Jump ahead to these sections:
- Why Are People Buried Barefoot?
- History and Purpose of Burying People Barefoot
- Other Beliefs Associated With Shoes and Death
Some are more a matter of principle, like eco-friendly burials. Some people throw a handful of dirt onto the casket before it is buried. Some bury coins with the dead to guarantee them safe passage to the afterlife. And, in a lesser-known tradition, sometimes people are buried without their shoes.
We’ll explore the reasoning behind this little-known burial practice.
Why Are People Buried Barefoot?
Before we get into more cultural reasons behind barefoot burials, let’s address the practice in modern times.
If you’ve ever been to a viewing or a funeral with an open casket, you’ve seen that the deceased is fully dressed. Some are dressed in more formal attire, like a nice dress or a suit. This is a bit of a holdover from the past, though. These days, many people are opting to be buried in something more casual that’s more true to what they would wear in their day-to-day life.
But regardless of wardrobe choices, a lot of people end up being buried without shoes. According to one licensed funeral director, there are a few reasons for this.
First is that the bottom half of a coffin is typically closed at a viewing. Therefore, the deceased is really only visible from the waist up. So there’s no sense in putting something on that no one will see. The family of the deceased also sometimes finds it wasteful to bury shoes, especially if someone else could wear them.
Putting shoes on a dead person can also be very difficult. After death, the shape of the feet can become distorted. This is due to rigor mortis and other processes the body endures after death.
In the mid-20th century, the Practical Burial Footwear Company made special burial slippers. They looked like regular shoes, but they were made out of stretchy material that could easily fit over a misshapen foot. They also had laces in the back to help with shaping.
Today, someone might be buried without shoes is if they are having a green burial. In eco-friendly burials, the deceased is wrapped in a burial shroud or dressed in clothing made of natural fibers like organic cotton. Natural fibers biodegrade easily without releasing harmful chemicals into the earth. Shoes are typically made of things like leather, rubber, and artificial fibers.
At best, these materials biodegrade very slowly, if at all. At worst, they can leach chemicals into the soil.
History and Purpose of Burying People Barefoot
In some areas of the world, people have been burying people without shoes for a long time.
Earlier we mentioned the Tibetan sky burial. This practice isn’t like a traditional below-ground burial, nor is it like an above-ground entombment. It is incredibly difficult to dig a grave in the harsh, rocky soil of Tibet. It’s especially difficult in the winter when the ground is frozen solid.
As a result, Tibetans developed their sky burial ritual. In this ritual, bodies are disassembled and broken down by people called rogyapas. The remains are then left for vultures to consume. Because the bodies are being given back to the Earth in this way, they are not clothed, nor do they wear shoes.
In Estonia, men and women alike were buried without shoes dating back generations. Women were buried in stockings, while men had socks on their feet.
Beginning in the 1950s, people began putting slippers on women and shoes on men before they were buried. This practice has become increasingly widespread in Estonia. However, in the village of Punase Lageda (also known as Krasnaya Polyana), people are still buried in their stockings.
People with long-held cultural traditions can be influenced when they move away, though. According to folklore, a woman who had moved from Punase Lageda to Sukhum buried her son without footwear. But after his death, she began having recurring dreams where he asked her, “Mama, why didn’t you put shoes on me?” She ended up burying shoes above his grave in hopes that this would help him rest.
In some historic eras, much like today, people were buried without shoes because it seemed wasteful. In the Middle Ages specifically, shoes were very expensive. It made more sense to pass on shoes to people who were still alive.
Other Beliefs Associated With Shoes and Death
There are myriad other beliefs and traditions when it comes to death and footwear. Here are some of those shoe-related superstitions:
- Burials with shoes: More cultures ensure the deceased wear shoes when buried than the other way around. This is often to ensure that the deceased is comfortable for their journey into the afterlife.
- Leaving shoes to loved ones: In the Middle Ages, it was very common for people to bequeath their shoes to family members. This was practical, but there were sentimental reasons for the tradition as well. People in the era believed that shoes contained the personal traits of the person who owned them.
- Unlucky shoes: Before funeral homes, the deceased were often dressed up and laid out at their homes for people to pay their respects. In many homes, the dining room table was the best place to display the body. The bodies were wearing shoes, and so the superstition developed that resting shoes on the table at any time was symbolic of death.
Practices and Traditions Around Burial Without Shoes
It’s always interesting to learn about different burial traditions around the world. In some cultures and time periods, it’s evident that burial without shoes was often a matter of practicality. That reasoning persists in the modern era.
- “Footwear for the Afterlife: A History of Shoes and Burial.” Diggirl.org, Dig.girl, 16 January 2017, diggirl.org/2017/01/16/565/.
- Mikkor, Marika “Funeral Customs of Caucasian Estonians.” Folklore.ee, Folklore.ee, www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol5/mikko.htm.
- “Feet, Shoes and Superstition: Dead Men’s Shoes.” Feetshoesandsuperstition.blogspot.com, Feet, Shoes, and Superstition, 2 September 2018, feetshoesandsuperstition.blogspot.com/2008/10/feet-shoes-and-superstition-dead-mens.html.