The Maya are thought of as religious people, who lived in fear of the destructive nature of their gods. Death rituals became an important part of their religion; they developed many traditions to commemorate the recently deceased and worship long-departed ancestors. The Maya greatly respected death; they were taught to fear it and grieved deeply for the dead. They also believed that certain deaths were more noble than others; for example, people who died by suicide, sacrifice, complications of childbirth and in battle were thought to be transported directly into heaven. The guilty and evil suffered eternally in Xilbalba, the Maya underworld. Otherwise, death was thought of as a journey, with the possibility of rebirth. The Maya believed that certain individuals, important to their lineage, became deities that acted as patrons for the surviving family and many subsequent generations.
The Maya dead were laid to rest with maize placed in their mouth. Maize, highly important in Maya culture, is a symbol of rebirth and also was food for the dead for the journey to the otherworld. Similarly, a jade or stone bead placed in the mouth served as currency for this journey. Often, whistles carved from rocks into the shapes of gods or animals were included in the grave offerings to help the deceased find their way to the spirit world. The Maya associated the color red with death and rebirth and often covered graves and skeletal remains with cinnabar. The bodies of the dead were wrapped in cotton mantles before being buried. Burial sites were oriented to provide access to the otherworld. Graves faced north or west, in the directions of the Maya heavens, and others were located in caves, believed to be entrances to the underworld.