“The Natural Sepulchre of a Sailor”: Burial at Sea as Ritual Performance

David J. Stewart

in The Sea Their Graves

Published by University Press of Florida

Published in print October 2011 | ISBN: 9780813037349
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780813041575 | DOI:
“The Natural Sepulchre of a Sailor”: Burial at Sea as Ritual Performance

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  • History and Theory of Archaeology


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Although numerous descriptions of burials at sea have been published, the functions and meanings of the ritual remain largely unexplored by scholars. To sailors, the ritual held great symbolic meaning and was a key part of maritime memorialization. It is clear that a developed body of ritual for burials at sea existed by the early part of the age of global seafaring. The development of a widespread body of tradition, and its incorporation into official religious practice, demonstrates the importance of the burial at sea ritual. At sea, it would have been easy to dispose of a body simply by heaving it over the ship's side. Although this was done at times, sailors disliked disposing of a body without proper ceremony. Instead, they considered it their duty to provide a proper burial. The reasons for this are rooted in, and reflect, core beliefs of the maritime folk group. This chapter examines these beliefs, demonstrating how the ritual of burial at sea was designed to lay the dead properly to rest and also served as a stage for the performance of the maritime group worldview.

Keywords: burial at sea; funerals; ghostlore; revenants; superstition

Chapter.  11694 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History and Theory of Archaeology

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