The evidence for burials discussed so far offers a very complex scenario. The different patterns of deposition of human bodies found within the north European megalithic chambers do not speak in favour of one practice – be it single or communal, full inhumation or partial bone deposits – but rather of different ways of dealing with the dead. That these practices were neither uniform nor static is clearly seen in the changing traditions: initial emphasis on individual burials, albeit sometimes performed against the background of multiple presences within the confines of a single monument, slowly giving way to greater concern with the dead in their ancestral capacity. The original deposits within the passage graves, as well as contemporary deposits within the open dolmens, involve merely selected fragments of human remains; after a period of time some of the chambers may have become family vaults, with complete bodies being placed within them, although elements of secondary burial – bone rearrangements, skull displays and manipulation of other body parts – may well have continued. Such a sequence is now well documented on south-west Fyn, around Sarup. Evidence from Sweden also speaks in favour of some chambers being used to house complete bodies. On the other hand, the interpretation of megalithic burial practices in the remaining regions does not reveal such patterns; this may be on account of poor survival conditions or of different practices. While many scholars strive to arrive at one particular interpretation of megalithic burial practices, reality is not nearly as simple.
The ubiquitous presence of fragmented human bones on settlement sites suggests that some of the dead may have rested there temporarily, perhaps close to their house, in a settlement pit or in a building specifically devoted to such storage. Alternatively, the body may have been buried outside the settlement, in a flat grave, marked to enable subsequent retrieval. Exposure in a tree or upon a raised platform is another common way of allowing the body to reach a skeletal condition; indeed, Strömberg has raised the possibility of displaying bodies on stone platforms in the immediate vicinity of entrances to the chambers (Strömberg 1971). While regularly shaped platforms of stone and possibly timber components of the kind encountered at Ramshög and Hagestad are not commonly found, piles of stones are known from in front of many chambers, and some may well have been used to display bodies; stone cobbled courtyards, of the kind encountered at Nissehøj, could have served such a purpose well. Exposure platforms may also have been located within the enclosed sites of the Sarup type although, as Kaul (1994) suggested, the possibility that bones were moved in the opposite direction – from the chambers to the enclosures – should not be ignored; indeed, other activities are witnessed from the enclosures, and dealing with the dead need not have been the primary function. The precise function of the cult house, known from Denmark and in smaller numbers from Germany, presents itself as another possibility, although such structures do not contain much evidence for any prolonged presence of the dead.
The concepts behind the need to engage in secondary burial rituals during the Neolithic were undoubtedly very complex, and combined a host of social, ideological and religious ideas. Ethnographic evidence suggests that different communities have different ideas with respect to the fate of the individual after death. Some do not believe in any form of afterlife: the Hadza’s view, for example, seems to be that ‘when one dies, one rots and that is that’; the Baka Pygmies, when asked what is the fate of the dead, say ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead and that’s the end of you’ (Woodburn 1982, 193, 195).
On the other hand, there are many communities which, implicitly or explicitly, have views on afterlife, on the fate of the dead and, in particular, on the fate of the spirit or the soul of the departed. In fact, ethnographic evidence for dealing with bodies prior to secondary burial rites is so varied that any comparison of specific ethnographic and prehistoric circumstances is bound to be misleading, although general ideas can be enlightening. The use of selected human remains is generally interpreted as resulting from the practice of secondary burial, which may not just be related to the veneration of ancestors but may also reflect the beliefs of the living about the spiritual element of the dead – the soul.