Child Burial Customs Around the World
By anyone's measure, burying a child is one of the most difficult experiences imaginable. ''Some workers won't bury children,'' said Dennis Albert, a gravedigger in Brooklyn. ''When you get infants you have to lower them by hand and some people just don't want to do it. We see a lot of funerals; grown-ups are routine, but kids are different.'' (Source.) It's not just New Yorkers that feel that way; almost every culture has different ways of dealing with the death of children.
In the Indian city of Delhi, for example, dead children are either put into one of the city's five polluted rivers or buried on their banks, both of which have their unpleasantries. From the Times:
As soon as Nawal Kishore approached his boat the dogs began to circle. They had watched him countless times before, dropping the children's corpses into the Yamuna river in Delhi "“ a stinking slick of sewage, rubbish and chemical waste "“ to comply with Hindu custom. They had seen, too, how they could catch the bodies that slipped their weights and floated to the surface, or dig up the ones he buried on the bank. Four years into India's economic boom, Delhi is getting a facelift to match, sprouting shopping malls and metro stations while clearing its streets of cows, food stalls and rick-shaws. Yet this is how the city of 14 million people still disposes of its dead children "“ 1,000 a month, according to Mr Kishore's records.
Some Delhi residents have been trying to put a stop to this medieval custom, but with limited success; priests at local crematoria often still refuse to accept children under three, citing tradition, instead directing their parents to the banks of rivers. One such parent (an uncle, actually) complied, only to be horrified by what he found:
"There he found what is officially not a river but an open drain, since it carries only sewage, rubbish and industrial effluent. Shocked by the filthy black water, Mr Sharma opted to have his nephew buried on the banks "“ although they were littered with bottles, condoms and human excrement. Even as Mr Kishore was digging the grave, stray dogs dug up another and tore apart a child's corpse, Mr Sharma said. He covered his nephew's grave with rocks and hired a private guard. The guard started to run away at night because he was scared."
According to the Times the Toraja, an indigenous tribe in Indonesia, traditionally hold animist beliefs. A dead baby or child is placed in a coffin and hung from ropes on a cliff face or from a tree, possibly for years, until the rope disintegrates. The Choctaw North American Indians had many different ways of dealing with the corpses of children, including suspending them on scaffolding and placing them in the hollows of trees. And some Amazon Indian tribes have been accused of burying alive babies and children who have a physical defect, in the belief that they have no soul. Twins and triplets, who they believe are cursed, may also meet the same fate The burying alive of a person on temple premises was banned in Tamil Nadu, India, in 2002 after 105 children were buried alive and retrieved immediately as part of a festival. The state housing minister was sacked for taking part in the event. (Here's a disturbing reenactment.)
Even Neanderthal babies were buried in a special way; here's a description of a Neanderthal burial site discovered in the Middle East: The Dederiyeh cave is located 400 km north of Damascus and 60 km northwest of Aleppo. The cave is providing the best evidence yet of Neanderthal burial practices,as well as data on the morphology of Neanderthals and the chronological position of human types in Levantine Mousterian contexts. The infant was found in situ in the Mousterian deposit, lying on its back with arms extended and legs flexed, indicating an intentional burial. A subrectangular limestone slab at the top of the head and a small piece of triangular flint just on the infant's heart were found in the most sterile layer of the burial fill.
"Neanderthal Infant Burial," Nature, 378, Oct. 19, 1995, p. 586