Funeral Traditions In History


A great deal is known about English funerary customs through the centuries, both in their religious and their social aspects. Naturally, the picture is fullest for the better-off classes, but since Victorian folklorists were interested in life-cycle customs, certain aspects of lower-class funerals, which struck them as archaic or quaint, are regularly described, especially for rural districts. Their descriptions, however, are not total; they are apt to omit aspects, which, being standard procedure in their own class too, did not by their definition count as folklore, notably the purely religious ritual. Some things often went unmentioned because of their very familiarity, such as the rule that a corpse must be carried feet first, whether inside a coffin or not.

In medieval times, each parish had a burial guild, which supplied bearers to carry the corpse; the coffin, however, was parish property, and the corpse would be buried in its shroud, the coffin being taken back for re-use. After 1552, the Book of Common Prayer required the service to take place out in the churchyard, leading to the invention of the lych-gate and the portable bier. Responsibility for organizing the funeral rested with the family, apart of course from the service itself. By mid-Victorian times the middle classes had handed over their arrangements to professional undertakers, but working-class funerals were still basically personal affairs until the 20th century. Despite local variations, the following account in 1914, recalling childhood memories of village life in Derbyshire, can be taken as typical of 19th-century rural custom:

On the day of burial a table was set outside the cottage door, on which were set a bowl of box and yew sprays, a plateful of bread (each slice cut in four), half a cheese, a plateful of plum cake, a bottle of homemade wine, a large jug of beer, and various glasses and wine-glasses—most of the latter, as well as the white table-cover, having been lent by my mother. When the funeral-folk assembled about the door, having been bidden by the ‘laying-out woman’, the bowl of box and yew sprays was offered round, and each person took a piece. Then a tray of funeral cakes was brought out of the house in packets. Each packet contained two cakes wrapped in white paper, on which was printed a suitable verse of poetry. Each guest, including also the bearers, was presented with a packet.

When this part of the ceremony was over, the table was cleared and the coffin brought out of the house and laid upon it—open, so that friends might take the ‘last look’. The funeral man (undertaker) then closed and screwed down the lid, produced from a large box a number of ‘weepers and scarves’ with which he decked the relations as mourners, and arranged the procession to the grave. As a rule there were two sets of bearers, for the churches were distant, and all the village folk had to walk. After the service each person stepped to the graveside for a last look (a formal matter not to be omitted), and the sprigs of box and yew were dropped on to the coffin. The whole party with the parson (if he was willing) then returned to take tea in the house.

Whilst they were away all the death-tokens had been removed, the windows set open, and the pictures, looking-glasses and furniture stripped of the white cloths with which they had been covered from the time of the ‘laying-out’ to the departure of the body. The talk at the tea-table was of the dead and others who had predeceased him, and the room was a gossips’ rally until the eatables and drinkables were consumed and the company dispersed. In the arrangements there were many variations according to the age, sex, and station of the dead.

In this account, the food and drink was displayed before the coffin left the house, recalling an older custom common along the Welsh Border, and in the Midlands and northern counties (especially Yorkshire), where mourners ate around the coffin before setting out for the church. Sweet biscuits, cakes, bread and cheese, wine, and beer were served; a share was sometimes given to the poor, in the house or at the graveside. The custom derives from two pre-Reformation rites: taking Communion at the Requiem Mass, and giving alms to the poor so that they too would pray for the dead. Its continued symbolic importance among Protestants is well attested; in 1671, for instance, a French visitor described how at the funeral of a nobleman in Shrewsbury relatives and friends assembled in the house to hear a funeral oration from a clergyman, during which ‘there stood upon the coffin a large pot of wine, out of which everyone drank to the health of the deceased, hoping he might surmount the difficulties he had to encounter in his road to Paradise’ (Burne, 1883: 309-10). In Derbyshire in the 1890s it was said that at a funeral ‘every drop you drink is a sin which the deceased has committed, you thereby take away the dead man’s sins and bear them yourself’(Addy, 1895: 123-4); in Herefordshire around 1910, a man was urged, ‘But you must drink, sir. It is like the Sacrament. It is to kill the sins of my sister’.

In a simple ‘walking funeral’, as described above, the bearers were friends and relatives, and chosen, if possible, to reflect the status of the deceased: older people, especially if married, would be carried by married men; unmarried girls by young women (or young bachelors, if the road to the church was a long one); babies and little children by older children in white. They were generally given black gloves, scarves, and hatbands. In more elaborate funerals, a pall (hired from the parish or the undertaker) covered both coffin and coffin-bearers, its hem being held by pall-bearers. Funerals of the wealthy and the nobility were far more lavish; they involved long processions of mourners (at first on foot, later in carriages), increasingly elaborate horse-drawn hearses, displays of black plumes and velvet drapes, richly lined coffins, attendant ‘mutes’, and so forth. At the opposite end of the scale was the ‘pauper’s funeral’—a cheap coffin pushed on a hand-cart, as remembered in the children’s rhyme:

Rattle his bones over the stones,
He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns.
(Thomas Noel, “The Pauper’s Drive”)

An odd but widespread notion, whose origin has never been explained, was that any path along which a corpse was carried thereby became a public right-of-way. In some localities, there were traditions that the funeral procession must approach the church by a rightward circuit, or take one particular road rather than another, or pause at specified spots on the way. Gentle rain was welcome, as a token of God’s mercy and blessing, but a storm boded ill for the dead man’s soul; so did any untoward accident, for example the coffin slipping, or horses finding it hard to draw the hearse.

During the First World War, public ceremonial at upper- and middle-class funerals was much reduced, and did not reappear thereafter; nevertheless, some close-knit working-class communities in cities kept up lavish Victorian customs, such as the hearse drawn by horses in black canopies, with ostrich plumes on the roof. Press reports and photographs of such funerals still occasionally appear. The use of flowers has increased, both as professional wreaths at the funeral itself, and as informal tributes at the grave or roadside memorial. The post-funeral buffet meal is as important as ever, though now more often held in a hotel or pub than at home.

Cremation has increased sharply since the 1930s, and is now chosen for about 70 per cent of deaths; in many cases it consists of a service in the crematorium chapel rather than in the deceased’s own church (if any). Currently, in reaction against the impersonality of traditional funerals and cremations, a trend towards variation and individuality can be seen in, for instance, the choice of music and readings, and the display of objects symbolizing the life of the deceased person. At the Anglican funeral of a morris dancer, his hat lay on the coffin, and the men of his side danced in the aisle (Walter, 1990: 16); during the requiem for a Catholic nun in 1998, the Latin grammar she had used as a teacher was put on the coffin, alongside her Bible and a rose (JS). Other recent developments are the popularity of memorial services some months after the death, to mark the public aspects of a person’s career and achievements; funerals for stillborn babies and miscarriages, very different from former attitudes towards the unbaptized (Walter, 1990: 271-80); and new rituals devised by Wiccans and other neopagan groups.

Cremation is an old custom; it was the usual mode of disposing of a corpse in ancient Rome (along with graves covered with heaped mounds, also found in Greece, particularly at the Karameikos graveyard in Monastiraki). Vikings were occasionally cremated in their longships, and afterwards the location of the site was marked with standing stones. In recent years, despite the objections of some religious groups, cremation has become more and more widely used. Orthodox Judaism and the Eastern Orthodox Church forbid cremation, as do most Muslims. Orthodox Judaism forbids cremation according to Jewish law (Halakha) believing that the soul of a cremated person cannot find its final repose. The Roman Catholic Church forbade it for many years, but since 1963 the church has allowed it so long as it is not done to express disbelief in bodily resurrection. The church specifies that cremated remains are either buried or entombed. They do not allow cremated remains to be scattered or kept at home. Many Catholic cemeteries now have columbarium niches for cremated remains, or specific sections for those remains. Some denominations of Protestantism allow cremation, the more conservative denominations generally do not.

Ancient Funeral Rites

The most simple and natural kind of funeral monuments, and therefore the most ancient and universal, consist in a mound of earth, or a heap of stones, raised over the body or ashes of the departed: of such monuments mention is made in the Book of Joshua, and in Homer and Virgil.
The place of burial amongst the Jews was never particularly determined. Ancient Jews had burial-places upon the highways, in gardens, and upon mountains. In the Hebrew Bible (known as the Christian Old Testament), Abraham was buried with Sarah, his wife, in the cave in Machpelah, the field he bought from Ephron the Hittite; David, king of Israel, and the other kings after him (including Uzziah of Judah) “rested with [their] ancestors” in the burial field that pertained to the kings.

The primitive Greeks were buried in places prepared for that purpose in their own houses; but later they established burial grounds in desert islands, and outside the walls of towns, by that means securing them from disturbance, and themselves from the liability of catching infection from those who had died of contagious disorders.

Funerals in Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, the eldest surviving male of the household, the pater familias, was summoned to the death-bed, where he attempted to catch and inhale the last breath of the decedent.
Funerals of the socially prominent were usually undertaken by professional undertakers called libitinarii. No direct description has been passed down of Roman funeral rites. These rites usually included a public procession to the tomb or pyre where the body was to be cremated. The most noteworthy thing about this procession was that the survivors bore masks bearing the images of the family’s deceased ancestors. The right to carry the masks in public was eventually restricted to families prominent enough to have held curule magistracies. Mimes, dancers, and musicians hired by the undertakers, as well as professional female mourners, took part in these processions. Less well to do Romans could join benevolent funerary societies (collegia funeraticia) who undertook these rites on their behalf.
Nine days after the disposal of the body, by burial or cremation, a feast was given (cena novendialis) and a libation poured over the grave or the ashes. Since most Romans were cremated, the ashes were typically collected in an urn and placed in a niche in a collective tomb called a columbarium (literally, “dovecote”). During this nine day period, the house was considered to be tainted, funesta, and was hung with yew or cypress branches to warn by passers. At the end of the period, the house was swept in an attempt to purge it of the dead person’s ghost.

Several Roman holidays commemorated a family’s dead ancestors, including the Parentalia, held February 13 through 21, to honor the family’s ancestors; and the Lemuria, held on May 9, 11, and 13, in which ghosts (larvæ) were feared to be active, and the pater familias sought to appease them with offerings of beans.

The Romans prohibited burning or burying in the city, both from a sacred and civil consideration, so that the priests might not be contaminated by touching a dead body, and so that houses would not be endangered by funeral fires.

Restrictions on the length, ostentation, expense of and behaviour during funerals and mourning were gradually restricted by a variety of law-givers. Often the pomp and length of rites could be politically or socially motivated to advertise or aggrandise a particular kin group in Roman society. This was seen as deleterious to society and conditions for grieving were set – for instance, under some laws, women were prohibited from loud wailing or lacerating their faces and limits were introduced for expenditure on tombs and burial clothes.
The Romans commonly built tombs for themselves during their lifetime. Hence these words frequently occur in ancient inscriptions, V.F. Vivus Facit, V.S.P. Vivus Sibi Posuit. The tombs of the rich were usually constructed of marble, the ground enclosed with walls, and planted round with trees. But common sepulchres were usually built below ground, and called hypogea. There were niches cut out of the walls, in which the urns were placed; these, from their resemblance to the niche of a pigeon-house, were called columbaria.

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