The Aztec civilization spread over much of what is now central Mexico. The Aztecs established Tenochtitlan as their capital city and ruled the area from the early 1200s until they were conquered by the Spanish in 1521. Aztecs worshiped a central god, as well as many subordinate gods, and they believed these gods controlled most aspects of life, giving prosperity or taking it away. This control continued in the afterlife, with the way people died dictating how the remains were dealt with and which afterlife they were sent to inhabit.
How a person lived did not determine where they would go after death. How they died and who they were determined their destination in the afterlife. These same factors also determined whether bodies were cremated or buried. When rich or important people died, they did not go alone. Slaves and wives were killed next to the body, and possessions were placed near the body so they would be sent on to the next life with the deceased.
Mictlan was the underworld afterlife where people who died of natural causes were sent. The underworld was presided over by Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death, and his female counterpart Mictlancihuatl. Aztecs believed that souls would have to pass through obstacles on their way to the underworld. To send people on their way to Mictlan, the deceased was wrapped in paper and cloth. A dog would be tied to the deceased to guide them on their journey, and both would be cremated. The ashes were usually collected and kept by the family.
Tlalocan was a paradise inhabited by the rain god, Tlaloc. In Tlalocan it was always summer. According to Aztec beliefs, anyone who died a water-related death, people who died of certain diseases such as leprosy, and people who were hit by lightning were sent to Tlalocan. There was a similar paradise for children who died. People who were headed for these paradises were not cremated, but were wrapped and buried. Among the common people, the deceased was buried under the floor of the family home. The wealthy were buried in cavern tombs. Children were buried near corn fields.
Ichan Tonatiuh Ilhuijcan -- Eastern Paradise of the Sun
The greatest afterlife was reserved for warriors who died in battle, women who died during childbirth and merchants who died while trading. Aztecs believed the souls of these individuals would be sent to the paradise of the sun, returning to earth in the form of colorful birds or moths after four years. Warriors were cremated and women were buried. Merchants were cremated, and the ashes were stored with offerings to the deceased. The Aztecs believed the dead warriors chased the sun into the sky each morning, while the women brought it back to the horizon each night.
- Institute of Archaeology: Mortuary Practices Among the Aztec in the Light of Ethnohistorical and Archaeological Sources
- Ilocaniana: Mexico: Mythology of the Aztecs
- Aztec Student Research Guide: Aztec Mythology
- History: Aztecs
- Mesoamerican Research Foundation: Precolumbian Burial Customs in Mesoamerica
- Houston Institute for Culture: The Rise of the Aztec Empire
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images