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Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski once observed that when persons are actually faced by death, they turn almost immediately instead to the promise of life. In other words, death and its denialimmortalitycoincide (1954, p. 47). In many ways funerals express these dualities and their contrasting, ambivalent feelings and realities. In effect, funerals commonly aim to turn death, which appears to represent an end, into its opposite, a transition to another kind of life. Moreover, they seek to reintegrate the group and especially those most bereaved following the sense of loss that death has eventuated.

The funeral is almost always a social occasion, a ceremony at which those with a relationship to the deceased or the bereaved are assembled in order to mark the change in status that death has occasioned. The function of the funeral is to dispose of the corpse and to recognize the sense of loss among the bereaved. It also seeks to demonstrate to all of the assembled that while a particular person has died, life itself and the group go on. Hence while the disposal of the cadaver, an essential feature of the funeral, expresses dread of the corpse and a desire to be rid of it and its impurities while also confirming the reality and finality of the death, almost everything else about the funeral asserts immortality and continuity: of the soul, the community, a relationship with the deceased, and faith in the future.

The public nature of the funeral as well as the common understanding that attendance at it trumps most other social obligations both reflect the fact that death is never just the concern of the immediately bereaved or only the affliction of those who have died. While ostensibly carried out for the dead person, the funeral rites in fact have important effects and benefits for the living, both as individuals and a group. These rites commonly entail practices that aim to confront death with repeated assertions of life and expressions and ceremonial displays that make the bereaved feel that they are not completely abandoned. Moreover, they aim to show that death may momentarily bring about chaos, but the funeral reinstates order. It does so with ritual.

At a funerals successful conclusion, the dead body is disposed of and becomes separated from the person who inhabited it and the living are endowed with an enhanced sense of solidarity as they mourn and console one another back to life, while incorporating the deceased as part of a living memory. While this process is largely metaphorical in most funeral ceremonies, in some cases, the process is quite literal. Among the Melanesians of New Guinea, for example, parts of the dead person are ingested by some of the bereaved and later vomited. This practice allows the spirit of the deceased to remain within, and a sense of solidarity both among the mourners and between the mourners and the deceased to be established while the physical remains of the corpse are removed. The Catholic rite of communion, in which the body and spirit of Christ is ingested by those who recall him through the eating of consecrated bread and wine, may be understood as a reiteration of such funereal rites. All this shows that death ends a life but not a relationship.

Funerals may generally be divided into component parts. First comes the preparation of the corpse for disposal and its display. This may include washing, anointing or embalming, dressing, and even some forms of restoring the body. Often this is accompanied by a temporary public placement of the cadaver among the living, although always camouflaging its decay. This might, for example, include placing flowers or perfumes around the body. This use of flowers is as old as Neanderthal man, whose skeletons in the caves of Iraq were found covered with a layer of pollen, suggesting they were enclosed with flora.

In some cultures this public display may last several dayssometimes called lying in state. In others, this is called the viewing, and often the body is improved or adorned so that the repulsion of death does not overwhelm the living. Public placement includes placement of the body on a catafalque, sometimes in a casket, in shrouds, on a pyre, or some other visible site. In its origins, this public display of the corpse may have served as a means of making certain that the person was truly dead, as the certification of death was historically by no means always as accurate as it is today. The presence of the prepared corpse in public view thus provided both an opportunity to persuade everyone that the person was indeed deceased while also in some way mitigating the dreadful vision of death and its reminder of universal mortality.

When bodies were placed in private homes, particularly in Victorian England, they were often put in the parlor, the room in which people gathered. This led to the parlor taking the name, living room, as a way of offsetting the stigma and dread associated with the placement of corpses in it. In time, in North America, the placement of the corpse was moved from peoples homes and parlors or living rooms to special sites that came to be called funeral parlors or funeral homes. At times, funerals are carried on in places of worship, though in a number of religious traditions the corpse is considered defiling and hence not put in what are considered sacred places.

While a growing corps of professionals handle the preparation of the body, in some religious traditions volunteers from within the community of deceased or the bereaved carry this out. Thus, for example, among traditionally observant Jews, the preparations are carried out by the Chevra Kaddisha (holy fellowship) whose ritual washing, grooming, clothing, and preparation of the dead for burial are called tahara (purification).

The second part of the funeral consists of the rites and ceremonies of farewell. These include prayers, eulogies, and the marking of the mourners in some visible way. In some cultures, wailing or other forms of mourning are part of the funeral. But the possibilities of rites are as rich and varied as human culture. Thus, for example, among the Hmong of Vietnam, practices used during funeral ceremonies include: sacrificing a live chicken to place at the head of a deceased person in order that the soul of the chicken can lead the soul of the deceased person back to their ancestral home; burning gold paper money for the deceased to take on the journey home; and calling a shaman to communicate with the souls of the deceased to understand their wishes and communicate those wishes to family members. In general, the ceremonies of the funeral act to control the emotional damage that death may otherwise inflict by holding it within the framework of ritual behavior.

Part of the farewells consists of presenting the idea that death is really an alternative form of life, and the funeral initiates the transition from one form of life to another. In this sense, funerals may be seen as liminal or threshold rites, as described by Arnold van Gennep in his Rites of Passage (1960). For some groups, Jews for example, this period of transition should be short so as to hasten reintegration. For others, the farewell is extended so as to hold onto to the deceased a bit longer.

To assure the passage from death to a new life, the corpse must in some way be transformed. As Robert Hertz explained, to make an object or living being pass from this world into the next, to free or create the soul, it must be destroyed, and then only as the visible object vanishes, and becomes invisible, can it be reconstructed in the beyond, transformed to a greater or less degree (1960, p. 46). The removal or destruction of the dead body and the beginning of mourning marks the third and final part of the funeral. Among Hindus this is accomplished with the burning of the body and in India with floating it along the holy Ganges River. Among the Abrahamic faiths, this ends with the removal of the body for burial, although increasingly in modern society cremation is chosen as an option by many.

The transformation of the corpse is paralleled by a transformation of the bereaved into mourners. This is often marked either by activities they carry on at and after the funeral that publicly demonstrate their sense of loss. In some cases, the bereaved may tear their garments or hair, as if to reflect the tearing down of their own veneer of civility and social order that death itself has initiated. Of course by making this sort of rending ceremonial, funerary practices emotionally rein in the act and thereby assist the mourners in exercising self-control and limit the trauma of loss in public and to the collective life. The bereaved may be sequestered for a period of mourning that parallels the period of the deceaseds journey to a new life. The conclusion of mourning marks the true end of the funeral, when the dead have reached their spiritual destination and the bereaved re-enter a full social life. Often this is marked with eating and drinking, activities associated with continuity and life.

SEE ALSO Burial Grounds; Culture; Death and Dying; Heaven; Hell; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Religion; Rituals


Heilman, Samuel. 2001. When a Jew Dies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hertz, Robert. 1960. A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death. Trans. Rodney and Claudia Needham. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1954. Magic Science and Religion. New York: Anchor.

Van Gennep, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika Vizedom and Gabrielle Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Samuel C. Heilman

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Funeral rites

Funeral rites. From extremely early times (and possibly even among the Neanderthals), archaeology reveals that humans have treated the bodies of the dead with care and respect. However, despite much speculation, it is not possible to state what beliefs about the status of the dead accompanied these early practices. By the time texts mediate beliefs about the dead, it is clear that almost universally there was no belief that there would be a worthwhile life after death. The funeral rites of the major world religions now express and reflect the consequence of subsequent human experience and reflection in which a continuity of life beyond death is clearly more probable, and is certainly a matter of faith expressed through the rituals and liturgies.

On the importance of being buried/cremated in particular places see KAŚI; KARBALĀʾ; MASHHAD. See also DEATH; CREMATION; RITES OF PASSAGE.


In biblical times, the dead were buried preferably near their family graves—hence the expression, ‘slept with his fathers’. Traditionally, men are buried wrapped in their tallit, and coffins were not used until the Middle Ages. Different communities observe different burial practices, but normally the coffin is escorted to the grave and Kaddish is recited. Burial in the land of Israel is a desideratum, but failing that, earth from Israel should be placed on the head or under the body. Among Reform Jews, embalming and cremation are permitted.


Christian respect for the body, and expectation of its resurrection, derive from the resurrection of Christ. Cremation was opposed and eventually became exceptional.

Opposition to cremation began to erode at the end of the 19th cent., and is now common; the prohibition against it among Roman Catholics was lifted in 1963, and is now allowed provided it is not done for reasons contrary to the Christian faith.


Jināza/janāza refers to the stretcher and to the corpse on it, and thus to the funeral itself. The Qurʾān gives no detail, but much description occurs in ḥadīth, and fiqh is extremely detailed in its prescription. Generally speaking, burials should be carried out as speedily as possible. As soon as a Muslim is dead, he is laid on the stretcher with the head facing the qibla. The ghusl then takes place, and the body is covered in a shroud or shrouds (the number is disputed). Ṣalāt is then said over the dead person, and if possible there should be recitation of the Qurʾān, or at least of sūra 6. Mourning is restricted, because it disturbs the dead—though in practice lamentation (niyaha) occurs. Forty days later, a family commemoration is held (al-Arbaʿayn, ‘the Forty’).




Disposal of the body is preferably by cremation. An important feature is the interaction between officiants (e.g. bhikṣus) and family, with gifts and transfer of puṇya. The leave-taking and rituals may take place over several days (e.g., six in Sri Lanka). Observances follow on the completion of three, and of six months, and sometimes at the anniversary.


When a Sikh dies prayers (especially sukhmāni sāhib) are said for the deceased. The body, washed and dressed and wearing the five Ks, is cremated. During cremation Kīrtan Sohilā (the bedtime prayer) is recited. At home or in the gurdwārā verses about death are read from the Ādi Granth and the service concludes with Ardās, a hukam, and kaṛāh praśād. Sikhs are to accept death as God's will and as a stage in the progress to him. Elaborate displays of mourning or of grief are therefore discouraged.


Most dead exist in perpetuity in the rituals of the living family. Usually the dead gain immortality of memory in the family unit, periodic offerings, and possible assistance of the ‘soul’ (in Buddhist judgement); the family gains kinship cohesion by filial respect and blessings by the rites. Traditionally, the dead are buried with ming chi (spirit articles), a sustenance of some kind such as the urns and human sacrifices of the archaeological sites, or the burning of modern paper items of money and necessities. Thereafter, they are periodically offered incense and food in the family or hall shrines. The grave is carefully chosen according to the yin and yang ‘geomantic’ influences of feng shui, and the body is often buried in a coffin, later disinterred, the bones put in a pot in the open air, and finally buried in the pot. These rites and relationships vary considerably by location and historical period.

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funerals are rituals which enable relatives and friends of the dead person to express their feelings and enable mourners to show their grief. The forms of such ceremonies have varied according to the beliefs, religious or other, and the status of the deceased and the wishes of the principal mourners.

Most funerals in Britain before the 19th cent. followed rituals prescribed by Christian churches and varied according to the social standing of the deceased. Before the Reformation, when Britain formed part of catholic Christendom, the funeral included a requiem mass. When a wealthy person died, the funeral ceremonies followed the terms of the will. Often money was left to pay for special clothes for mourners and for distributions of food, drink, clothing, and even money to the poor of the locality, so that the departed soul might benefit from the prayers of those who received charity. Wills often included arrangements for trustees to take income from property in order to build a chantry chapel and to make charitable gifts such as almshouses, schools, church buildings, and even bridges to the community. Priests received a fee to celebrate a memorial mass in the chantry and further alms were given to those who attended the service.

After the Reformation many wealthy protestants continued earlier traditions by making bequests to support good works such as almshouses and schools. Some left money to buy funeral clothes for mourners, especially servants, although some puritans regarded special clothing as inappropriate.

Before and after the Reformation the families of the deceased commemorated them by erecting tombs bearing brasses or sculptures or placed elaborate gravestones in churchyards. Large numbers of such memorials survive.

State funerals for sovereigns were arranged by the earl marshal. Outstanding statesmen and military commanders were sometimes honoured by a state funeral. For less exalted people funerals were arranged according to local and family traditions. Many people turned to an undertaker, or funeral director, although these terms were not commonly used until the later 19th cent. In most towns and villages a clergyman conducted the religious service including the burial of the body. The sexton had the task of digging the grave in the churchyard. From 1667 until 1814 the law required that bodies should be buried in a woollen shroud. However, fashion and greater affluence made coffins increasingly popular. In the case of pauper deaths, the Poor Law authority paid for a simple funeral.

The accuracy of the records of those buried in the churchyard depended on the diligence of the parish clerk in keeping the parish register and the burial of those with unorthodox religious or social views often went unrecorded. The registration of deaths became a legal obligation only in 1837.

During the 19th cent. many nonconformists held funerals in their own places of worship and, rather than pay fees to be buried in the parish churchyard, established their own burial grounds. Concurrently, many growing towns with overcrowded churchyards took advantage of the Act of 1853 which permitted ratepayers to elect a board with powers to buy land for a cemetery. Land in these burial grounds was divided according to denomination and plots could be purchased for a fixed period or in perpetuity. The costs of funerals were such that poorer people often took out special insurance to meet the bills and saved so that mourners could have an appropriate ‘wake’. One of the original provisions of the ‘welfare state’ established in the 1940s was a burial grant to help meet the cost of a funeral.

General interest in the practice of disposing of the dead by cremation, which was already established amongst groups such as gypsies who believed that the dead and their worldly goods should be burned, grew in the 19th cent. Cremation became legal in 1885 and funerals took place in crematoria which were built by local authorities. Funerals involving cremation of the deceased became more frequent, increasingly without a religious service, during the 20th cent. Since the First World War, there has also been a decline in the elaborate rituals of mourning. With the exception of state funerals, most modern funerals do not involve special clothing or arrangements. Regardless of social standing, mourning has become much more private and the expression of grief more personal.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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