The Funeral

Funeral rites have always played an important part in humankind’s social behaviour. The Latin word funus means ‘funeral’. It is closely connected to the term fumus for ‘smoke’, indicating ancient disposal of the dead by cremation. Although funerary practices vary worldwide, they all seem to reflect belief in the afterlife and, originally, were attempts to protect the living from the powers of the dead. Egyptian funerary practices were based on the belief that the afterlife was very similar to earthly life, entered only if the body was properly preserved, hence, the custom of mummification in ancient Egypt. However, Chinese funerary rites were designed to let the spirit safely traverse the Underworld and arrive at the spirit tablet in the ancestral shrine of the family. Hence, the ancestral shrine is regularly honoured to keep alive the dead person’s memory.

Burial rites of different countries and cultures evolved not only according to the customs of the people, but also the nature of the country and circumstances of the times. In hot climates, for example, it was of utmost importance to bury the dead as soon as possible. There has always been a widespread fear of lying unburied after death because it was believed that after death the soul continued to feel what was done to the body, prompting an urgent need to provide the dead with a proper grave – only then could the soul move on to the next life. The requirement for proper burial is reflected in the Old Testament in which a curse expressed against those who disobeyed the commandments intoned: ‘...your dead body shall be food for all the birds in the air and for the beasts of the earth155 [...]’. 

Around the world, the omission of funeral rites was regarded as the main reason ghosts returned to the physical plane. Everything possible, therefore, was done to prevent this. Many of our funeral customs now derive from the Greeks and Romans, such as wearing black to indicate mourning, walking in a funeral procession, raising a mound (Latin tumulus, or ‘tomb’) on the grave, decorating graves with flowers, and feasting with relatives and friends after the funeral. 

In many cultures, it was believed that the sins of the deceased could be transferred after death to another person to make the afterlife easier for the departed soul. In Europe it was customary to hire poor people, so-called sin-eaters, for small amounts of money to attend funerals and to take on the sins of the deceased. (See Chapter I, The Scapegoat). 

Another important factor in burial rites of the past was the universal importance accorded the physical body in the afterlife. Therefore, mummification and other preservation methods were based on the concept of the importance of the physical body in its role in the afterlife. Offerings of food, drink, and personal possessions were left in tombs for the dead to use in the hereafter. Fear of the dead often influenced the treatment a corpse was accorded. For example, in ancient Greece, it was customary for murderers to cut off their victims’ extremities and to place these neatly beneath the armpits of the slain person to lay the ghost of the victim and prevent all physical revenge – as the ghost of the victim was now imagined without arms and legs and hence unable to come after the murderer. Similarly, Australian Aborigines cut off their dead enemies’ thumbs so that their ghosts were too mutilated to throw a ghostly spear. 

The notion of keeping the physical body intact was strengthened in Christian Europe by a literal acceptance of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and a papal ban specifically on dividing the physical body. At all costs, the body was to be kept whole to await resurrection. For this reason, European anatomists had great difficulty, during the early Middle Ages, obtaining corpses to pursue their anatomical studies. To be buried with any body part missing was thought to incur a risk for the dead of spending all eternity without it. Therefore, many people even went as far as preserving all lost teeth so that these could be buried with the rest of the body. In parts of England, the dead were often interred with their Bible, hymnbook, and Sunday school class ticket to ensure a favourable outcome at the Last Judgment. 

Today, when the average Westerner dies, the funeral is comprehensively organised by an undertaker who is called as soon as possible. Coffins supplied by the undertaker are usually made of wood, ranging in workmanship and price to suit the family’s financial situation. Predominantly, the American fashion of caskets, instead of traditional tapered coffins, has become popular in Western countries. Death notices are published in newspapers, and once all the arrangements have been made, the corpse is buried. The hearse bearing the casket is usually a black estate wagon, far more expensive than most people could ever afford in their lifetime. Usually, the casket is decorated with flower tributes. In the past, these consisted of wreaths and crosses intricately woven with flowers, but now, simple large flat sheaves are more fashionable. The hearse, followed by the mourners, drives slowly to the church or cemetery chapel for the burial service, after which the coffin is lowered into the already dug grave. Mourners might throw flowers or a little earth on the casket before departing. Cemetery staff fills in the grave, later capped by a tombstone. Interestingly, the first tombstones might have been placed on graves to keep the dead under the ground. Slowly, however, the gravestone evolved into a status symbol indicating just how wealthy and successful one’s life has been and to convey certain information about the dead. Great misfortune was believed to follow the desecration of a grave and any disturbance of the dead, which are now looked on as crimes.


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