The Open-air Sacrificial Burial of the Mongols


Heike Michel

After the Revolution of 1921 Mongolians started to change their burial rites.

Atheists like Süxbaatar and other representatives of the Communist Party, scientists and "heroes" of the new generation were buried in a cemetery named altan ölgiï (golden cradle) in the northeastern part of Ulaanbaatar.

After the revolution, especially in the 30s, a strong campaign against traditional beliefs and superstition was started. I couldn't find a decree, a law or anything similar which prohibited the traditional so-called "open-air" burial, but it wasn't permitted. Only very old people, mostly in the countryside, were secretly buried the traditional way until the late 60s.

Step by step, European funeral practices were introduced, a process accelerated by Soviet influence. One effect of the change to socialism was a really serious intrusion in nomadic life. The settled form of existence became more and more important, and relatively large towns were established in the steppe. This is one of the main reasons why many nomadic traditions were lost, among others the open-air sacrificial burial - which I will now describe in greater detail.

The open-air burial or "casting-out" burial is a very ancient custom among the nomads of Asia; it was already in use, several centuries before our era. This is what we know from Cicero and other old writers [1]. This is a quote from Henning Haslund's book Mongolian Journey.

Apart from the open-air burial there were other funeral practices in Mongolia like cremation, embalming and the "water-burial", another form of open-air burial.

Choosing one of these funeral practices depended primarily on social standing, the cause of death and geographical location.

Mainly people known as "Reincarnations of Buddha" and other dignitaries of the Lamaistic Church were embalmed. Such bodies were normally buried in coffins in a sitting position as if in prayer.

Nobles were also buried in coffins, but unlike Lamaistic dignitaries, these coffins were buried with additions like weapons, horses, food and other things, which were meant to help them in the next world - in Erlik-Khans kingdom. Erlik-Khan is the god of death. The location of a nobleman's tomb was kept secret, to ensure that they rested in peace.

When people died from infectious diseases, they were cremated to reduce the danger of an epidemic.

Sometimes the corpses of Lamas were also cremated to allow their spirit to rise directly to heaven without any desecration of the spirit. This is because Mongolian people believe that fire cleanses everything.

Mongolians have different customs to bury children under the age of 3, because their souls were regarded to be innocent and pure.

Interesting is also the way they dealt with the bodies of executed people.

But this is not the topic of my paper today. I want to tell you more about the "casting-out" or "open-air sacrificial burial".

It isn't easy to translate the Mongolian terminology into English, because we have neither the custom nor a suitable expression for it in Europe. In Mongolian there are many different designations for it, like for example "ilä orusiGulxu" in Inner Mongolia and "sul'a orusiGulxu" in Outer Mongolia. According to European understanding "to bury" means to place the body into the ground, but this is not what Mongolians did nor what the Mongolian terms describe. For example:

"Ilä" or "sul'a" can mean open, free, unoccupied or visible.

"Ködägäläkü", another expression for the same procedure means "to deposit a corpse in the steppe" [2].

It is necessary to say that Mongolian burial rites were influenced by bloody shamanistic sacrifices like killing horses, animals and even people before putting them into the graves of noblemen.

In the 16th century, when Altan Khan (1543-83) established the Lamaism in Mongolia as the official state religion, the following resolution (so called Ärdäniïn Tobci) was passed:

"The former Mongolian state permitted the killing of widows, serfs, servants, horses and other animals. Now you should give such animals to needy people.

Don't end the life of other living beings when someone dies. If a person continues to kill people as before he should forfeit his own life.

If a person continues killing horses and other animals, all his property should be confiscated" [3].

As A. Sárközi wrote "it was the lamas who directed these ceremonies, and without them such a ceremony was unimaginable" [4]. Determining how many lamas were called to direct the burial depended on social standing. In other words, the wealthier the family, the more lamas it could afford. The first thing the lama had to do was to approve a suitable day and time for the burial. Such days were generally Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He also had to approve the direction in which the funeral procession should leave the yurt and from which direction it should return after depositing the corpse in the steppe. The lamas took this information from a special book named "Altan saw".

Mongolians believed that the soul of the deceased could return. So the lamas had the following tasks: to pray, to guide the spirit to heaven and to offer food (white or milk-based dishes and meat), burn incense and do other things to protect the remaining family from misfortune and disease which an unpure spirit or other evil spirits could inflict upon the family.

Some Mongolians put blue stones in one or two places on the bed in which someone died and leave them there for three days in order to prevent evil spirits from haunting the bed.

After death the face of the corpse was covered with a white khadak which is "a long piece of silk or other cloth especially made ... in commemoration for a special event" [5].

The Mongolian proverb for this custom is "in life cover your private parts, in death your face" (amidaa nuucaa, öwäl nüürää) [6].

It wasn't allowed to look upon or to uncover the face of the corpse, nor was it allowed to touch the corpse, especially the face of the corpse. If the eyes or the mouth weren't closed, only a close male relative or a lama was permitted to close them.

According to a very old tradition the corpse had to be unclothed to resemble the state of birth. The only person who was allowed to touch the corpse and prepare it for the burial was the "jasu bari cu", the "undertaker", one of the deceased person's male children or a male relative who was born under the same sign of the 12-year-cycle. "He had to wear his hat backwards and fold his hat, his collar and his sleeves inwards. The seam of his deel had to be tucked into his belt. It was regarded as a sin for other people to wear clothes like this" [7].

At first this person, so called "undertaker", had to run his hand across the daceased's shoulder blade before other male's were allowed to help him. For women it was forbidden to assist in this work or to participate in the burial ceremony.

Male corpses were placed on the right side of the yurt, which is normally the women's side, with their right hands underneath their heads. Female corpses were placed on the left side of the yurt, the men's side, with their left hands under their heads. [8]

Mongolians believe that, in the next world, everything is reversed and that's why they place corpses on the side of the yurt corresponding to the opposite sex.

In the days before "casting out" the dead body, the bereaved family burned incense and butter lamps and watched over the corpse. More detailed information about these days, what happened and what the lamas were doing can be found in articles by, for example, Pozneev, Heissig, Haslund, Sárközi, Barthold and others.

In the days before depositing the corpse in the steppe, all the dogs in the neighbouring ails had to be "tied up to prevent them from falling upon the body till the right time" came [9].

When the right time had come, the corpse was usually placed on a cart (tärgä) pulled by horse or cow. Then the bereaved men of the family followed the cart to the clan's or family's burial place, which was an uninhabited area separate from the areas used by the nomads. These places were sacred and only visited for funeral-related events.

In other areas, especially in South Mongolia, the corpse was placed on a horse's back and upon reaching the funeral site, the horse was urged to gallop until the corpse was thrown off.

Some stones were put next to the head in order to recognize the burial site later. Then a fire was made to sacrifice the select pieces of (lamb) meat and white dishes (cagaan idää).

Depositing the corpse in the steppe was meant to sacrifice it to predatory animals. According to Mongolians this is the last virtous act a person can carry out. This idea is much older than Lamaism and exhibits a really strong shamanistic element of spiritual thought.

When animals like vultures and wild dogs ate the body, they didn't eat other animals, which were able to live a little longer. When the animals ate the corpse very quickly, this meant that the soul was innocent and pure and had reached heaven from where it could be reborn. When the spirit quickly located a new body, the world of man remained pure and clean.

That's why the people had to reexamine the corpse after three days to check if the soul had risen to heaven. Other possible visiting days were the 7th, 14th, 21st and the 49th day after burial.

If something was left of the corpse this meant that the soul had not been admitted to heaven, was still considered to be in the corpse, and therefore was unable to find a new body. This required the lama to return, to read more prayers for the dead and to show the spirit the way to heaven.

Back to the burial ceremony itself:

The burial ceremony had to take place early in the morning on the day approved by the lama.

According to Mongolian tradition it was not allowed to carry the body across the threshold of the yurt. When the death of an old or ill person was expected, they brought him or her either to a "dobun gär" - a special yurt for dying or dead people - or a tent.

The threshold was believed to protect people, and so it was regarded as an obstacle for the spirit in leaving the yurt in order to reach the next world.

So Mongolians have had a very special tradition for carrying the corpses out of the yurt, not across the threshold. They lifted the latticed wall section to the right of the door of the yurt and brought the corpse out through the opening. If they lived in a house, they brought the corpse out through a window. If the windows were too high for this, as in modern buildings, they put small branches, for example willow twigs, on the threshold and carried the body over them. When they crossed over the twigs, they broke them so that the spirit could leave the house without any further obstacles.

The corpse was wrapped in white clothes, put on a cart and - followed by relatives, neighbours and friends - brought to it's last destination.

On the way the lama prayed. Upon reaching the "casting-out" place the "undertaker" and the lama lowered the corpse and laid it on the ground. The head had to point northwards, where Mongolians assumed the next world to be. This belief is much older than Lamaism and known from ancient Mongolian and other central Asian mythology. According to this belief the body was placed on it's left side, with it's left arm under it's head and it's right arm in front of it's face, covering eyes, nose and mouth. This is called the "lion's position" (arslangyn chewlelt), which is considered to be a good omen. All this is connected to the ancient belief that the right side of the body was black (bad or evil), and the left side white (good or beneficial).

According to another variation of the "lion's position" the left arm was placed under the face , and the right arm under the posterior and the legs were bent at the knees. Sometimes the corpse was placed in a position similar to that of a baby prior to birth.

In some areas a stone was placed under the corpse's head as a sort of a pillow.

As I said before, the "casting-out" places were remote, uninhabited areas. The predatory animals of these areas were accustomed to these funeral rites. Haslund described this very vividly: " ... birds of prey had gathered above our heads in flocks that grew thicker and thicker, and the wild dogs had dared to approach to a distance of a few hundred yards, whence, whith tongues hanging out, they attentively watched the course of preparations." [10]

After depositing the corpse in the steppe the funeral procession returned home. The funeral cart was not immediately brought back to the ail. It was left outside the ail, overturned and only after seven days brought back and used again. The animal which pulled the cart was also not used for a week.

When the funeral procession returned home, it had to walk between two fires, burning just opposite the entrance to the deceased's yurt. These fires were believed to drive evil spirits away from the procession participants and their animals.

If the fire cleansing rite wasn't performed, Mongolians believed that epidemics and other misfortunes could result.

This is a very short description of the open-air sacrificial burial rite of the Mongols.

The old traditions and the lamaistic religion have become very popular in Outer Mongolia in the last five years. I would say they have been revived. I don't know how burial rites will develope in the future, but this is an important subject, and I intend to follow it closely.


[1] Haslund, H.: Mongolian Journey, London 1949, p. 172

[2] Lessing, F. D.: Mongolian-English Dictionary, Bloomington 1973, p. 477

[3] S. Püräwjaw: Mongol dax' sharyn shashny xuraanguï tüü, Ulaanbaatar 1987, p.30

[4] Sárközi, A.: A Bon funeral rite in lamaist Mongolia, in: Synkretismus in den Religionen Zentralasiens, Wiesbaden 1987, p. 120

[5] Lessing, F. D.: op. cit., 902

[6] Mongolyn dsan aalyn tojm, Liaoning 1990, p. 324

[7] Mongolyn yos zanshlyn ix taïlbar tol', Ulaanbaatar 1992, p. 460

[8] Mongolyn zan aalyn toïm, op. cit., 327

[9] Haslund, H.: op.cit., 167

[10] Haslund, H.: op. cit., 173