Why were bodies abandoned in a charnel ground?

We know from the Buddha’s death and elsewhere that cremation was carried out as a respectful funeral. But in the Satipatthanasutta it speaks of bodies simply abandoned for animals to eat. In modern times I would assume that this happens in the case of inauspicious death, for example death by violence, or if there are no family members, or if witchcraft was involved. For example, some Jatakas speak of tossing criminals off of “Robber’s Cliff”, where their bodies would have been consumed by animals below.

Does anyone know of any research on this point? Do we know why certain bodies would be abandoned?


I don’t know if anyone has directly tackled this as a research topic or not but it occurs to me that there might be some information indirectly on this in studies of Aghoris. Hanging around charnel grounds and river banks where cremations happen forms a significant portion of their religious practice.
Also, if I were to speculate, a battle with reasonably large number of casualties comes to mind as a candidate for just leaving some of the bodies in charnel grounds and taking only some back for proper cremation.


The funeral hymns clearly describe cremation, though the RV also refers to burial, exposure on trees, and “throwing away” of the dead body.

Witzel in Wiley Blackwell Companion to Hinduism 2022, p 58. The references to funeral hymns are in RV 10.14–18 and AV 18.57–82 (RV and AV being ṛgveda and atharvaveda).


Oh thanks. No reason as to why the different methods? It could be just different cultures or tribes, or maybe within the tribe there were different methods?


Hi Bhante, :pray:

The writing of David Arnold on the history of cremation in India is informative in this regard. Burning Issues: Cremation and Incineration in Modern India - PMC

The universality of cremation as a historical method for disposing the dead in India is a bit of a myth.

I quote:

For instance, in Bombay in 1880 only 43 percent of the Hindus who died in the city were cremated—that is, 5,569 out of the 13,037 dead.

In Madras, too, burial rather than cremation was the more common means of disposing of the Hindu dead. In 1914, 5,362 bodies were cremated (all Hindus) compared to 18,812 buried, including 13,919 Hindus (Madras 1915: 59–60).

Cremation is expensive and fuel intense and has historically been inaccessible to the lower social classes. It also has some tricky points with rain (e.g. during monsoon) and wet weather as well as availability of firewood. Up until 1830, the policy of the British administration was to bury the bodies of Hindu prisoners unless they were high caste.

There has always been a diversity of practice in South Asia. The concept of the normative Indian Hindu (Sikh, Buddhist, Jain) cremation is probably a by-product of the creation of the Indian state and Hinduism as a global religion in the 19th-20th century. As a practice associated with the Rajputs and Marathas, and with Sikhism, as well as the Hindu elite, cremation gradually took on the status of being “the” Indian method of disposing the dead during the period of formation of Indian nationhood.

This has resulted in a more widespread uptake of the practice in general, which Arnold terms “Sanskritisation”.

This is not to say that cremation and specific forms of cremation are not deeply important to the Hindus who follow sastra on these points (as evidenced by the fact that that access to open pyre cremation has gone to court in the UK). But historically when it comes to cremation, Indian religion has split along class lines and sastra has been for the elite.

Universal access to cremation became important to some of the lower castes as part of a social reform agenda: Arnold references a 1920 call from the Mahar Parishad, for example, for the low class Mahars to cremate their dead.

From the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, we can see that the Buddha was given a top-notch funeral, not actually that of a common person. DN16

“But sir, how to proceed when it comes to the Realized One’s corpse?”
“Proceed in the same way as they do for the corpse of a wheel-turning monarch.

So we shouldn’t assume that cremation was actually the majority method of disposing of bodies even in the Buddha’s time. It likely wasn’t: it’s more probable that abandonment of bodies was actually the statistical norm (burial also has issues like topsoil and land availability, as well as watercourse pollution). Hence why the Satipatthana Sutta has invited contemplation in this way.

Wikipedia defines a charnel ground as, “an above-ground site for the putrefaction of bodies, generally human, where tissue is left to decompose uncovered”, which may or may not contain a crematorium. There is probably some logic to this definition where the term is used in a pre-modern sense.


Here’s an excerpt of chapter 2 of Death in Banaras by Jonathan P. Parry:


Thank you so much ayya for all that info. I was also going to say that an awful lot of wood is needed to cremate a body. Not just a regular barbi!


yeah about 200kg, going from reports. If you want to do it properly.


This reminds me of Tibetan sky burials. Out of curiosity, I looked up the Wikipedia article again, and found that it’s more of a regional practice, also carried out in some Chinese provinces, and Mongolia, Bhutan, and some parts of northeast India.

Some of the factors mentioned are the fuel (wood), and the rockiness of the soil. In that light, the EBT’s are maybe giving us some information about the geography and the economics of burial.

Related, there is also an Iranian practice of exposing bodies after death, and was mentioned as early as Herodotus.


Thanks, that’s great information. So it seems that the choice of funeral method was based on a range of factors, and did not explicitly indicate that it was an inauspicious burial.

The reason I ask, Wat Nanachat was, like many forest monasteries, originally left as forest because it was used for funerals. Out the front is or was the famous brick pyre built by Ajahn Brahm in the roundabout right where everyone arrives. Can confirm, if the amount of wood is not kept up, the smell of BBQ meat in the afternoon can trigger a saliva reaction in a hungry monk!

That pyre was later shifted to a more discreet location, so not every visitor has to circumnambulate the dead when they arrive.

What is less well known is the second funeral site out the back of the monastery. Nanachat essentially comprises the inner forest, then a much larger realm of grass and scrub. In that scrub there is a small patch of forest, where a kuti was built. But that forest was where the inauspicious deaths were buried: murders, suicides, etc. One of them, a local village woman, was later dug up and her skeleton graced the main Nanachat hall, the bullet hole still evident.

The thing is, we were a community of pretty unsuperstitious westerners, but I’m telling you, that place had a creepy vibe, and if you believe the reports, it was thick with ghosts. One monk told me of a vision he’d had of a huge, vile yakkha, pissing all over him. I never saw anything myself, but then I never stayed there.


Came across some comparative evidence from ancient Rome while I was doing some other research.

The [area outside the Esquiline gate] had for much of the Republic, served as a cemetery for the city, although the word “cemetery” perhaps conveys the wrong image: when it was excavated in the late nineteenth century by Rodolfo Lanciani, a series of some large, tufalined pits (roughly 10 meters deep, and 4 by 5 meters in size) were found, that have been identified with the puticuli, (“pits” or “wells”) described by the Roman antiquarian, Varro. These pits were the dropping off point for the bodies of any inhabitants of the city who were too poor to make arrangements for a grave plot after they died. Horace describes them, or other puticuli like them, as being open graves where anyone could see (and smell) piles of corpses in varying states of decomposition (Hor. Serm. 1.8.14-16).


in the first century, the pits were overflowing with the dead. It is telling that, when Lanciani excavated the puticuli, the bodies had still not completed their decomposition, and, in addition to finding bones, he found a viscous, foul-smelling black liquid, suggesting that the bodies in the pits had been densely packed enough that moisture had not been able to escape as they decayed.

JK DeWitt, Money, Games, and Power: Rome’s Lower Magistrates and the Development of a City, pp 206–7.

It also seems like the bodies were dumped because only the wealthy could afford enough wood for a funeral pyre (p 206).


Strange, but I’ve never thought of bodies in charnel grounds being ‘dumped’ or ‘abandonned’; rather I have imagined that families whose lack of wealth and status cut them off from expensive rites and rituals would take their deceased ones to the local place with respect and whatever rites they could afford, and lovingly leave them there.

It’s something beyond my modern antiseptic conditioning for sure, but those were different times.