Posted by: Mayan Musings | February 9, 2012

Not All Deaths are Equal: An Overview of Mayan Mortuary Practices

This entry is meant to serve as an introduction to Mayan perceptions and actions involving death. We will briefly touch on a number of manners of death and the mortuary practices associated with them.

I. Ordinary burial practices (Adults and children)

     Death seemed to be an accepted aspect of human life during the Classic period of Mayan civilization.  Instead of fearing the end of life, dying Mayans would simply resign themselves to the inevitable and go off to their hammocks and wait (Steele, 1977).  After an individual passed, a religion-based ritual was followed.  This ensured that the deceased would travel into the afterlife safely, and provided an outlet for the grief of the living, who believed that inattention to the dead would cause illness in the family (Steele, 1977).  Throughout this process, the living members of the family engaged in fasting.

        The remains were washed and covered with a manta, or a shroud.  Next, a jade bead and a piece of maize was put into the mouths of the dead.  This was to ensure that the individual would not go hungry on his trip into the afterlife, nor would he be turned away for being unable to pay the fee to get inside.  The body was not usually buried alone; pet dogs were sacrificed to their masters for company and to ensure that they found their way through the afterlife without getting lost.  Also, many tools of the deceased’s trade were buried alongside them.  Huntsmen had there spears, cooks had their maize grinders, and so on.  Family members were buried in the mud floors of their homes.  Once a number of bodies were buried, the family would move and the dwelling would become a shrine to the ancestors (Steele, 1977).

II. Death and Disease

     In addition to their typical burials, Mayans also have strong beliefs related to deaths from disease.  The concept that death can stem from disease does not seem too obscure to a modern Western perspective.  However, Mayans believes that “evil winds bring on disease” (Steele 1977: 1063) and the movement of air was considered hostile.  In addition, taking part in an illegal act was also considered a way to bring on disease.  A shaman would be called to try to cure or even kill the patients.  But “when the time came to die, the Maya did not fight it” (Steele 1977: 1063) thus, showing the strong beliefs in an afterlife.  Mayans did have different views on death when it came to dying of a “good” illness or not.  For example if someone died from sadness or fatigue, “the soul itself did not die” and thus showing their beliefs on immortality.  If the death is caused by a “good” illness on the other hand, the soul will linger but then head to paradise (Steele 1977: 1064).  The fatally ill were often treated with medicinal herbs, but if the shaman foresaw death, the patient accepted it.  Overall, the Maya people held such a close tie with the environmental world, to the point where when death by disease faced them, they would accept it to become “compatible with the nature of their environment” (Steele 1977: 1065).

III. Sacrificial burials 

     Human sacrifice, hierarchy, and Mayan mortuary practices have long held a complicated position in the archaeological world. That being said, meeting death as a sacrifice was considered to be more honorable than a natural death because one’s life was being given in order to receive power or gifts from the gods. Life as the Mayans understood it could continue due to sacrifices (Zaccagnini 2003: 23). Death for the sacrifices involved public ceremonies of varying sizes and forms. Blood-letting, heart excision, decapitation, and body mutilation were just a few of the possible customs associated with the death of the sacrificed individuals (Zaccagnini 2003: 13-14).
As with the manner of death, there seems to be no single manner in which the disposal of corpses occurred. In the case of mass sacrificial graves in Late Pre-Classic Cuello, all social identity seems to have been stripped of the sacrifices as they were placed in individual “body bundles” in a mass grave (Hammond 1999: 59). Cucina and Tiesler (2008) detail a very different situation: two sacrificed individuals were laid next to the sarcophagus of a female dignitary of Chiapas labeled the “Red Queen” (Cucina and Tieser 2008: 2). While the manner in which the Red Queen’s companions were disposed of seems to carry higher status markers than those of the mass grave (tomb burial, burial near an elite, skeleton remaining articulated), there is not enough archaeological evidence available to make such a definitive claim. What can be gleaned from this situation is the plethora of sacrificial mortuary practices.

IV. Child Burials-

     This wide variation in burial rituals holds true for Mayan children as well. Younger members of the community were treated very differently in death according to their age, gender, and calendar time of death. Unlike adults, burial gifts were generally omitted from children who were younger than five years old (Ardren, 67). This is because the Mayans believed that the soul was not fully developed until after this age. Seen as fully pure and merely on the cusp of existence, babies were often sacrificed for rulers’ tombs, with their bones placed in elaborate vessels (Roach, 2010). For older children, power position within their family lineage would determine the amount of grave goods they received (Rathje, 1970).

     Other Mayan children did not experience a burial. As Mayans had a particular affinity for sacrificing young children during important events in their calendar, cenotes were a final resting place for many ancient children. Chichen Itza’s Cenote Sagrado holds the remains of 127 individuals alone—over 80% of which are observed to be boys between the ages of 3 and 11 (Eastham, 2008). As the cenote is considered a holy entrance to the underworld, child sacrifice here was highly respected and meant to please the rain god, Chaac. At the ceremonies, children were burned, mutilated, or left untouched before being thrown off of the edge and into the watery depths (Eastham, 2008). Their bodies would never be recovered for second burial, as it was believed that they would enter the underworld immediately. Due to their status as pure and god-favored individuals, children play a unique and varied role in the funerary archaeology of the Classic Maya period.

This has just been the briefest overview of Mayan mortuary practices. The coming months will bring many more interesting topics and greater insight into Mayan death archaeology.


Ardren, Traci and Scott R. Hutson; (2006) The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica, University Press of Colorado

Cucina, Andrea and Vera Tiesler. “New Perspectives of Human Sacrifice and Postsacrificial Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society: An Introduction” New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Springer Science + Business Media. New York, 2008.

Eastham, Todd. “Ancient Maya Sacrificed Boys Not Virgin Girls: Study| Reuters.” Business & Financial News, Breaking US & International News. Reuters, 23 Jan. 2008. Web. 08 Feb. 2012.<;.

Hammond, Norman. “The Genesis of Hierarchy: Mortuary and Offeratory Ritual in the Pre-Classic at Cuello, Belize”. Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Washington D.C., 1999.

Rathje, William. “Socio-political Implications of Lowland Maya Burials: Methodology and Tentative Hypotheses.” World Archaeology 1.3 (1970): 359-74. Print.

Roach, John. “Bowls of Fingers, Baby Victims, More Found in Maya Tomb.” Daily Nature and Science News and Headlines. National Geographic, 21 July 2010. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <;.

Steele, Richard L. “Dying, Death, and Bereavement among the Maya Indians of Mesoamerica: A Study in Anthropological Psychology.” American Psychologist32.12 (1977): 1060-068

Zaccagnini, Jessica. “Maya Ritual and Myth: Human Sacrifice in the Context of the Ballgame and the Relationship to the Popol Vuh”. Honors Theses. Paper 336.


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