funeral practices: British customs

views updated

funeral practices: British customs Funerary practices are observed in every culture when a dead body is to be disposed of. In times of exigency such as war, disaster, pestilence, or in cases of violent death where the imperatives of pathology and judicial rules take precedence over family wishes for the care of the body, norms of funerary behaviour are often breached, adding to the trauma of events.

Corpse care

In Britain, funerary practices begin with the lay or official declaration of death, and consist of small attentions to the body itself, such as closing the eyes and covering the face. The ‘laying-out’ of the body — or ‘rendering the last offices’ was in the past a job traditionally done by women, often the local midwife. It involved undressing and washing the body, plugging its orifices, if necessary placing coins (traditionally pennies) on the eyelids, and a bandage under the chin, to hold these parts closed, dressing the body in its grave clothes, and holding limbs straight (with bandages or ribbons around the body at the elbows, wrists, and ankles, and sometimes a thread around the big toes) ready for placing in the coffin. Today the female tradition is continued to some extent inasmuch as most hospital, hospice, and district nurses who do the job are women. However, in cases of death at home undertakers are now generally swiftly called to remove the body, and the process of laying-out is done by available staff — male or female — away from the location of death or mourning.

Multipotent custom

In the past, each aspect of lay funerary ritual had multiple levels of practical justification and traditional meaning. The eyelids are generally the first part of the body to set in rigor mortis, just before the jaw, hours after death. A corpse whose eyes refused to close was traditionally believed to presage further deaths, so closing the eyes was imperative to forestall the omen, and to prevent survivors' unease.

Funerary practices altered a great deal in the twentieth century, and the meanings which attached to them in past ages have become attenuated. Yet even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, relatives of victims of murder or accident — including drowning at sea — continue to do all they can to retrieve lost bodies in order to give them decent disposal.

The dead body is an object of great potency, with a powerful presence of its own. Part of this effect derives from its embodiment of the power of death, part from the strangeness death works upon it. While the corpse retains identity, personality is absent. British funeral practices reveal that there existed a conception, said by anthropologists also to operate in many other societies, of a transitional period between death and burial in which the body was regarded as ‘neither alive nor fully dead’

In a physical sense, of course, we are all familiar with this notion — in the currently continuing difficulty in defining the precise moment of death, the possibility of resuscitation, and in the phenomenon of organs, which, though extracted from corpses, are yet sufficiently alive to support life again in the body of another. Old British customs and beliefs — such as the belief that a signature taken while the corpse is still warm had the same status as in life, that a corpse could indicate displeasure if a will read before it was false, or that it would bleed if a murderer came into its vicinity — seem to attribute sentience to the dead body.

The corpse also had ambiguous spiritual status: the care it received was thought somehow to influence the future life of the soul. Washing cleansed not only the sweat of death, but the sins of the earthly life, a sort of lay absolution. A woman interviewed in 1980 in a Suffolk village told me ‘the washing is so that you're spotless to meet the Lamb of God’. The emblematic whiteness of grave-clothes dates back at least to the Jacobean period, when the epigraph to John Donne's poem Death's Duell stated: ‘just as the body is shrouded in white linen, [so] may be the soul’. Although the traditional desirability of linen has long since waned, most mass-produced ‘coffin-sets’ (matching shrouds and coffin linings) currently provided by undertakers are nevertheless white. Several traditional funerary practices — such as the customs of viewing the dead, kissing or touching the body, placing refreshments beside the body, watching the body during the period between death and burial, waking (celebrating the funeral with food and drink), placing personal objects in the coffin, and tending graves — possessed a multipotent character: practical for mourners, respectful to the dead, and solicitous towards the soul.


Modern changes in funerary practice are particularly noticeable in key areas: the location of the dead between death and disposal, the rise of cremation, and the declining significance of the funeral. The undertaker's ‘private chapel’ or ‘chapel of rest’ was a late Victorian development. There had been a move to open public mortuaries in the mid nineteenth century, but they foundered on the rock of parochial parsimony — lacking facilities for mourners to care for or watch over their dead, they were often attached to the local workhouse and partook of that institution's terrible stigma. If no one arrived to claim a body from a public mortuary within a certain period, the dead could legally be requisitioned for dissection. Public mortuaries were places associated with sudden death, death by crime, death in the public highway, suicide, and the deaths of the unknown, and were bitterly unpopular among the poor.

A change in attitude towards the corpse had begun to develop towards the end of the nineteenth century — probably as a result of the public health reformers' activities (see corpse) — whereby the older attitude of solicitude towards the dead was supplemented, even superseded, by a growing perception that dead bodies were unhygienic. This attitude emphasized the need to segregate the dead away from the living. For extra payment, undertakers began to offer wealthier people new facilities without the taint of the public mortuary to store their dead away from home.

One undertaker has estimated that when he began working in 1936, 90% of bodies would be kept at home between death and burial; today the figure is only about 5–10%. This significant change in customary behaviour reveals something of a revolution in attitudes towards the corpse: a new squeamishness which means that many people accept the physical removal of the dead with relief; indeed, seem to require it for their own psychological survival.

Location of death

The transformation of corpse storage parallels changes in the location of death consequent upon the institutionalization of the elderly and greater access to hospitals and hospices in casualty and terminal illness. These developments have precipitated the decline of some long-standing funerary practices — such as viewing, touching and kissing the dead, and a number of domestic observances which derived from having the dead at home, such as darkening windows, stopping clocks, and covering mirrors.

The twentieth century also saw a significant transformation in the disposal of the dead. Although cremation was available as a mode of disposal in 1900, less than 1% of bodies were cremated; today the figure is over 70%.

Funeral feasts

In 1800 it was customary to have a meal, or a ‘funeral feast’, after the funeral. Usually this was a cold meal for mourners returning to the house of the deceased. In 1900 such a meal was still customary, even among the wealthy, and considered highly important among the working class. Stock phrases are used to describe these events, which indicate both the key ingredient, ‘we buried him with ham’ and the nature of the occasion; ‘a real spread’, ‘the best feed we'd ‘ad for ages’.

Today the gathering is still common among the traditionally minded, although after World War II it dropped from favour in many circles, and cold ham is no longer seen as crucial. In addition to the generally older observers of the custom, there is a newer, more self-consciously celebratory readoption of the idea of a post-funeral party among younger people. The old idea of the feast is having a comeback as more people recognize the value of such events for family and social cohesion, and as under-standing develops of the dangers of incomplete mourning.

Fading taboo

Whilst several of the older customs appear to be undergoing long-term decline, especially those associated with exposure to the dead body itself, the re-emergence of the funeral feast may not be an isolated development, but part of a more general change. The last twenty years or so have seen a growing willingness to talk about death, dying, and funerals in the press and on radio and television, and among the public generally. The hospice movement for the care of the dying has developed apace in the UK, and the ‘palliative care’ developed in the hospices to control deathbed pain is being increasingly adopted by doctors all over the country. Charitable fund-raising for these institutions ensures that the dying are a higher priority than they were twenty years ago. The same is true of mourning — there is now a much wider acceptance that grieving is a natural process, and a greater understanding of the need for appropriate rites of passage in its resolution.

In addition, new funerary customs are emerging. The old custom of marking the site of an accident or a sudden death has developed considerably since the mid 1980s — as the sites of national and local disasters, accidents, murders, and so on become transformed into wayside shrines, smothered in flowers laid by many hands. The public response to the death of Princess Diana was quite in keeping with a long-term process already well underway at the time of the tragic accident which killed her.

Funerals in general and the cremation ceremony in particular are widely perceived as unsatisfactory. During the last two decades people have been taking custom and ceremony into their own hands, and they can be very inventive. News stories cover burials at sea, and sprinkling of cremated ashes from aircraft, or in fireworks. Princess Diana's funeral, with its de-emphasis on the liturgy and open acceptance of non-religious elements, was a manifestation of this change, and evidence of its acceptance by the Church. The Booker prize was awarded in 1996 to a fine novel Last Orders, detailing the last journey of a Londoner's ashes, a theme previously unheard of in fiction. Press stories often feature individuals who have already purchased their own coffins, or who have prearranged their own disposal. ‘Green’ developments, such as recyclable coffins, woodland burials, and memorial trees in place of conventional gravestones, are frequently in the news. Virtual memorial gardens can be accessed on the internet, where ‘tombstones’ display exposition of a person's biography unlimited by churchyard regulations or the costs of carving on stone.

Memorial gatherings

Another noticeable change is the process of separation which seems to be developing between the physical disposal of the corpse — whether by burial or cremation — and the celebration of the dead person's life. The ceremony at the disposal — the funeral itself — seems to be diminishing in importance. Memorial gatherings, typically occurring some time later and so entirely detached from the presence of the dead body, have noticeably increased not only in number but in significance. These memorial events are designed to celebrate the life of the dead person in a more positive way than is generally possible at a funeral. The corpse is increasingly perceived as merely a repository of identity, whereas personality resides in the nature of the life lived, and in the memory of survivors. Once again, many people are formulating bespoke events appropriate for their own dead, for themselves in advance, and for those who are left behind.

Funerary practices are therefore perhaps becoming more elaborate: not in the nineteenth-century sense of florid trappings in mourning wear or funerary panoply, but in the development of informal, celebratory secondary ceremonies and convivial gatherings for survivors. Rather than dwellings, as the nineteenth century did, on the bleakness and sorrow inflicted by death, the emphasis is increasingly positive — in the expression of thankfulness for life.

Ruth Richardson

See also death.