About 5,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (roughly corresponding to modern Iraq, Syria and southeastern Turkey), deceased ancestors were buried under the floors of residential houses. These family funerary crypts were usually planned before the construction of houses because the ancestors represented the spiritual foundation of the house. The crypt was visible on the floor by a tombstone that would have been reopened whenever necessary to bury the remains of the newly deceased who, upon death, had transitioned into the realm of the ancestors. The reopening of the tombs in the home must have released a strong odour that reinforced the fear of and attachment to the spirit of the ancestors.
Even if the idea of burying ancestors underneath your house can appear peculiar, the sensorial attachment to ancestors that marked ancient Mesopotamian societies is not that different from our modern relationship with the deceased. In fact, when we think about our beloveds that have departed, it is the smell of their homes, the visual record of their presence in photographs, the sound of their recorded voices or the taste of their favourite foods that allow us to revive and keep alive their memory so that they remain present in our lives. It is through sensory experiences that the memory of dead ancestors enables communities of the living to overcome the sorrow created by such loss. These sensorial memories make the experience of grief bearable for the individual. The psychological disarray created by the physical absence of beloveds can be experienced through the creation of loci memoriae (memory places) within the house which, in certain cases, resemble altars. These altars can be used as locales for reviving memories through the enactment of rituals based on a sensorial remembrance of the ancestors (eg, lighting a candle, singing a song, burning incense, displaying pictures, sharing food or beverages, etc).
Such a sensorial and material vision of how the community of the living relates to dead ancestors was even stronger in ancient times. Before modern devices allowed memorialisation through the use of photographs or videos, the physical presence of their bodily remains was the only proxy for practising rituals of remembrance. In particular, the history of the ancient communities that inhabited the Middle East from prehistoric times until the arrival of Alexander the Great gives us a clear view of the techniques that were used by the living to stimulate a sensorial memory of the departed ancestors. This perspective is mostly based on the archaeological relics of these rituals, but – starting from the first forms of writing about 5,500 years ago – also on cuneiform written sources that describe such practices.