History of the Funeral

I. Early Funeral Rites

The history of funeral service is a history of mankind. Funeral customs are as old as civilization itself.

funeral historyEvery 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.

II. 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.

III. 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.

IV. Funeral Customs by Gender

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.

V. Modern Funeral Customs

We would like to think that in these modern times, our state of enlightenment would have totally dispensed with such thinking, but such is not the case.

Even today, death is approached from a standpoint of fear.

Many of our 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

©2001 Curtis D. Rostad

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