Funeral Rites and Customs

Funeral Rites and Customs, observances connected with death and burial. Such observances are a distinctive human characteristic. Not only are they deeply associated with religious beliefs about the nature of death and the existence of an afterlife, but they also have important psychological, sociological, and symbolic functions for the survivors. Thus, the study of the ways in which the dead are treated in different cultures leads to a better understanding of the many diverse views about death and dying, as well as of human nature. Funerary rites and customs are concerned not only with the preparation and disposal of the body, but also with the well-being of the survivors and with the persistence of the spirit or memory of the deceased.

Preparation and Disposal of the Body

In all societies, the human body is prepared in some fashion before it is finally laid to rest. The first known deliberate burials were those of early Homo sapiens groups. Archaeological evidence indicates that one of these early groups, the Neandertals, stained their dead with red ocher—a possible indication of some belief in an afterlife. Washing the body, dressing it in special garments, and adorning it with ornaments, religious objects, or amulets are common procedures. Sometimes the feet are tied together—possibly to prevent the ghost of the deceased from wandering about. The most thorough treatment of the body is embalming, which probably originated in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians believed that in order for the soul to pass into the next life, the body must remain intact; hence, to preserve it, they developed the procedures of mummification (see Egyptian Mythology). The purpose of embalming in the United States is to prevent mourners from confronting the process of putrefaction.

The various methods used for disposal of the body are linked to religious beliefs, climate and geography, and social status. Burial is associated with ancestor worship or beliefs about the afterlife; cremation is sometimes viewed as liberating the spirit of the deceased. Exposure, another widespread practice, may be a substitute for burial in Arctic regions; among the Parsis (followers of an ancient Persian religion) it has religious significance. Less common are water burial (such as burial at sea); sending the corpse to sea in a boat (a journey to ancestral regions or to the world of the dead); and cannibalism (a ceremonial act to ensure continued unity of the deceased with the tribe).

Funeral and Mourning Rituals

The actual funeral—conveying the deceased to the place of burial, cremation, or exposure—also provides an occasion for ritual. Frequently, transporting the body develops into a procession by detailed prescriptions. In Hinduism, the procession to the place of cremation is led by a man carrying a firebrand. The mourners at one point walk around the bier; in former times among some groups, a widow was expected to throw herself onto the burning pyre of her husband (see Suttee). Finally, the cremated remains are deposited in a sacred river. In ancient Greece, Egypt, and China, servants were sometimes buried with their masters. This form of human sacrifice was based on the belief that in the afterworld the deceased continued to need their services.

In modern Western societies, funeral rituals include wakes, processions, the tolling of bells, the celebration of a religious rite, and the delivery of a eulogy. Military funerals often require special salutes fired by weapons. Jewish tradition prescribes a seven-day period of seclusion (shivah) following the funeral of a close relative.

The desire to preserve the memory of the departed has resulted in many kinds of memorial acts. These include preserving a part of the body as a relic, building monuments, reciting elegies, and inscribing an epitaph on a tombstone. See also Catacombs; Crypt; Dolmen; Mausoleum; Megalithic Monuments; Sarcophagus; Tomb.

Symbolism and Social Significance

Contemporary anthropological studies interpret funeral customs as symbolic expressions of the values that prevail in a particular society. This approach is strengthened by the observation that much of what occurs during a funeral is determined by custom. Even the emotions exhibited during death rituals can be dictated by tradition. Mourners who are unrelated to the deceased may be hired to wail and grieve. Also, the time and place where relatives are expected to show emotion may be defined by traditional rules.

Some anthropologists have noted that in spite of the wide variation in funerary practices, four major symbolic elements frequently recur. The first is color symbolism. Although the association of black with death is not universal, the use of black clothes to represent death is widely distributed. A second feature is the treatment of the hair of the mourners, which is often shaved as a sign of grief or, conversely, is allowed to grow to emphasize dishevelment as a symbol of sorrow. Another broad usage is the inclusion of noisy festivities and drumming at funerals. Finally, several mundane techniques for processing the dead body are employed in many cultures. The classical anthropological interpretation of the ceremonies surrounding death (like those accompanying birth, initiation, and marriage) is to view them as a rite of passage.

In terms of the society, the symbolic significance of death is most forcefully depicted in the funerals of rulers. Especially in cultures where the tribe or nation is personified in the ruler, such funerals often reach the proportion of a political drama in which the whole nation is at stake. The ruler's burial is not simply a religious event; it is an occurrence with great political and cosmological consequences. The pyramids of Egypt, for example, became both a symbol and a proof of royal authority. Because the pharaohs were the living embodiment of societal permanence and of spiritual and temporal authority, these elements were all threatened at their death. The participation of their successors in the funeral rites provided assurance of continuity. In Thailand, after the cremation of the monarch, the new king and members of the royal family searched the ashes for fragments of bone. Some of these relics became the focus of a royal cult that indirectly stressed the continuation of the deceased ruler's presence and authority. In societies as diverse as those of England, 18th-century France, and the Shilluk people of the Sudan, the funeral rituals for monarchs were related to cultural ideas about the nature of monarchy and the political order and to the maneuvering for power that takes place upon the transfer of authority.

Funeral practices in the United States have been interpreted economically, psychologically, and symbolically. Economic explanations interpreted the uniformity of American death customs as a product of ruthless capitalism and the content of these customs as expressing only materialistic values. Psychological theories explained the ritual process as a manifestation of fear and guilt related to the inevitable confrontation with death and as a mechanism to help mourners come to terms with their loss. More recently, symbolic interpretations have centered on the social context of funeral rites, considering them an expression of a core of life values sacred to the society in which they occur. In this view, American death rituals, which present the corpse so that it appears natural and comfortable for its last public appearance, are neither a manifestation of universal revulsion at confronting the decay of the body, nor an example of capitalistic manipulation and exploitation. Rather, they are a somber rite of passage that reflects American social and religious values concerning the nature of the individual and the meaning of life.