Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Brief History of Funeral Rites & Customs

This entry is just a small fragmant of the information available regarding funerals and funeral rites, I have attempted to condense the size of the information to accomodate this blog. The information provided here is a compilation of different articles and writings into one , I have provided source links at the bottom of the entry for further review if necessary. Angela.

Early Funeral Rites

Funeral customs are as old as civilization itself. Every culture and civilization attends to the proper care of their dead. Every culture and civilization ever studied has three things in common relating to death and the disposition of the dead:

  • Some type of funeral rites, rituals, and ceremonies
  • A sacred place for the dead
  • Memorialization of the dead
Researchers have found burial grounds of Neanderthal man dating to 60,000 BC with animal antlers on the
body and flower fragments next to the corpse indicating some type of ritual and gifts of remembrance.
With no great psychological knowledge or custom to draw from, Neanderthal man instinctively buried their
dead with ritual and ceremony.

The Role of Fear

Primitive man lived in a world of fear. He reacted to most natural phenomena such as weather events based on that fear. He eventually attributed many life events to his instinctive knowledge of a higher being or power. In his primitive mind, life and death events were the acts of spirits. Since he was not able to see or sense these spirits, he lived in a world of terror. In an effort to enact some type of truce with these "gods" or "spirits," man devised charms, ceremonies and rituals to placate these spirits. Although we may find ancient burial customs to be strange or in some cases repugnant, they obviously arose for a reason.
The first burial customs then, were crude efforts to protect the living from the spirits which caused the death of the person. Fear of the dead caused the burning of bodies to destroy evil spirits.
Many primitive tribes even today simply run away from their dead, leaving them to rot.

Zoroastrians similarly allow their dead to simply rot or be devoured by vultures. They consider fire to be too sacred to be put to use disposing of the dead and burial is thought to be a defilement and injury to mother earth. Others place the body deep in the jungle to be devoured by wild beasts. In Tibet and among the Kamchatkan Indians, dogs are used for this purpose because they believe that those eaten by dogs will be better off in the other world.
Herodotus tells us that the Calatians ate their own dead. It was considered a sacred honor and duty of the family. Queen Artemisia supposedly mixed the ashes of her beloved with wine and drank it. To this day, certain African tribes are known to grind the bones of their dead and mingle them with their food.

The Zulus burn all of the belongings of the deceased to prevent the evil spirits from even hovering in the vicinity.
Some tribes would set up a ring of fire around the bodies of their dead to singe the wings of the spirits and prevent them from attacking other members of the community. Other tribes would throw spears and arrows into the air to kill hovering spirits or would eat bitter herbs to drive away or kill spirits that may have already invaded their bodies.

The Role of Religion
This fear of the dead carried over into what was developing into religious thought. The Polynesian word tabu expressed the view that a person or thing coming into contact with the dead was set apart and shunned for a religious or quasi-religious reason.
In English this thought is rendered "defilement" or "pollution." To most people a dead body is indeed taboo.
In Hebrew belief, the dead were considered unclean and anyone who came in contact with the dead were declared unclean.

"Whosoever is unclean by the dead shall be put outside the camp, that they defile not the camp in the midst of which the Lord dwells."  Numbers 5:2

In old Persian scriptures, a similar taboo is expressed. Anyone who touched a dead body was "powerless in mind, tongue, and hand." This paralysis was inflicted by the evil spirits which were associated with the dead body.
Sacrifices of one kind or another were also offered in honor of the dead. In some cases their purpose was again, to appease the spirits.  In some cultures, these sacrifices were meant to be used by the deceased in the future world.
Self-mutilation, such as the cutting off of toes or fingers was another type of sacrificial sign of respect for the deceased.
Suicide was considered the ultimate show of respect and sacrifice in some cultures.

The sacrifice of dogs, horses and slaves was common in Africa after the death of a king.
In Japan, it was the custom to insist that twenty or thirty slaves commit Hara Kiri at the death of a nobleman.
In Fiji it was considered correct for the friends of the deceased as well as his wives and slaves to be strangled.
Probably the strangest rite was practiced among the Hindu in India prior to being outlawed by the British. The practice was known as suttee,or wife burning. The wife of the deceased was expected to dress
herself in her finest clothing and lie down by the side of her deceased husband on the funeral pyre to be cremated alive. The eldest son then lit the pyre.

Funeral Customs by Gender and Social Class

In many cultures, men and women were treated differently at death. Among them:

  • The Cochieans buried their women, but suspended their men from trees.
  • The Ghonds buried their women but cremated their men.
  • The Bongas buried their men with their faces to the North and their women with their faces to the South.
During the Middle Ages in England, decent burials and durable funeral monuments were a privilege of the upper and middle classes of society, whose deaths were commemorated with permanent effigies in churches. In contrast, the best commemoration that most of the peasant classes could hope for following death was burial in a coffin (Houlbrooke, 1998).
Historically, some societies developed elaborate structures for the disposal of human remains, while others appeared not regard such burial rituals as an important aspect of their social structure. As an example of the former, burial and commemoration ceremonies were intimately linked to Christian doctrines of a ‘good death’ during the later Middle Ages in England. The Protestant church provided the most coherent body of guidance concerning rites for both the dying and survivors, the certainty of a life after death, and what to do about human remains. During this era, it was a Christian duty to bury the bodies of the dead. By the mid-18th century, a coffin came to be regarded as indispensable in a ‘decent burial’. Subsequently elaboration of coffins, as well as embalmment, became status symbols. Similarly, in ancient Rome, cemeteries had been located outside towns, but Pope Gregory (590 – 604 AD) authorized burials in the immediate vicinity of churches, so that the souls of the dead might benefit from the prayers of worshippers reminded of them as they passed their graves (Houlbrooke, 1998).

Modern Funeral Customs

Many of our modern funeral customs have their historical basis in pagan rituals.
Modern mourning clothing came from the custom of wearing special clothing as a disguise to hide identity from returning spirits. Pagans believed that returning spirits would fail to recognize them in their new attire and would be confused and overlook them.
Covering the face of the deceased with a sheet stems from pagan tribes who believed that the spirit of the deceased escaped through the mouth.  They would often hold the mouth and nose of a sick person shut, hoping to retain the spirits and delay death.
Feasting and gatherings associated with the funeral began as an essential part of the primitive funeral where food offerings were made.
Wakes held today come from ancient customs of keeping watch over the deceased hoping that life would return.
The lighting of candles comes from the use of fire mentioned earlier in attempts to protect the living from the spirits.
The practice of ringing bells comes from the common medieval belief that the spirits would be kept at bay by the ringing of a consecrated bell.
Originally, holy water was sprinkled on the body to protect it from the demons.
Floral offerings were originally intended to gain favor with the spirit of the deceased.
Funeral music had its origins in the ancient chants designed to placate the spirits.

The firing of a rifle volley over the deceased mirrors the tribal practice of throwing spears into the air to ward off spirits hovering over the deceased.  The 3-volley salute is a ceremonial act performed at military and police funerals as part of the drill and ceremony of the Honor Guard. It consists of a rifle party firing blank cartridges into the air three times. The custom originates from the European dynastic wars, where the fighting ceased for the dead and wounded to be removed, then three shots were fired into the air to signal that the battle could resume. It is now used at military and police funerals as a sign of respect for the sacrifice made by the deceased individual. It should not be confused with the 21 gun salute. Today the national salute of 21 guns is fired in honor of a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and the President, ex-President and President-elect of the United States. It is also fired at noon of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

Scottish Funerals

An old funeral rite from the Scottish Highlands is to bury the deceased with a wooden plate resting on his chest. The plate contained a small amount of earth and salt to represent the future of the deceased. The earth signified the decaying of the body to become one with the earth while the salt represented the soul, which did not decay. This rite is known as "earth laid upon a corpse".

African Funerals

The custom of burying the dead in the floor of dwelling-houses has been, to some degree, prevalent on the Gold Coast of Africa. Some funerals in Ghana have the deceased placed in elaborate "fantasy coffins" colored and shaped after a certain object, such as a fish, crab, boat, and even an airplane. African ceremonies are purely animist, and without any set ritual. The exception is that the females of the deceased, as well as friends may undergo mournful lamentations. In some instances, they work themselves into an ostentatious, frenzy-like state of sorrow. This revelry may be heightened with the use of alcohol, of which drummers, flute-players, bards, and singing men may partake. The funeral service may last as long as a week. Another custom resembling a memorial, frequently takes place 7 years after the death of the deceased. These types of funerals and subsequent memorials can be costly as cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, may be offered in remembrance and then consumed in the festivities.

The History of African American Death

Death has always been to many a forbidden topic of discussion. However, in the African American community death is very much an important aspect of culture. It has been stated that death traditions, customs, procedures, mourning practices, burial rites, and even the structure of African American cemeteries differ greatly from that of non-African Americans.
It has been stated amongst the black community that death is not a time of sadness but a time to rejoice, for the deceased no longer has to endure the trials and tribulations of this earthly world. The deceased are indeed mourned and missed, however, death is also a time of celebration. These emotions and procedures of death is what student researcher focused on.
Many African Americans may not be aware that some of the present day traditions and customs of death can be traced back to African roots of the Bakongo and the LaDogaa tribes.

These African traditions have been passed down from the oldest living members of the community, in the form of expressions, sayings, superstitions, religious beliefs and practices, and music. Many of the stories and superstitions relating to death and burials are still believed today, especially in the Southern United States. Since the Sea Islands, have strong rooted Africanisms, the culture of Angola and Sierra Leone are most commonly thought of as the closest identification to their heritage. Sea Islanders however are not the only group of African Americans with these strong ties; the cultural traditions spread far and wide.

Death to African Americans is not an event which just occurs, is "handled," and then forgotten about. When one dies, there is a series of events which usually take place. After the approach of death family members are often notified right away, not just the immediate family members, but every relative and friend of the deceased. Old beliefs and superstitions, are remembered and acted upon. An old belief is that the dead can not be buried on a rainy day. The sun is-a sign that the heavens are open and welcoming for the deceased one. If it rains while a man is dying, or if lighting strikes near his house, the devil has come for the soul. Thus, the family members often attempt to bury the dead on a sunny day.

There is usually a five to seven day mourning period before the actual funeral. Before the funeral takes place there is generally a ceremony known as a wake. At this time, close friends of the family of the deceased pay respects to the family and view the body. Many wakes take place at the funeral parlor, but have been known to take place at the church or the home of the deceased. This is a time when everyone gathers and eats food cooked by the family members, and shares memories of the deceased. Two viewing days may be arranged for the wake. After this time period there is the funeral which consists of a funeral procession. The hurse leads cars of the deceased family members follows. The immediate family members follow directly behind the hurse. All of the cars following in the procession place purple flags upon their antennas and drive with the car head lights on to identify themselves as members of the funeral procession. Once reaching the cemetery many traditions (or superstitions) are followed concerning the actual burial of the dead. It is believed that it is important that the dead be buried feet facing east; to allow rising at Judgment Day. Otherwise the person remains in the crossways of the world.

Coins are placed on the eyes of the dead to keep them closed. However, coins were also sometimes placed in the hands as the deceased person's contribution to the community of the ancestors-or perhaps, as a token for admittance to the spirit world. For the same purpose coins are also placed on or around the grave site. It is believed that one should always cover the body and one should never place it directly in the ground. All of these traditions may not be practiced by every African American family but many of them were and still are believed to this day.

History of Embalming

Beginnings in Egypt

Egypt is credited with being the land where enbalming began. During the period from 6000 BC to 600 AD approximately 400,000,000 bodies were mummified.

Embalming in Egypt was done for two reasons: Religious- Greek historian Herodotus maintained that the Egyptians were the first people to believe in the immortality of the soul. They believed that the soul would never fully forsake the body as long as the body remained intact.

Embalming was for the purpose of preserving the body so that the soul could return to it after the completion of the "circle of necessity."

This "circle of necessity" was a 3,000 year journey the soul was required to make before it could return to the body. At that time, the whole man would arise from the dead and live with the gods forever.

Sanitation- The writer Cassius maintained that enbalming was developed to provide a solution to the problem of trying to bury the dead in the Nile valley which would be inundated on a frequent basis. The Egyptians apparently also noted that this unsanitary condition caused more deaths.

The Egyptians were not the only people to practice some type of preservation of the dead. Ancient Ethiopian tribes preserved their dead in a manner similar to the Egyptians.
Aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands from 900 BC practiced mummification of their dead.
Babylonians, Persians, and Syrians preserved their dead by placing them in jars of honey or wax. By depriving the bacteria in the body of air, decomposition was prevented. Peruvians practiced mummification 1000 years prior to being conquered by Spain in the early 16th century.

Jewish custom is for simplicity. Embalming and cremation were generally not allowed because they were seen as mutilation of the body. As seen in the scriptures, preparation for burial consisted of wrapping the body and the application of oils and spices.

The Greeks believed that the deceased must make a journey across the river Styx to the land of eternity. A coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased to pay passage over the river. A cake of honey was placed next to the body to appease the three headed dog, Cerebus, who guarded the entrance to Hades. Interment was delayed three days to prevent premature burial. Cremation came into practice in about 300 BC.

The Romans also did not practice enbalming as such. The body would be washed daily for seven days with hot water and oil. This delay also was to prevent premature burial. A group of slaves called pollinctores performed this function. Funeral processions were held at night to avoid defilement of the living. The procession was managed by a Designator, who functioned much like the modern day funeral director. Burial later gave way to cremation. At one point cremation was forbidden within the gates of Rome because of the smoke pollution of so many bodies being burned at once.

Early Christian Customs
The early Christians derived their burial customs from the Greeks, Romans, and Jews. They followed the strong Jewish tradition of burial with no enbalming. The sacred status of burial grounds was upheld.

During the "dark ages" in Europe, enbalming was generally not practiced. During this period, great advances were being made in medicine and bodies were needed for dissection purposes. For this sole purpose, some enbalming was done and techniques perfected.  Also during this time, discoveries made in the world of medicine would have a great influence in the development of modern enbalming technique.

  • Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519) produced hundreds of anatomical plates as a result of his dissection of the human body. He undoubtedly used arterial injection to preserve his specimens.
  • Dr. Frederick Ruysch (1665-1717) is generally considered the father of enbalming with his discovery of the first successful system of arterial enbalming.
  • Dr. William Harvey (1578-1657) was the English physician who discovered the circulation of blood.
  • Dr. William Hunter (1718-1783) is credited with being the first to successfully adopt arterial injection as a means of preservation.
  • Jean Gannal (1791-1882) began as an apothecary assistant and became the first to offer enbalming to the French general public.
  • Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) manufactured the microscope and discovered bacteria in 1683.
  • Alexander Butlerov (1828-1866) and Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818-1892) are credited with the discovery of formaldehyde.
  • Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1900) is generally considered the father of modern enbalming. He experimented with preservative chemicals while working as a coroners assistant in New York and later began offering his services to the public.

Early American Embalming

Modern enbalming really got its start during the Civil War period

Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission as a captain in the Army Medical Corps and was assigned to Washington, D.C. where he embalmed many army officers killed in battle. He reportedly embalmed over 4000 soldiers and officers.
President Lincoln took a great interest in enbalming and directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize enbalming to allow the return of Union dead to their home towns for proper burial. When he realized the commercial potential of enbalming, Holmes resigned his commission and began offering enbalming to the public for $100.
After the Civil War, enbalming fell into disuse because of lack of demand and few to do the procedure. The "undertakers" of the day limited their efforts to ice to ward off decomposition long enough to have a funeral.

Twentieth Century Practices

By the turn of the century, wooden coffins were being made to order by the local carpenter or cabinet maker. A few even made coffins beforehand but met with criticism by the public for their boldness.

The cabinetmaker rarely became involved in any aspect of the funeral other than providing the coffin. Even the conveyance of the deceased was done by someone else, the livery man. With the passing of time, these men became more and more involved in providing other services and advise to those planning the funeral.

Eventually the person who would "undertake" to manage all funeral details and provide funeral merchandise became known as an "undertaker." He eventually obtained and provided all the necessary items for the funeral including the hearse, door badges, coffin rests, etc. Once it became possible for the undertaker to provide enbalming services, the haste was taken out of the burial process and people were given ample time to arrange and prepare for the funeral.

The first enbalming preparations were arsenic solutions that were rapidly replaced when formaldehyde became available. Representatives for enbalming fluid companies would travel the country presenting one or two day schools of instruction in the use of their product. For attending these classes and purchasing a quantity of fluid, an undertaker received a certificate as an embalmer. It wasn?t until the 1930?s that state licensing became almost universal. While this education seems wholly inadequate, it should be remembered that physicians and dentists of the day did not have much education either prior to practicing their profession.From the cabinetmaker who simply supplied a coffin, the funeral director today provides over 130 separate services to a family.

Modern Embalming

The modern method of enbalming is defined as the disinfection of preservation of the dead human body.

It is performed for three reasons.The primary purpose of enbalming is disinfection. While some pathogens die soon after the death of the host, it is also true that many dangerous organisms have the ability to survive for long periods of time in dead tissues. Persons coming in direct contact with the unembalmed body can become infected as well as there being the possibility of flies or other agents transferring pathogens to humans and infecting them.

The second purpose of enbalming is preservation. The prevention of putrefaction and decomposition allows the disposition of the remains by burial, cremation, or entombment to take place without the odors or other unpleasantness that would accompany an uncared for remains.

The third purpose of enbalming is restoration. Returning the body to a life-like appearance has received many critics, but the custom of viewing the body after death in a state of rest remains a practice of proven psychological worth.

The modern enbalming process is designed to retard tissue decomposition for the period of time necessary for disposition as arranged for by the family of the deceased. Under favorable conditions however, modern enbalming has been shown to be able to keep a body intact for decades.

Rather than prevent the body from returning to its natural elements, enbalming allows the body to decompose by oxidation and dissolution rather than by putrefaction or rotting. Embalming is accomplished by a chemical "fixation" of the cell protein. Formaldehyde basically reacts with the soluble albumins in the cell and converts them to albuminoids or gels. At the same time, the bacteria are destroyed, thus halting or at least delaying decomposition. Once enbalming is properly completed, the body can only be attacked by air-borne bacteria and molds that can eventually destroy the body exposed to air if sufficient moisture is present to support bacterial and mold growth.

In modern enbalming then, an enbalming fluid that is both a disinfectant and a preservative is injected into the circulatory system of the body by an electric pump while the blood is forced out of the body and disposed of. In effect, the blood is replaced with a disinfectant and preservative solution.

The Purpose of the Funeral

The funeral:  Helps confirm the reality and finality of death. Provides a climate of mourning and the expression of grief. Allows the sorrows of one to become the sorrows of all. Is the only time when love is given and not expected in return. Is a vehicle for the community to pay its respects. Encourages the affirmation of religious faith. Is a declaration that a life has been lived, as well as a sociological statement that a death has occurred.
The funeral allows people to remember and honor their loved one in a special way.  It serves as a central gathering place for family and friends to give emotional support to one another. It encourages mourners to face the pain of their loss and express their thoughts and feelings. It helps the survivors to better cope with their grief and enables them to move forward in their lives. It initiates the grief process while bringing closure to the death.

When we speak of the funeral we should define it in the terms of today. Many picture the funeral as an exclusively religious event with the body present in the casket followed by earth interment. By funeral we mean the post-death activities that may include any type of meaningful ceremony to commemorate the life of the deceased.

While affirming the comfort and solace many find in the rites of their church, we should also acknowledge that religious services may be inappropriate for those who do not have a religious affiliation.The funeral should meet the needs of the family. The service, whether religious in nature or not, may include personal reading, stories, or anecdotes about the deceased, eulogies by family members, and musical numbers of meaning to the family..
While some would view the visitation and funeral as a painful experience and would thus want to avoid it, it is in reality a first step towards healing.

The funeral serves both the living and the dead.

The funeral is for the living. It provides a means of saying farewell.
The funeral is for the respectful disposition of the dead.

No successful civilization has ever existed that simply discarded their dead.


free-times.com from Wyoming Funeral Directors Association Director of Education Curtis D Rostad’s essays “History of Funeral Customs” and “History of Embalming”
Superstitions, Traditions, and Procedures- http://northbysouth.kenyon.edu/1998/index.htm


  1. Now a day’s usages of full lace wigs and lace front wigs are increasing among consumers worldwide. Consumers should know that lace wigs and lace front wigs are quite different from regular wigs in many ways. The full lace front wigs look very natural. Also the full lace wigs is designed from special lace material having a unique cap design.

    1. WTF!!! are you crazy????

  2. "To this day, certain African tribes are known to grind the bones of their dead and mingle them with their food."

    Which "tribes" exactly? Europeans actually ate the flesh and drank the blood of their ancestors (only now, they substitute crackers and wine). Englishmen, and even Canadians drink the marinated fingers and other appendages of their ancestors. Please mention those phenomenon in your own ancestry before you begin trying to tell us what a group you don't belong to does.

  3. I really liked your article, looking forward to hear more from you. If you urgently need full spectrum of funeral services under one roof, please don’t hesitate to contact us at http://www.indianfuneraldirectors.co.uk for more information.

  4. Great read! Many funeral rites and customs have changed over the years. Our Jones Family Mortuary staff always loves to hear about old traditions.