Funerary Traditions

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FUNERARY TRADITIONS. Since the end of the American Revolution, funeral traditions and rituals have changed extensively in the United States. Originally, the processes of mourning and burial were based on European traditions brought to the colonies. Puritans focused on human sin and heavenly redemption, and their burial process centered on having visitations in the home, followed by religious burial in a family or church graveyard, announced by public notice and invitations. Simple headstones were locally carved and used foreboding images of skulls, weeping willows, and shrouded figures. Women and children traditionally carried out the process of mourning by dressing in black, removing themselves from social activities, and writing letters to announce the death to distant family and friends.

By the nineteenth century, traditions became more elaborate and visually oriented. Mourning continued to be the responsibility of women, who dressed in mourning garb and shrouded the household in crepe if the family could afford it. Interest in mourning jewelry containing the hair of the dead and in-death photography also developed. Postmortem photographs of loved ones, particularly children, often became the only image that the family had. Church graveyards gave way to landscaped cemeteries that provided aesthetic viewing and resolved concerns over the sanitary hazards of graveyards within growing cities. Symbolisms used in mourning art, gravestones, and jewelry became more gentle and included angels, lambs, flowers, and hands pointing toward Heaven. Families still viewed the body within the home, but undertakers were quickly developing the commercial funeral industry. Premade caskets, embalming services, and department stores specializing in mourning goods helped depersonalize death by taking it out of the home.

In twentieth-century postwar America, an increased discomfort with the subject of death resulted from a new societal focus on youth, and in response new funerary rituals evolved. The close of the century saw a trend toward personalizing funeral and burying practices. Funerals often included photos or videos of the deceased and performances of their favorite music. Caskets were sometimes personalized to reflect the interests of the deceased, or custom-built in special shapes and colors. People were also being buried with beloved objects and family mementoes. Consumers were encouraged to prepay for their funerals and plan them in advance to their personal tastes.

Methods of burial at the end of the twentieth century were changing to save space, and provide personal choice. Mummification (being embalmed, wrapped, and sealed in polyurethane), cryonics (freezing the body), and cremation were all alternatives to the traditional embalming and burial. While traditional burial with embalming was still the preferred method of disposition for the 2.3 million Americans who died in 1998, cremation was growing more popular because it is significantly cheaper than traditional embalming, and because the ashes can be disposed of in a variety of ways. Ashes can be buried in a memorial garden, spread over water, or scattered in a personally significant place; they can now even be sent into space on a commercial satellite rocket. One-half million cremations took place in the United States in 1998, and by 2010 that number was expected to double. Although funerary rituals and mourning customs have changed drastically since 1800, Americans were returning to a personalized grieving process. Global technology even had an impact on death. Online cemetery resources, memorial and obituary Web sites, and grief counseling groups were all offered on the Internet.


Coffin, Margaret. Death in Early America: The History and Folklore of Customs and Superstitions of Early Medicine, Funerals, Burials, and Mourning. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1976.

Coleman, Penny. Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Curl, James Stevens. The Victorian Celebration of Death. Detroit, Mich.: Partridge Press, 1972.

Sloane, David Charles, et al. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Karen RaeMehaffey

See alsoCemeteries, National ; Death and Dying .