Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Square-shaped tomb with slab stones. Tsats tolgoi, Batnorov soum, Khentii aimag © G. Eregzen

Traditional Funeral Rituals of Mongols

Neolithic tombs prove that humans were living in Mongolian territory around 4000 BCE. A tomb with a man buried in a hole in a sitting position was discovered in Dornod Province and provides such evidence.

Excavation of the Neolithic Burial 1-116, Kharuulyn gozgor, Khutag-Öndör soum,Bulgan aimag © T. Iderkhangai

Bronze Age square tombs were prominent in central and eastern Mongolia. Between the 1930s and 1940s, Sosnovsky examined, researched, and classified these tombs into three shapes and classified the rituals and functions into two structures—funeral and sacrificial. At the end of the 1920s, Debets and Borovka dated the tombs between the sixth to eight centuries CE. Scholars believe that the Khirigsuur culture that spread from central Mongolia to the Altai ranges used sacrificial funerary structures. A common burying feature in square-shaped tombs included burying the deceased’s belongings with the deceased’s head facing west and the body to the left and the feet bent together. In the case of square-shaped graves, the sacrificed animal was put in the same grave; in case of the Khirigsuur, the sacrificed animals were put in independent stone structures. The number sacrificed animals depended on the deceased’s social status.

The Xiongnus left numerous funeral memorials. The Xiongnu tombs in Mongolia and Zabaykalsky are from the third century BCE to the first century CE. Early Xiongnu tombs are spread throughout Inner Mongolia. There are two Xiongnu funeral structures: one for nobles and another for commoners. The Xiongnu dug burial holes facing north while placing the deceased facing east with sacrificial food and a horsehead placed on the upper side.

Xiangbe tombs were from the second to the fourth centuries BCE. The main feature is the closely placed short cover and oval- or stirrup-shaped frame made from bigger stones. In the internal Xiangbe tomb structure, the deceased looked upward in a stone box or wooden coffin below the ground, and the head was placed northeast or southwest.

Burial Grave 12, Baga türgenii gol-VI, Tsengel soum, Bayan-Ölgii © D. Batsukh

During the Tureg and Uighur periods between the sixth and ninth century CE, the tradition of erecting stone statues for the deceased was revived. Turegs believed in Animism, and they placed the deceased in a west-east direction. The change in Tureg funeral rituals for cremation and burial were connected beliefs about life and understanding about the spirit. A noble was buried in the wide plains, and commoners were buried atop mountains and clefts. The deceased were mostly buried without coffin. Main difference of these tombs is the horse with saddle following the deceased along with clothes, pots, ornaments, and weapons. Tureg and Uighur funeral practices were similar. In Uighur funeral practices, they buried the deceased with another person.

Under the influence of Buddhism, traditional funeral practices and rituals changed, and new traditions evolved. In Buddhist tradition, the lama opened the golden vessel of deceased and selected an appropriate burial place or direction, east or west, and the funeral attendees departed funeral without looking back. When people left the funeral, they walked between a fire burning on two sides to purify themselves, and then they washed their hands and face with black and white holy water or Rashaan. After attending the funeral, the people went inside the deceased’s ger (home).

The eldest person sat in the north part of the ger and gave his snuff bottle to the others while asking whether the funeral ritual was done well and if all the tasks were fulfilled. He also asked what people and what animals they saw on their way home and so on. Then, they ate dairy products to finish their mourning.

From the 1920s to the 1930s, big changes in Mongolian socio-economic life were reflected in funeral rituals. Mongolian funerals took shape similar to those in Russia and Europe, such as creating cement tombs with granite and stone memorials and statues. Funeral rituals are done on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays without regard to the date of death. After the funeral ritual, the dirge is done and some actions are forbidden until mourning is finished. It is forbidden to bring items in or out from home, attend celebrations, and kill animals for food within forty-nine days.