Burial is the predominant method used in Westeros, by both followers of the Old Gods of the Forest and the Faith of the Seven, though cremation is practised in certain locations. Meanwhile, cremation seems to be somewhat more common in parts of Essos, though burial is also practised. The ancient Valyrians, (apparently) the Lord of Light religion, and the Dothraki all burn their dead on funeral pyres.
Faith of the Seven
In the Seven Kingdoms, the bodies of the dead are tended and prepared by the Silent Sisters, a religious order within the Faith of the Seven devoted to this task. Their monastic order is sworn to service of the Stranger, the aspect of the godhead that represents death and the unknown.
The body of the deceased is usually laid in state for visitors and prayers. The body is displayed atop an altar, changed into formal clothes (and if they died violently, their wounds cleaned up as best as possible). The body's hands are clasped together over the chest, and men's bodies are often laid in state with their hands clasping a sword (pointed down). In septs which are large enough to have statues of each of the Seven in a ring around the main chamber, such as the Great Sept of Baelor, the body itself is positioned so that the head is pointed towards the statue of the Stranger.
Two funeral stones are also placed over the closed eyes of the deceased, each painted to resemble open eyes. The symbolic meaning of this is to remind the faithful that they should not fear death, because it is not truly the end: we close our eyes in this world, but our eyes open again in the afterlife.
Wealthy adherents such as members of the nobility can afford to have their corpses embalmed, to slow the processes of decay while they are entombed. This process involves removing several internal organs from the corpse, the ones that break down most quickly, and placing them in seven ceremonial vases - which are then placed near the corpse at the funeral ceremony itself (often at their feet).
There can be some variation in the Faith's funeral practices, however, even between individual noble Houses, and some traditionally practice cremation. House Tully of Riverrun is a very prominent example, as seen at Hoster Tully's funeral. The corpse itself is prepared and laid in state much as at a typical funeral, with the eye stones and seven vases, but it is then ceremonially set adrift on the Red Fork of the Trident River, in a small boat filled with straw, wood, and oil. Afterwards a member of the funeral party shoots a flaming arrow at the boat from the shore, setting it aflame, and thus cremating the corpse. The Trident River waters the lands of House Tully and sustains the lives of its people - life comes from the river, and returns to it. It is unclear if all or even most Houses in the Riverlands also practice funeral boat cremations like House Tully does.
More generally, followers of the Faith of the Seven will sometimes resort to cremation if circumstances prevent them from conducting a more thorough burial, i.e. if they are on military campaign and the ground is too stony to dig, or if there are too many corpses to dig graves for, such as after major battles or in times of plague.
Members of House Targaryen, despite converting to the Faith of the Seven after conquering and uniting the Seven Kingdoms, continued to practice cremation in the tradition of their Valyrian ancestors. As the royal family of the Seven Kingdoms, the ashes of members of House Targaryen were interred at the Great Sept of Baelor in King's Landing. Following the fall of the Targaryen dynasty, the new royal family was expected to follow in their footsteps by having their dead entombed in the Great Sept's crypts (though not cremated). King Robert Baratheon, however, demanded that his remains be sent to his family's ancestral seat, Storm's End, to be interred with his forefathers (possibly also because he hated the Targaryens and didn't want his final resting place to be alongside them).
Valuable servants of the crown sometimes may also be deemed worthy of being interred at the Great Sept as well. Grand Maester Pycelle expressed his hope that he would live out a long life and at the end of it peacefully rot away in the crypts under the Great Sept.
Old Gods of the Forest
Descendants of the First Men who continue to worship the Old Gods of the Forest generally seem to prefer to bury their dead. Members of wealthy noble Houses are often buried in extensive tombs. Little is known about the funeral ceremony itself in their religion, but like their marriage customs they are probably much more simple than those in the Faith of the Seven.
House Stark, for example, buried their dead in an extensive system of crypts underneath their castle-seat at Winterfell. Each individual tomb has a stone sculpture placed above it in the likeness of the deceased. The tombs of Stark men are often left with real swords held by their statues. The Starks have ruled over the North for so many thousands of years that the crypts underneath Winterfell are truly vast, some say as large as the castle above.
The other Northmen also seem to predominately bury their dead, often in large tombs, some of which are located under large artificial burial mounds (barrows). The North is dotted with many ancient barrows, some thousands of years old and their owners forgotten - as evidenced by place-names such as the Barrowton in the Barrowlands, the southwest of the North which is noted for its large concentration of barrows.
There is still some variation from one House to the next in the North, a few of which practice cremation. Deceased members of House Forrester are placed on an ironwood casket, with ironwood tree seeds in their palms. Their pyres are then burned, emitting the rare blue flame from the ironwood, that is said to only burn for Forresters.
The Free Folk who live Beyond the Wall, derisively known as "wildlings", also follow the Old Gods - but apparently, all of them now burn their dead. By the War of the Five Kings, the wildlings cremate their dead due to the accurate fear that the returning White Walkers can resurrect corpses as undead wights. As with the Northmen, the funeral isn't conducted with much ceremony - and in this case seems to be much more about simply disposing of the body. It is unclear if the wildlings practiced cremation centuries ago, before the return of the White Walkers, or if they always did out of a cultural fear of them which continued to be held for thousands of years. Either way, the wildlings do not possess much in the way of skill or resources with stonework to make tombs like the Starks did.
- Main article: Mummification
Traditionally, deceased members of House Blackgard are mummified in a complicated, and sometimes expensive way. The most common process is to preserve the body by dehydration and protect it against pests, such as insects.
In order to live for all eternity in the Eternal Grounds and be presented in front of Barran the Exalted, the body of the deceased Blackgard has to be preserved for mummification, so that the soul could reunite with it, and take pleasure in the afterlife. The main process of the mummification is preserving the body by dehydrating it. The body is drained of any liquids and left with the skin, hair and muscles preserved.
The first step is to remove the internal organs and liquid so that the body will not decay. The embalmers take out the brain through a process named excerebration by inserting a sharp object in the nostril, breaking through it into the brain and then liquefying it.
The next step is to remove the internal organs, the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines, and place them in canopic jars with lids shaped like the head of Barran and the rest of the Old Gods. The heart stays in the body, because the bordermen believe that Barran will judge the deceased person based on his or hers courage and bravery. After the body is washed with wine, it is stuffed with bags of natron. The dehydration process takes 40 days.
The second part of the process takes 30 days. This is the time where the deceased turns into a semi divine being, and all that was left in the body from the first part is removed, followed by applying first wine and then oils. The oils are for ritual purposes, as well as preventing the limbs and bones from breaking while being wrapped. The body is sometimes coloured with a golden resin. This protects the body from bacteria and insects. The body is then wrapped in bandages with amulets while an Hahnuiel priest and the Archsepton recites prayers and burns incense. The dressing provides physical protection and they even have a burial mask of their head.
After the mummification process is complete, the deceased Blackgard would be placed inside a decorated sarcophagus. After doing so, the Silent Sisters, and maybe even the lord's heir, carry the sarcophagus inside the Blackgard Ancestral Tomb, where all deceased Blackgards since Asterion the Black are buried in seemingly endless caverns. This is where prayers are recited, incense is burned, and more rituals were performed to help prepare the lord for his final journey. The lord's sarcophagus is then placed next to his father and other deceased siblings inside a burial chamber, to make sure that no one can tamper with the lord's mummy. The burial chamber is sealed so that no one can ever enter it again. However the lord's soul can move through the chamber as it wished.
The Night's Watch
The Night's Watch burn the bodies of their fallen members in funeral pyres. During the ceremony, the highest ranking member presents gives a eulogy for the deceased black brother. He finishes the eulogy with the traditional line, "and now his watch is end", which is then repeated by the gathered audience. The line refers to the sacred vow of the Night's Watch that a member's watch will not end until his death.
The Watch apparently holds this non-denominational funeral custom for its members regardless of what their personal religion was, though given that none of the three major religions in Westeros have a prohibition against cremation this doesn't seem to be an issue.
It seems probable that the Watch's tradition of burning its dead is a holdover from the Long Night thousands of years ago, and that like the wildlings they burn their dead to prevent their corpses from ever being turned into wights - though it is unclear if in generations prior to the War of the Five Kings, they remembered that this was the original reason why they practice cremation.
Maester Aemon was born a member of House Targaryen, before later joining the maesters and then the Night's Watch. His body was burned on a funeral pyre at his funeral, as was fitting not only for a member of the Watch but for one of the Targaryen bloodline.
There are many more numerous and more diverse religions and cultures in Essos than in Westeros, which probably have similarly diverse funeral customs.
The ancient Valyrians burned their dead, often with dragon-fire. The Lord of Light religion, the most widespread religion across the Free Cities and several other regions (particularly the southern Free Cities), probably also practices cremation.
The Dothraki mounted hordes (khalasars) from the plains of central Essos also burn their dead on funeral pyres. The Dothraki believe that the stars in the night sky are the fiery khalasar of the Great Stallion (the horse god which is their primary deity). Burning a Dothraki's body allows his ashes to rise up to the heavens, where his spirit will join the fiery khalasar of the Great Stallion, and ride with the spirit of his ancestors in the Night Lands (afterlife). It is considered a terrible dishonour not to burn a dead Dothraki. The prospect of insects and worms eating through their corpse until it decomposes to nothing but bones is considered quite horrifying to them.
Desecrating a corpse by denying it proper burial is considered a heinous offence in every major religion and culture, even if the dead person did not follow the same religion.
Sometimes a corpse can be desecrated simply by denying it a proper funeral, but simply leaving it unburied in the wild to rot and for wild animals to scavenge.
In more extreme cases, a corpse may be terribly desecrated by mutilating or dismembering it after death.
Putting an executed person's head on a spike for public display is not, strictly speaking, considered an act of desecration: with the medieval-level of information technology in Westeros and Essos, putting a head on display is often simply meant to confirm to the public that the executed person is in fact dead. Needlessly harming the body more than that is considered improper, as is leaving a head on a spike until it rots to pieces - long after the point of confirming his death has already been made.
Several notable desecrations include:
- Robb Stark's body was horrifically mutilated after he was killed in the betrayal at the Red Wedding. His head was cut off and the head of his direwolf Grey Wind was crudely sewn in its place by the Freys, who had already violated sacred guest right by betraying Robb while he was a formal guest at their castle, the Twins (though while Frey crossbowmen severely injured Robb, it was Roose Bolton who dealt the death blow when he stabbed him through the heart). The Freys then triumphantly paraded Robb Stark's horrifically mutilated corpse are their castle on a horse while mockingly chanting, "King in the North! Here he comes, the King in the North!".
- Catelyn Stark's corpse was also desecrated in the aftermath of the Red Wedding. In direct mockery of House Tully's funeral customs, the Freys threw her corpse directly into the Green Fork of the Trident outside of the castle, to rot and be eaten by the fishes.
- Khal Jhaqo mutilated Rakharo's corpse after he killed him, then sent his severed head back to Daenerys Targaryen on his horse. This caused Irri to break down crying, explaining that to the Dothraki, leaving a warrior's body unburned is considered sacrilege, but dismembering after death and then leaving the individual pieces to rot is tantamount to killing his very soul.
- Tywin Lannister, as recounted by his daughter Cersei, killed every man, woman, and child of House Reyne at the end of Reyne Rebellion in his youth. He then had their corpses hung on public display above the gates of Casterly Rock, where they were left all summer until they rotted to pieces (consider that a "summer" in Westeros can last for years).
- Joffrey Baratheon pushed the already thin line of how long it is tolerable to keep an executed prisoner's head on a spike when he left the severed head of Eddard Stark on the traitor's walk in the Red Keep, along with the rest of his household servants. It stayed there rotting for weeks, and one of his son Robb's specific demands sent to the capita (along with recognition of the North's independence) was for his father's bones to be returned. Joffrey was uninvolved and Cersei didn't particularly care, but Tyrion urged his sister to at least send Eddard's bones back as a gesture of good faith. A group of Silent Sisters later accompanied Littlefinger to deliver Eddard's remains to his widow Catelyn while she was meeting with Renly Baratheon in the Stormlands.
- Daenerys Targaryen, after conquering Meereen, had exactly 163 of the defeated Great Masters crucified, to pay them back for the 163 slave-children they left crucified on the road leading to the city in an attempt to intimidate her. Some time later, the nobleman Hizdahr zo Loraq sought audience with Daenerys and begged her to allow him to recover his father's body and give it a proper burial. Daenerys stated that her intention was to leave all of the corpses crucified until they rotted away, as a warning to the surviving former slave-masters. Hizdahr, however, eventually managed to convince her that her point had been made and this desecration was beginning to look needlessly cruel, so she ordered them taken down.
- After Blackgard was seized by forces of House Keller, the corpses of Laina Blackgard and Trevas Blackgard were hung above the gates of the city, instead of giving them a proper burial custom to House Blackgard and bordermen traditions; the bodies were supposed to be embalmed and mummified. Tylan Keller laid sacrilege to this sacred tradition by leaving their corpses to rot for almost ten years. However, when Trevyr Blackgard had once again taken control of the city and had driven the Kellers to extinction, he gathered his family's remains and gave them a proper burial inside the Blackgard Ancestral Tomb. Unfortunately, it was too late for the bodies to be given a proper mummification, as the bodies were too decomposed.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, a few more details are given about funeral practices in different parts of the world.
It hasn't been mentioned exactly what funerals are like for the ironborn, who follow the Drowned God - though it seems probable that they conduct burials at sea. Apart from the fact that they don't fear drowning and believe that they go to the Drowned God's watery halls when they die, the Iron Islands themselves have tough rocky soil which probably isn't conducive to burial, and they probably don't cremate their dead either, as it is stated that the isles don't have major forests so wood is relatively hard to come by as well.
In the Summer Islands religion, funerals are not somber occasions mourning the dead but celebrations of the lives they led, with wine and lovemaking.