Funeral customs existed since the beginning of our civilization. There are similar practices in all cultures related to the way these cultures have buried and still bury their dead. The following aspects are present in the practices of all cultures: a sacred place where the dead person is buried, a funeral ceremony or ritual and the act of remembering those who have died. Burial sites of the Neanderthal man have been discovered that date sixty thousand years ago and the bodies had animal antlers on them. Near the bodies, flowers have been found, which can be a proof that some kind of ritual was performed and that the Neanderthal man remembered those who died. Even if there was no psychological knowledge back then, there was an instinctive act of burying the dead.
The Fear of a Higher Power
In the beginning of our civilization, man believed that natural phenomena are caused by a higher power and man has reacted according to this belief. The belief was based on fear, so the world of the primitive man was dominated by fear. Many life events were attributed to gods and spirits, which were considered invisible and this generated even more fear. In order to try to make peace with these invisible beings, man performed rituals and ceremonies. Some of the rituals may seem horrible from today’s world perspective, but they can be understood with the mindset of that time.
The first funeral customs were attempts to protect people who were still alive from the spirits. An example of such a practice is burning the bodies of the dead for destroying evil spirits. Another example is running away from dead bodies without burying them and leaving them to rot. Some primitive tribes still do this today. For instance, Zoroastrians leave the bodies to be consumed by vultures. They don’t burn the bodies, because fire is a sacred element of Mother Earth and it should not be used for the dead.
There are many other examples, like placing a body in the depths of a jungle for wild animals to consume it. The Kamchatkan Indians from Tibet let dogs to consume the bodies, because they believe this provides the dead a better afterlife. According to the historian Herodotus, the Calatians used to eat the bodies of their dead. It is known that Queen Artemisia drank a combination of wine and the ash of her beloved. Such practices were considered an honor to the respective families. African tribes used to crush the bones of their deceased and combine them with different foods.
For keeping evil spirits away from their vicinity, the Zulus people burned everything that belonged to their dead. Other tribes created rings of fire around the bodies, as this was believed to burn the wings of evil spirits. Another practice was throwing arrows and spears into the air for killing any spirit that may be hovering in the area. People who believed that spirits have entered their bodies used to eat herbs for killing the spirits.
Funeral Customs and Religion
Religious thinking seems to come from the fear of the dead that people have since ancient times. The word “tabu” actually comes from the Polynesians and it refers to the act of rejection and avoidance that people may express towards someone who comes in contact with the dead. Even today, a dead body is somehow considered a tabu subject. Tabu in English translates as “pollution” or “defilement”. According to the Hebrew tradition, people who come in contact with a dead body become unclean individuals and they should be removed from the places where normal people live.
A similar belief is confirmed by old Persian writings. Anyone who comes in contact with a dead body becomes powerless and is affected mentally, physically and verbally, due to the presence of evil spirits. Sometimes different types of sacrifices were made for appeasing the spirits or honoring the deceased. Some cultures believed that the sacrificed items or animals will serve the deceased in the afterlife. When the death of a king occurred in Africa, there were sacrifices performed involving dogs, slaves and horses.
Some cultures had a particular method of honoring the deceased and showing their respect. They used to cut off their finger or their toes. When a noble died in Japan, twenty to thirty slaves had to commit Hara Kiri. In Fiji, it was a common practice to strangle the slaves and wives of the dead person. One of the most horrible practices was known to be performed in India, among the Hindu. Whenever a man died, his wife was burned while she was still alive and the fire was started by the eldest son. The wife had to be dressed with her best clothes and the ritual was known as “suttee”.
Funeral Customs According to Gender
Some cultures made a difference between the death of men and the death of women. For example, the Ghonds burned dead men, but buried their dead women. The Cochieans also buried women, but did a strange thing to men: they hanged their bodies in trees. The Bongas made the burials in a strange way: women with their faces to the South and men with their faces to the North.
The Modern Way
In the modern society, many of the belief systems from the past still exist, so the practices are not very different from the ones in the past. Fear still exists and some pagan customs were preserved. A good example is the existence of mourning clothes, which were used by pagans in the past to confuse returning spirits and make people unrecognizable to them. Another pagan custom is the one of covering the face of the dead individual, because a belief existed that the spirit gets out through the mouth of the deceased. Many times the mouth and the nose were kept closed, as people believed this will delay the death process.
Gatherings and food offerings existed since the beginning of the funeral customs history. Wakes are also something from the past, as in some cases there was still hope that the deceased will come back to life. Candle usage is based on the same idea that evil spirits can be kept away with fire. Ringing bells seems to have the same effect and the practice comes from the medieval period. Sprinkling holy water over the body of a dead person is meant to keep demons away from it. Music has just the same effect like ancient chants did. By offering flowers, people desire to be favored by the spirit of the deceased person. The modern version of throwing spears and arrows into the air is the act of firing a rifle volley.