or bad options for the afterlife. Most people hope for a good one. So, how do we ensure we will have a good afterlife? Every culture has a different answer to that question.

The ancient Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ is a famous example. One’s fate in the afterlife required a journey through the Duat (underworld; realm of the dead). Instructions were written and depicted for the deceased to overcome the perils of the journey, and be found worthy at the end. Two Excerpts from the Papyrus of Ani (Fig. 10.3) illustrate the endgame, the last phase of the Duat journey.

Two Images of Excerpts from the Papyrus of Ani by New Kingdom Maker(s) of Thebes, Egypt
Figure 10.3: New Kingdom (19th Dynasty) Maker(s) of Thebes, Egypt. Two Excerpts from the Papyrus of Ani (frame 1 left, frame 2 right). ca. 1250 BCE. Pigment on papyrus, 25.5” x 17”. The British Museum Collection © The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Ani is the deceased, depicted as the male figure dressed in white linen (second from the left in frame 1 and the far left figure in frame 2). After battling monsters and reciting countless incantations, Ani arrives at the Hall of Judgment (frame 1). His life deeds are judged by the seated deities depicted in a row at the top of frame 1. Then, his heart is weighed by Anubis (the jackal-headed god kneeling at the scale) against maat (symbolizing order, balance, harmony, and morality), usually represented by a feather. If Ani’s heart is equal to maat (i.e. balanced), he can proceed into the final stage. If not, he will be devoured by the hybrid crocodile, lion, hippopotamus deity, Ammit (right of the ibis bird-headed deity Thoth, who is the record-keeper of the Duat events).

Ani’s heart passes the test! Guided by Horus (the falcon-headed deity holding Ani’s hold in frame 2), Ani kneels before Osiris (King of the Underworld), seated in a pavilion throne with his wives and daughters behind him (far right frame 2). Osiris welcomes Ani into the A’aru (Field of Reeds), a paradisiacal version of life on earth. By visualizing this journey in detail in Ani’s individual version of the ‘Book of the Dead,’ the idea is that Ani will be more likely to actually each the ‘Field of Reeds,’ the good Egyptian afterlife.

Ani’s papyrus scroll was created during the New Kingdom period (ca. 1550 – 1077 BCE) in Thebes, Egypt (Fig. 10.1). This type of afterlife instruction manual was common during that period, both for people who could pay an artist to make their own individual ‘Book of the Dead’ or more generic versions. But there were many previous evolutions of this information. For example, in the Old Kingdom (ca. 2686 – 2181 BCE), King Unas built a tomb for himself with the first known Pyramid Texts around 2315 BCE. These were carved hieroglyphs on the walls of his tomb that gave him very similar instructions to those written and illustrated on Ani’s papyrus. They included incantations, poetic pleas to deities, and knowledge about the creatures one would face in the Duat. Eventually, the Pyramid Texts evolved into the Coffin Texts during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2055 – 1650 BCE), which were not inscribed on tomb walls but on coffin surfaces. Then, the very handy papyrus scroll versions like Ani’s developed and were placed inside the coffin so they were readily available to the deceased soul.

This is a fascinating trajectory of a society innovating ways to deal with the afterlife. It has inspired many movies and other media, such as “The Mummy” series (1999, 2001), usually plotting fantastical (and inaccurate) events interspersed with ancient Egyptian elements. But there are more accurate, and still entertaining, media examples out there based on these traditions. For example, UTA art student Emery Martinez-Blas developed a comic based on the Pyramid Texts and the visual qualities of King Unas’ tomb called “Neheb is Dead!” Figure 10.4 is the first page of the comic but there is much more!

Figure 10.4: Emery Martinez-Blas. First page of ‘Neheb is Dead’ Comic. 2021 CE. Courtesy of Emery Martinez-Blas © Emery Martinez-Blas. Read the full comic here.

Overall, the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead are Egyptian guides to achieving a good afterlife. Other cultures approach death, and the stages of death, differently. Let’s consider the traditions of Tibetan Buddhists. Introduced in “What is Divine?”, Tibetan Buddhism was just gaining steam in Tibet (Fig. 10.1) during the Yarlung Dynasty (which eventually became the Tibetan Empire), ruled by King Songtsen Gampo (618-650 CE). In 641 CE, he strategically married Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang Dynasty to the east, solidifying peaceful relations between the two empires. As part of her extensive dowry, Princess Wencheng brought the statue of Jowo Rinpoche (Fig. 10.5) to Tibet, an extremely important event to the growth of Buddhism in Tibet.

Image of Jowo Rinpoche in Lhasa, Tibet
Figure 10.5: Traditionally attributed to celestial architect Vishwakarma. Jowo Rinpoche. 640s CE. Metal with semiprecious stones, pearls, paint, and gilding, 5’. In situ: Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Jowo Rinpoche statue was installed in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet (Fig. 10.1) and became one of the most sacred images in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans believe that the statue was crafted by celestial architect Vishwakarma in the exact image of the 12-year-old Shakyamuni Buddha, who requested its creation so that his likeness would be preserved after death. Thus, Jowo Rinpoche is a proxy for Shakyamuni himself. His hands are held in the dhyana (meditation) and bhumisparsha (calling the earth to witness) mudras. Remember what that means from “What is Divine?” He’s just reached enlightenment! He is seated in the traditional padmāsana (lotus position) upon a throne of gold and jewels. He wears a five-petal crown, each petal containing a bejeweled image of different manifestations of the Buddha. Remember that as Buddhism migrated out of India, it morphed and various forms or manifestations of the Buddha developed, such as the ‘Laughing Buddha’ discussed in “What is Divine?” These manifestations came to represent distinct concepts and needs within communities.

The Jowo Rinpoche is covered in layers of gold applied over many years. The direct application of gold (foil and powder) to the Buddha’s body and face is a sign of devotion and honoring of Buddha’s teachings, an act of ‘loving kindness’ and the ‘transfer of good merits.’ Pilgrims and worshippers donate money as offerings, which is equated into an amount of gold. Monks grind gold pellets into powder, and brush the gold onto the face and body of the Jowo Rinpoche and other sacred statues in the Jokhang Temple on behalf of those who purchase offerings. Pilgrims and worshippers can also pay to provide for the ceremonial redressing of the Jowo Rinpoche. The video 圣地圣法圣迹 大昭寺 (Dazhaosi / Jokhang Temple); 圣地圣法圣迹 (Holy Land, Holy Relics) (Fig. 10.6) documents a gold application ceremony and other rituals associated with Jowo Rinpoche.

Figure 10.6: “圣地圣法圣迹 大昭寺 (Dazhaosi/ Jokhang Temple); 圣地圣法圣迹 (Holy Land, Holy Relics)” uploaded by 佛弟子 on YouTube (Mar 31, 2017). Key Timestamps: Minute 3:55 – Painting gold onto face of Guanyin Bodhisattva; 6:42 – Preparation of gold for brushing onto Jowo Rinpoche; 8:50 – Painting gold onto body of Jowo Rinpoche; 10:45 – Dressing of Jowo Rinpoche

This offering is also an important part of the rituals practiced by the faithful during periods of sickness, when death is imminent, and in the days after a person’s death. An important concept relating to death in Tibetan Buddhism is that of a bardo, intervals of time in one’s life with a set beginning and end. A person passes through six bardos, three of them occurring close to or after death, when one is in a stage of existence prior to rebirth. Rinpoche (1993) offer these details about the final three bardos:

  • The bardo of the moment of death: lasting from when death is imminent until actual death, traditionally designated as three and a half days.
  • The bardo of dharmata: lasting from actual death until the onset of visions and appearances of deities. In this stage, the individual feels peace and intense awareness. This stage lasts for around three weeks.
  • The bardo of becoming: starting when the bardo of dharmata ceases and ending when one is reborn. In this bardo, the person comes to realize that he or she is deceased, and attachment to the past life fades as the new life approaches. This stage lasts 24 days.

During and after a person’s death, many ceremonies are performed by the living to guide the deceased in death. For example, the body is turned to face the Jokhang temple, where the Jowo Rinpoche sits, on its way to burial out of respect for the sacredness of that site. On the seventh day after death, letters written in gold containing the deceased’s name are burned in butter lamps before the Jowo Rinpoche. The 49th day after death is particularly significant, as this is when the three bardos occurring during and after death will have completed. This day contains the most ceremonies, and is the most common day for offering to Jokhang temple monks for gold application on the Jowo Rinpoche. Check out “Tibetan Ritual for the Dead” (Sangay and Kilty 2011) for more details.

Given its religious significance, the Jowo Rinpoche at Jokhang Temple is a major pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists, who believe it necessary to see the image at least once during their lifetimes. To emphasize their devotion and strive for a better future, many pilgrims travel long distances from their homes by foot, completely prostrating themselves to the ground every three steps. As a result, a pilgrimage can take several years to complete. To them, it’s all worth it, because the Jowo Rinpoche is a category of sacred object known as kutsab in Tibetan, believed to radiate benevolence and possess the power of thongdrol (liberation through seeing). This means that simply viewing a sacred object will bring positive energy and good fortune, without necessarily needing to recite mantra or meditate. It is deemed the same as meeting Buddha and receiving his blessings in person. Kutsab objects are also believed to pacify sickness and negativity and reverse harm from bad spirits and enemies. Thus, people come to the Jowo Rinpoche when a person is sick in order to gain the blessings of the Buddha and restore the individual to health (Fig. 10.7).

Image of Pilgrims Prostrating before the Jokhang Temple
Figure 10.7: Pilgrims Prostrating before the Jokhang Temple. Photo by Nathan Freitas; CC BY-SA 2.0.

A related though distinct tradition of Buddhism known as Pure Land Buddhism or Amidism, developed first in China and then migrated into Korea and Japan, becoming particularly popular during the shogunates (military states) of medieval Japan (Fig. 10.1). Shoguns ruled over feudally-organized lands whereby they were the ultimate leaders (technically serving under the Emperor but power was effectively stripped from the imperial family during this period). Shoguns provided land rights to the daimyo (nobles loyal to the shogun), offered jobs to the samurai (warriors who protected those lands), and provided security and livelihoods to No (farmers and other food producers, aka ‘peasants’), Ko (artisans and craftspeople), and Sho (merchants). As we discussed in “What is Divine?,” Shinto was primarily associated with the imperial family, who the shoguns saw as competitors to power. While shoguns, daimyo, and samurai didn’t renounce Shinto beliefs, they didn’t favor them. In many cases, these upper classes of the feudal system favored Zen Buddhism and its practices of meditation, discussed in “What is Beautiful?” But what about the lower classes?

No peasants of the feudal shogunates took up Pure Land Buddhism, focused on Amida Buddha (aka Amitābha), another of the many different manifestations of Buddha. Amida is a celestial buddha, known as ‘The Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life,’ who presides over the buddhakṣetra (Pure Land; Buddha Land; Western Paradise). Depicted in Welcoming Descent of Amida Triad (Fig. 10.8) with two bodhisattvas, Amida glides towards the viewer upon clouds from buddhakṣetra. Amida is radiant with light and is depicted with all the symbols of a Buddha (perhaps you can make out his extended earlobes?). So, who is the viewer of a hanging scroll like this? Those No peasants are (depending on whether they could afford a hanging as nice as this one).

Image of Welcoming Descent of Amida Triad by Muromachi period Maker(s) of Japan
Figure 10.8: Muromachi Period Maker(s) of Japan. Welcoming Descent of Amida Triad. 1400s CE. Silk and human hair embroidery hanging scroll, 43” x 14.5”. Cleveland Museum of Art Collection; CC0 Public Domain.

Amida and his bodhisattvas will come to the deathbed of anyone who calls them with sincerity and the desire to reach buddhakṣetra. Hangings like Welcoming Descent of Amida Triad would be given a special place near the bed of a dying person, so that they would remember to call to Amida at the moment of death. This is the only requirement, the only spiritual obligation. Pure Land Buddhism is distinct from other forms of Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, for example, because it is not focused on the endurance efforts of long meditations and self-denial. Most peasants don’t have the opportunity or time to meditate every day for long periods of time, because they are working all day. Thus, Pure Land Buddhism became very popular among this class, offering an open invitation to buddhahood just by remembering to devote one’s thoughts to Amida upon death.

If you take these simple steps, Amida will ensure that you are reborn in buddhakṣetra, a paradisiacal land. This new existence allows one the time to meditate and take the path to enlightenment that only some are privileged to take while on earth. Amida and the bodhisattvas will guide all those who reach buddhakṣetra to enlightenment, so that they will achieve nirvana and not be reborn again, thus achieving liberation from suffering. This guaranteed path to buddhahood would have been unknown to the peasant classes of Vedic period India, until the Pure Land tradition developed and enlightenment was open to all.

Grave goods

Most Buddhist traditions focus on eschewing material/worldly things in life and in death. Thus, burial of a Buddhist monk would not involve extensive offerings or burial goods. But for many peoples around the world, burial is a ceremonial process whereby goods are offered to the deceased to take with them into the afterlife. The more goods in your grave, the better your afterlife will be.

For example, prior to the influx of Buddhism, Chinese culture focused on indigenous spiritual systems, such as ancestor worship and nature-focused spiritualism (known as “philosophical” Daoism today, which later developed in a powerful organized religion in China). During the earliest periods of recorded Chinese history, the Shang Dynasty (1766–1046 BCE), new types of grave goods were being offered to the highest status people.

The Shang Dynasty was established during the beginning of the Bronze Age in China (Fig. 10.1). This period ushered in new, innovative techniques in smelting and extracting tin and copper to create bronze alloys (hence the name), allowing for fabrication of durable and long-lasting weapons, tools, and ceremonial objects. Bronze ritual vessels decorated with spiritual designs were of particular value among the Shang. One of the most significant forms of these bronze vessels was the ding (鼎), a large cauldron used for storage, cooking food, and making religious offerings to ancestors and deities. Vy's signature These ding were objects of power commonly buried in graves of the Shang aristocracy and royalty to accompany their owners into the afterlife.

One of the most significant examples of ding in China is the Houmuwu Ding (Fig. 10.9) from present-day Henan Province of central China. Houmuwu (后母戊) literally means “Queen Mother Wu” in Mandarin, referencing the official title of the dedicatee of this vessel, Queen Fu Jing, one of the wives of Shang King Wu Ding. Not just a consort to the king, Fu Jing was regarded as a powerful authority on agriculture in her own right.

Image of Houmuwu (Simuwu) Ding by Shang Dynasty Maker(s) of Anyang, China
Figure 10.9: Shang Dynasty Maker(s) of Anyang, China. Houmuwu (Simuwu) Ding. ca. 1150-1100 BCE. Bronze 15” x 15.25” x 10”. National Museum of China Collection. Photo by Victor Tsao; CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Weighing over 1800 pounds, the Houmuwu Ding is the largest and heaviest artifact of bronzeware uncovered in China. It has protruding edges, a rectangular body and four feet, as well as two vertical handles which were most likely used to transport the ding on a pole (because one person could not handle this thing alone). The ancient Chinese viewed the earth as square and the heavens as round, thus a squared ding firmly rooted to the ground by four feet would represent stability, important to both the current life and the afterlife.

The Houmuwu Ding also exhibits a taotie (饕餮) pattern common on many ding throughout the Shang Dynasty. Taotie were ancient mythical monsters portrayed as gluttonous beasts, represented on the Houmuwu Ding as a motif of zoomorphic masks cast around the edges of the main body of the ding. Check out the leg in the foreground of Figure 10.9. Do you notice a rounded rectangular eye with a slit for a pupil? Above that, the face features a curving horn. You should be able to make out an ear, snarling mouth, and tusks that emerge from the straight nose ridge, which actually serves as the axis of symmetry for the same features on the other side of the leg. In most taotie designs, two profile heads are arranged symmetrically to also make a frontal face view. You may be able to make out a flatter example at the top and bottom of the band designs on the flat body of the Houmuwu Ding as well.

The exact meaning of these taotie motifs is not yet clear. Some scholars suggest that it is simply a product of the casting process without meaning, while others think that these taotie faces may have to do with religious ceremonies or wishes for a good harvest. These hybrid creatures may have associations to fertility and agricultural success. Between the taotie motifs are dense cloud and thunder patterns that suggest a connection to rain and the divine. In addition, the handles are decorated with tigers with a human head in their mouths. (Tigers were worshipped as guardian gods during the Shang dynasty.) The very fact that such a large piece of bronzeware, with detailed ornamentation, was created testifies to the level of skill and organization in Shang society. Many different workers and craftsmen would have been responsible for the mining, smelting, mouldmaking, pouring, casting, and final assembly of this one ding! Indeed, the bronze casting techniques in China are unique, relative to all other bronze casting methods around the globe. To learn more, check out “Casting Bronze the Complicated Way” in Lothar Ledderose’s (2000) Ten-thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art.

The Houmuwu Ding was buried with Fu Jing (for whom it was named). Another lady in King Wu Ding’s life named Fu Hao also was buried at Anyang. Her tomb (Fig. 10.10) is a rare case because it was found intact, so we can see the variety and amount of objects offered to her in death. Ebrey and colleagues (n.d) in “A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization” provide the following list of items found in Fu Hao’s tomb:

  • 468 bronze objects including 130 weapons, 23 bells, 27 knives, 4 mirrors, and 4 tigers or tiger heads
  • 755 jade objects
  • 63 stone objects
  • 5 ivory objects
  • 564 bone objects including nearly 500 bone hairpins and over 20 bone arrowheads
  • 11 pottery objects
  • 6,900 pieces of cowry shell

Fu Hao had several ding, one very like the Houmuwu Ding, and many other bronze vessels, including a wine jug in the shape of a hybrid dog owl! Fu Jing likely had just as many or more objects in her tomb but it was not found intact, thus the exact knowledge of all the objects she was buried with is lost.

Two images of Tomb of Fu Hao preserved in Anyang, China
Figure 10.10: Tomb of Fu Hao preserved in Anyang, China. Photos by Gary Todd; Public Domain.

About 4000 years later, the Houmuwu Ding is celebrated in China today. It is proudly exhibited in the National Museum of China in Beijing and is on the official list of Chinese National Treasures (国之重器), forbidden from being taken outside of China for exhibition. And, bronze production didn’t stop with the Shang Dynasty! There were incredible examples produced during the proceeding Zhou Dynasty, such as the group of massive musical bells made for Marquis Yi. And like Houmuwu Ding, Marquis Yi took his bronze bells with him into the afterlife. Check out “Shang and Zhou Period Bronze Musical Instruments from South China” (Gao 1992) for more on how bronze and music mix.

Most ancient Chinese tombs were subterranean (underground). But many cultures around the world, including historic Chinese groups, developed above ground tomb traditions. For people who could afford them, massive tomb structures would mark a gravesite in awe-inspiring fashion. Talk about taking something with you into the afterlife! What about a whole palace!! That’s what the Mughal emperors of India wanted (and expected) in their afterlife.

Check out the Tomb of Humayun (Fig. 10.11) near Delhi, India (Fig. 10.1) as an example.. Humayun was the second Mughal emperor and his tomb offers a picture of his position, status, and afterlife. The structure incorporates the typical red sandstone of northern India, with white marble accents. The contrast of red and white is typical of the Indo-Islamic architectural style, developed first by the Sultanate of Delhi (the first Islamic rulers of India). The Mughals perfected this style, adding octagonal forms, the ogee arch (squat pointed forms), and large marble ‘onion’ domes (because their form resembles an onion-y pointed orb shape). The central, tall building in Figure 10.11 is where Humayun’s body was interred. His coffin sits in a central octagonal hall under the main dome. The lower surrounding structure resembles typical Mughal designs for horse stables or storage rooms, both demonstrating the wealth and power of the owner. Such a tomb transfers that wealth and power from life through death into the afterlife.

Image of Tomb of Humayun by Mughal Maker(s) of Delhi, India

Figure 10.11: Mughal Maker(s) of Delhi, India. Tomb of Humayun. 1558 CE. bronze, 154’. In situ. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Humayun and his successors (Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan) all built elaborate tombs in India (but Shah Jahan ended up being buried in the tomb he built for his favorite wife: the Taj Mahal). Humayun’s father and the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, Babur, died in Agra, India, but wanted to be buried in Kabul, Afghanistan (his primary capital), so his tomb is there. Babur’s tomb structure is relatively modest. What is impressive are the gardens and water features that surround the tomb (his tomb site is known as Bagh-e Babur; bagh means garden). Babur followed the Persian-derived custom of his forebears, the Timurid Dynasty of Central Asia (present-day Uzbekistan mostly). Persian gardens were and continue to be legendary.

Dating back to the Achaemenid Persian Empire and probably much earlier, Persian gardens were usually organized as a grid with strong symmetry and rectangular boundaries of various planted beds and water features. Generally, there was a fountain at the center of the garden and channels that fed the fountain water towards the edges of the garden. These gardens came to be known as charbagh in Persian (four-square garden), because there would be four squares of plants around the central fountain. The order and symmetry of the layout reflects the perfect harmony of a paradise, thus they are also known as ‘paradise gardens.’

As Muslims conquered Persia and came to learn about ancient Persian traditions, the idea of a garden with abundant plants and water resonated with them through the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, within the Muslim tradition, the good afterlife is in Jannah, the idyllic paradise garden where you want for nothing and there is perpetual bliss. In practical terms, early Muslims originated in the Arabian Desert and likely would have seen a place dedicated to water and abundant growth as particularly valuable. The charbagh was like an oasis in the desert. All these factors led to the incorporation of charbagh into Islamic architectural traditions, especially tombs. Babur’s tomb is an excellent example, as is Humayun’s. Have you noticed the large pool of water in the foreground of Figure 10.11? Check out a plan of the complex here (the right side is the main garden with centralized tomb structure). Humayun’s tomb building sits at the center of a four-square garden. Four fountains radiate from the building. Each square of the garden is subdivided by water channels (symbolizing the 4 rivers of Jannah that offer water, wine, milk, and honey as described in the Qur’an) and pathways, presenting a very ordered landscape.

Recently, Humayun’s tomb complex underwent a restoration, led by the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme and the Archaeological Survey of India. Do you notice the scaffolding around the dome of the two small pavilions on top of the main tomb structure in Figure 10.11? Those efforts have revitalized this vision of paradise and the social value of this tomb complex. It honors a deceased leader, maintaining cultural connections to the past for contemporary people, and it offers those people opportunities for economic growth through tourism. We’ll consider many more examples of monumental architecture and its role in society in “Why Does Size Matter?”

Body and soul preparation

In the establishment of a grave or tomb, objects and structures are quite important in most traditions. But the preparation of the deceased for the afterlife is also very important, and can incorporate grave goods such as textiles. One of the most famous examples of body preparation is ancient Egyptian mummification. We won’t go into that here but check out “Mummification” (Ikram 2010) in the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology and follow the scholarly resources suggested there for more info.

After the reigns of ancient Egyptian leaders, Persian, Greek, Roman and then Byzantine and Coptic leaders (who were mostly Orthodox Christians) held the territories of Egypt. Between 639-646 CE, Muslim leaders of the early period of expansion right after the Prophet Muhammad’s death conquered Egypt and took power from the Copts. This ushered in a long period of so-called ‘Islamization’ and establishment of new cities, such as al-Fustat (which eventually became known as ‘Old Cairo’ and today is part of the large urban area of Cairo). By 969 CE, most of the population of Egypt was Muslim and new leadership took power, the Fatimids, challenging the overarching rule of the Abbasids, seated at Baghdad in present-day Iraq. The Fatimids inherited long-established traditions of Egypt, such as linen production.

Ancient Egypt was a hub of linen production which focused on fibers from flax plants for thousands of years. In addition to being used for body wrappings in the mummification process, linen was the primary material used for clothing in ancient Egypt. In fact, there is an incredibly preserved linen item, called the Tarkhan Dress, dated to 3482-3103 BCE and is considered the oldest piece of women’s clothing in the world. Check out “Dressing for the Ages” (Lobell 2016) for more.

Linen production continued through Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods in Egypt, becoming an important trade commodity throughout the Mediterranean over time. As the Fatimids took control in Egypt, linen production boomed, with both khāssa (exclusive for the caliph) and ‘āmma (public and commercial) factories. Most of these factories were located in the northern Nile Delta region (Fig. 10.1), where flax plants grow readily and there is easy access to trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. Linen textiles called tiraz were the primary fashion during this period, identified by a horizontal calligraphic inscription like those in Two examples of Tiraz (Fig. 10.12). Tiraz made by the khāssa factories would be inscribed with the caliph’s name, the factory name, blessings, and praise of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. These would be given as gifts from the caliph to honored officials and worthy subjects. In addition, ‘āmma factories would produce lower-quality tiraz with inscription bands featuring general blessings. The top example in Figure 10.2 is inscribed with نصر من الله (Naṣr min Allāh or “Victory from God”) repeated 6 times (Golombek 2021a). The bottom example contains a more traditional inscription, reading:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم …نصر من الله لمعد أبي تميم الإمام المستنصر بالله أمير المؤمنين صلۈت الله عليه وعلى (الأئمّة

الطاهرين المهديّين؟) ومحمّد خاتم النبيّين

“In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful; . . . victory from God to Maʻadd Abi Tamim, the Imam al-Mustanṣir Billah, Commander of the Faithful. Blessings from God upon him and upon the pure and guided Imams and on Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets” (Golombek 2021b).

Image of Two Examples of Tiraz by Fatimid Maker(s) of Egypt
Figure 10.12: Fatimid Maker(s) of Egypt. Two Examples of Tiraz. ca. 1050-1150 CE. Linen tabby, silk tapestry-woven decoration, 11.2 x 40.2 cm (top), 82 x 57 cm (bottom). Aga Khan Museum Collection; CC BY NC 2.5.

Tiraz were possessions during life and usually worn as special garments. Then, due to their special status, they were used as kafans (shrouds) for a deceased body in death. Interestingly, contributor Dr. Lina Jammal also suggests that the phrase نصر من الله (Naṣr min Allāh or “Victory from God”) often seen in tiraz implied their eventual funerary use, since that phrase reflects an important passage in the Qur’an that foretold the death of Prophet Muhammad.

The procedure for wrapping a body in a kafan derives from the hadith (‘Traditions,’ written accounts from the Prophet Muhammad and his closest followers). Muhammad himself was covered in cotton cloth upon his death in Mecca. In Fatimid Egypt, tiraz textiles were used because of their similarity to plain cotton cloth described in the hadith and the symbolism of the inscriptions upon them. Excavations have shown that the inscription bands were aligned over the deceased’s mouth or eyes, as if the person was speaking or reading the praise of Allah and blessings in death. The bottom example in Figure 10.12 would have been large enough to cover a body in full. But the top example is smaller and may have been one of several tiraz covering an individual, with it placed at the head. Upon burial, the body covered with a kafan (tiraz or otherwise) was usually placed with the head pointing towards Mecca. Such burial practices are why many of the linen tiraz in museums today survive; they were buried in the arid environment of Egypt and not disturbed for hundreds of years. Some survive better than others (as exemplified in Fig. 10.12).

Let’s consider a distinct tradition of body preparation across the world, back in Mesoamerica. Remember the Aztec gods of death mentioned above? Well, while the Aztec were developing a huge empire around their capital Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico city), a contemporaneous Mesoamerican culture known as the Zapotec, was thriving in present-day Oaxaca (Fig. 10.1). Eventually, the Aztec conquered the Zapotec, but there was a long history of independent Zapotec culture prior to Aztec intervention. It first developed around 700 BCE and enjoyed a large population growth between 200-700 CE, aligned with (but distinct from) neighboring cultures of the early Classic Maya and of Teotihuacan. Zapotec people still live in Oaxaca today, some maintaining their traditional practices despite first Aztec, then Spanish conquest. We’ve learned about ancient Zapotec burial practices from studying these surviving traditions in historic Zapotec communities.

The Zapotec practice a 40-day mourning period after the death of a loved one. First, the body is set up in the home for a community viewing for several days. This is a social event that allows all members of the community to grieve together. After the body is taken from the home to be buried, the family will prepare a ‘flower body’ (a mound of flowers assembled to look like a human body), to replace the deceased’s physical body in the home. Becoming a spirit is the ultimate progression of one of the fundamental principles of life; the cycling/balance between nayaa (wet, green, fresh) and nabidxi (dry) aspects of the universe. Seasons change from wet to dry, grass from green to brown, then living creatures from flesh to bone. Wetness is associated with the state of living and dryness is associated with the state of dying. The flower body would be a way to simulate the longer process of decay/drying of the loved one’s body and be a way to remember them during the grieving process. This ritual also helps ease the spirit into the afterlife and not stray.

The Zapotec are also known to create ceramic funerary urns. Some of the examples from the Classic period are very elaborate, such as Funerary Urn (Fig. 10.13). This example likely depicts a Zapotec leader or priest, with a huge feathered headdress, large earflares, a cape-like garment and feathered collar, as well as a chest adornment. Zapotec urn figures are often seated in this cross-legged position but are also seen standing. The storm god Cociyo is depicted in the feathered headdress, aligning this figure with one of the preeminent gods of the Zapotec spiritual system.

Image of Funerary Urn (Front and side view) by Classic Period Zapotec Maker(s) of Oaxaca, Mexico
Figure 10.13: Classic Period Zapotec Maker(s) of Oaxaca, Mexico. Funerary Urn (front and side view). ca. 350-500 CE. Terracotta, 52” x 43” x 31”. Cleveland Museum of Art Collection; CC0 Public Domain.

These are called urns because the elaborate figure on the front conceals a cylindrical vessel behind that scholars first suspected would contain ashes. But, as more and more of the urns were investigated, archaeologists couldn’t find chemical signatures inside them (by analyzing the composition of the interior pottery that usually absorbs traces of the substances once contained within them). Some scholars suggested that they were once filled with water, explaining the lack of signatures. But the historic Zapotec funerary customs may offer a clue. Other scholars suggest that these urns would hold the remains of the flower bodies after the 40-day period when the spirit is guided to join the spirit world. In the hot and humid climate of Oaxaca, flowers would not last long and if placed in a ceramic vessel without a covering, would disintegrate quite quickly, perhaps not leaving a trace after over 1000 years. In “What Will I Get Out of It?” we’ll discuss an example of chemical analysis on ceramics that did result in signatures… of a substance you most certainly would recognize!

Whatever was contained in these vessels, most agree that the figures they represent are probably portraits of the deceased. (Some that represent hybrid creatures probably served as guardians of tombs instead of portraits.) Thus, these vessels would serve as another visual means to remember the deceased. Urns are usually found in niches outside tomb chambers. They may have been placed outside the tombs after the 40-day rituals concluded in the deceased’s household. It is likely that tombs would be visited regularly and the funerary urns would be a visual reminder of the deceased for the visitors. Ancestor worship is important with Zapotec culture to this day, including rituals to invite ancestral spirits to offer their blessings at wedding ceremonies, for example.

Memories of death

Ancestor worship is fundamentally about the memory of death and those who have died. This memory can be incredibly deep, hundreds or thousands of years depending on the tradition. Different cultures perceive death in different ways and thus approach the memorializing of death differently. Let’s explore a couple traditions you may not have heard of.

The Djenné culture, centered on the town of Djenné -Jeno in present-day Mali (Fig. 10.1), combines indigenous traditions and incorporates practices adopted from Muslim groups trading and migrating across the Sahara desert from North Africa. Archaeology in the region has been lacking, so we’re not quite sure what is characteristic of indigenous Djenné art and what shows evidence of the adoption/adaptation of artistic practices brought in via Muslim contact and settlement. One type of art that probably has strong indigenous roots focuses on figural ceramic objects like Male Figure (Fig. 10.14). Such objects are thought to have been provided to the deceased as burial goods and served as memories of previous losses during life.

Image of Male Figure by Djenne Maker(s) of Djenne-Jeno, Mali
Figure 10.14: Djenné Maker(s) of Djenné- Jeno, Mali. Male Figure. ca. 1300-1600s CE. Terracotta, 7.75””. Cleveland Museum of Art Collection. CC0 Public Domain.

It is difficult to observe Male Figure without a feeling of sadness. Notice the hunched back, crossing arms in a gesture that appears like a self-hug for comfort, and the legs pulled in close and anchoring a sickened body. This man’s skin is covered in what appear to be bulbous sores or pustules. His eyes are swollen with inflammation and he may have an open wound on his forehead. He is unadorned and naked. It is difficult not to feel pity for him.

This is not the only terracotta figural sculpture from Djenné that seems to represent illness and depression. Other examples have larger open lesions. Some have sores only on one part of their body, such as the back. So, what is it? Scholars have asked whether this is representative of a disease, potentially a plague, that affected many people within Djenné society. Some have suggested leprosy. In addition to figures obviously suffering from this illness, Djenné artists produced sculptures of figures embracing, perhaps in gestures of mourning and grief after loved ones died from this illness. Those figures often have swollen eyes as well, probably reflective of the puffiness that develops after lots of crying.

While our knowledge of Djenné culture is limited, scholars suggest that these sculptures may have been produced as memories of a previous generation that suffered dearly due to a terrible disease. These figures could have been produced during the period of the disease but if it was truly as terrible as it seems, it is likely that artists would not devote their efforts to representing it while it was ravaging the community but developing images of benefit to those afflicted (such as images of gods, etc.). Thus, it makes the most sense that these sculptures would be memorials to a past that was still close in people’s memories but far enough away that the disease was not affecting the society at large anymore. Other terracotta figures from the Djenné, representing deities like a mother goddess, probably would have been set up at temple shrines or homes for private worship. These disease and mourning figures may have been used in the same way, but targeting ancestral memory and connection to the past. Eventually, they probably were buried with people of the surviving generation, who remembered the diseased generation. Check out the Djenne section on Art & Life in Africa by the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art for more about Djenne terracotta figures.

These memories of deceased loved ones can be cornerstones of earthly lives, especially if ancestor worship is an important spiritual tradition. This is the case for the Asmat people of present-day Irian Jaya, Indonesia (the western half of the island of New Guinea in Melanesia; Fig. 10.1). Asmat carvers created monumental sculptures called Bisj Poles (Fig. 10.15), incorporating multiple human figures, stacked atop each other, with projecting decorative wing-like structures, called tsjemen at the top. They would always be painted but most examples that reached European and Euro-American museums were stripped of their original paint, like all the examples in Figure 10.15.

Two images of Bisj Poles by Asmat Maker(s) of Irian Jaya, West Papua, Indonesia
Figure 10.15: Asmat Maker(s) of Irian Jaya, West Papua, Indonesia. Bisj Poles. Late 1950s CE. Wood, paint, fiber, approx. 18’. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection. Photo by Leah McCurdy. CC BY 4.0.

The tallest Bisj Poles in Figure 10.15 is about 18 feet tall! To carve one, a team of Asmat men need to source a mature tree and extract the whole thing, roots and all! Then, the carving can start. Check out this photo of a team of carvers using scaffolding to create several bisj poles. The tree’s projecting roots are used to create the tsjemen, carved with intricate patterns of curved, interlacing patterns, faces, and sometimes figures. The tsjemen often project from the body of the uppermost carved figure.

So, who are those figures? If you look carefully at the photo on the right in Figure 10.15, you’ll notice that the figure is represented with a penis and, thus, is male. This is the case for all figures carved on bisj poles. They are the warriors who have recently died and become ancestors of the village. These warriors usually died in specific circumstances: a village raid. Deaths may occur in defense of one’s own village against another raiding party or during the raid of a neighboring village. These so-called ‘headhunting’ raids aren’t only about collecting trophy heads or cannibalism. These raids also involved collecting resources for food and production, perhaps in revenge upon a community that previously raided one’s own village for such resources.

This aspect of revenge is important to the Asmat because they believe that all deaths, except for those of the very young and very old, were caused by an enemy, no matter if violence was involved or not. These malicious acts must be avenged and the men’s society of warriors takes on that challenge. In a long ceremony, the men prepare a bisj pole, depicting their fallen ancestors, and erect it for all to see. The men gather for a rally to remember the ancestral warriors and prepare for a raid. They seek to decapitate those who caused the death of their loved ones. By taking the head of another warrior, one takes on their essence and prowess. Mythological accounts suggest that warriors would also take on the names of those they have decapitated. The more names one has accumulated, the more one has demonstrated their prowess as a warrior. The heads of the enemy would be brought back to one’s village and used to initiate the next generation of warriors. To learn more, check out “Asmat headhunting and the initiation of male adolescents” (Pouwer 2010).

As you might imagine, these practices were highly demonized by colonial and missionary Europeans. But it is important to understand that these acts of violence against others are not carried out in a vacuum. They are part of a belief system and part of the approach to death in Asmat culture. For example, people who refer to Asmat headhunting as an evil practice usually don’t know that the Asmat also remove the skulls from their loved one’s deceased body (after a period of decomposition), including the skulls of mothers that are preserved in a family for many generations. These skulls are important objects of memory kept in households. This is not a ‘scary’ or ‘evil’ practice to the Asmat. It is part of the cycle of life and death. Like the family-focused ancestral skulls of individual households, the monumental bisj poles serve as objects of memory for a whole community.

The Wrap-up

We started this chapter with the literal imagery of death, often incorporating skulls or skeletal forms. And we’ve ended with trophy and ancestral heads as objects of memory. Each of these examples and those in-between reflects a way of thinking about death, and dealing with the psychological crisis we often feel when faced with our own mortality and/or the loss of our loved ones. Euro-Americans use a lot of metaphors to describe death and the afterlife: ‘the great beyond,’ ‘passing,’ ‘kicked the bucket.’ Other cultures prefer to not be metaphorical about death and approach it for what it is, in literal and straightforward ways. Art and architecture offer means to express these cultural approaches to death, while honoring those who have died.

News Flash

  • The animated films “Coco” (2017) and “The Book of Life” (2014) incorporate imagery and concepts of indigenous and colonial origin of Dia de los Muertos
  • The 007 James Bond film “Spectre” (2015) is set in Mexico City on Dia de Los Muertos. The fictional parade scene in the film inspired the Mexican government to hold an annual parade on October 29, starting in 2016!
  • The Houmuwu Ding is featured in the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons as “Tremendous Statue”.
  • The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ “Play It! Chinese Bronze Bells” virtual exhibition allows you to play a set of bells to see how they sound different.
  • The short film called “Muxes” (2016) documents another important part of Zapotec culture, the non-binary gender tradition of muxes.
  • The Asmat Culture is featured in the documentary “The Search for Michael Rockefeller” about the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Asmat territory during an anthropological study.

Where Do I Go From Here? / The Bibliography

Dewey, William. n.d.“Djenne section on Art & Life in Africa” the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. Accessed Aug 10, 2021. https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/chapters/ancient-africa/djenne/.

Ebrey and colleagues. n.d.”Shang Tomb of Fu Hao.” in A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization. University of Washington. Accessed Aug 8, 2021. https://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/archae/2fuhmain.htm

高至喜 (Gao Zhixi). 1992. “Shang and Zhou Period Bronze Musical Instruments from South China.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 55, no. 2: 262-71. Accessed June 10, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/619623.

Golombek, Lisa. n.d. “Narrow Tiraz Panel with Cursive Inscription.” Aga Khan Museum. Accessed Aug 10, 2021. https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/collection/artifact/narrow-tiraz-panel-with-cursive-inscription-akm675

Golombek, Lisa. n.d. “Tiraz Textile,” Aga Khan Museum. Accessed Aug 10, 2021. https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/collection/artifact/tiraz-textile-akm673.

Ikram, Salima, 2010, Mummification. In UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, edited by Jacco Dieleman, Willeke Wendrich, Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz001nwz181024 Version 1, September 2010 

Ledderose, Lothar. 2000. Ten-thousand things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 

Lobell, Jarrett A. 2016. Dressing for the Ages. Archaeological Institute of America. Last Modified June 2016. Accessed August 8, 2021. https://www.archaeology.org/issues/215-1605/trenches/4349-trenches-egypt-predynastic-period-tarkhan-dress.

Pouwer, Jan. 2010. “Asmat headhunting and the initiation of male adolescents.” in Gender, Ritual and Social Formation in West Papua, 207-230. Netherlands: Brill Publishers.

Rinpoche, Bokar, et al. 1993. Death and the Art of Dying in Tibetan Buddhism. San Francisco: ClearPoint Press.

Thupten Sangay, and Gavin Kilty. 2011. “Tibetan Ritual for the Dead.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 36, no. 3 (Autumn): 49–59. Accessed 3 July 2021. www.jstor.org/stable/tibetjournal.36.3.49.


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Where Does Art Come From? by Victor Tsao; Emery Martinez-Blas; and Leah McCurdy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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