funeral practices: cultural variation

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funeral practices: cultural variation Quite when humans began ritually disposing of their dead, rather than just leaving corpses lying there for animals, birds, and insects to consume, as is the way of other mammals, is not entirely clear. The desire for ritual disposal, however, certainly goes back to pre-history, and is deep rooted in humans as we now know them.

This is clearly shown by those occasions when a funeral is deliberately denied. Denying the corpse a socially approved ritual disposal is one of the most potent ways in which disrespect can be shown to a person. The Holocaust, desecration of graves, eating your enemies, or chopping up and displaying the body parts of a traitor on the city wall, are all ways of publicly stating that this person, these people, either had no part in your society or belonged to another group, entirely unworthy of respect. We give a person a funeral, we pay ritual respect to the corpse, as a mark that this person was one of us, and therefore deserving of respect. In liberal democracies, in which there is some identification not just with the group but with all human beings, to be denied a funeral is to be deemed sub-human. Hence the not uncommon wish to deny proper funeral rites to war criminals and mass murderers.

There are a number of ways in which humans ritually dispose of their dead.(i) Nearest to the natural process are the Parsees (Zoroastrians residing in India), who leave their dead in towers of silence, where they are eaten by vultures, and certain Buddhists in the Himalayas who chop up the corpse and leave it on a rock for the birds to consume.(ii) A number of ancient peoples ritually placed their dead in a cave (as was the case with Jesus) or in a long barrow (as with some European Neolithic peoples). This practice finds an echo in modern Italy, Spain, and the US, where the coffin is often placed in a niche within a mausoleum — a building constructed for the purpose of housing human remains.(iii) Burial in the ground is also common world-wide. The degree of contact of the corpse with the earth can vary. Muslims bury in a shroud, as was also typical at certain times in Christian Europe; the insects of the earth can get to work straight away. The British place a simple coffin directly into the earth. North Americans are first embalmed, and then placed in a strong casket, possibly made of steel, which is placed in a concrete-lined grave, so that the body never comes into the contact with the soil. The process of decomposition is therefore more akin to that in an above-ground mausoleum than in a Muslim burial.(iv) Burial at sea is less common, usually occurring when someone dies on the high seas and return of the corpse to land is not feasible. With motorized ships and refrigeration, burial at sea is now uncommon. A small number of Americans, Britons, and others who die on land but who have sentimental attachments to the sea choose to be buried at sea.(v) Cremation, followed by ritual disposition of the cremated remains, is very common, globally. The product of cremation is not ashes in the sense of a powder, but fragments of bone, whose size is determined by the temperature of the cremator or pyre. In some Western countries, the remains are mechanically pulverized to produce 6 pounds or so of ‘ashes’. The remains may be ritually thrown on to running water, as in Hinduism, so that they eventually mingle with the vastness of the ocean; or they may be placed in a pot and buried in a family grave for cremated remains, as in Japan or Hong Kong; or they may be placed in a container that is buried individually, as is often now done in English churchyards; or they may be interred in an existing ordinary family grave, as in Finland; or they may be scattered over land, as is often the case in Britain and the US; or scattered over the ocean, as is frequently done in California. Mourners may actively participate in the cremation. In India, relatives circle the pyre and one crushes the partly burned skull in order to release the spirit; in Japan relatives use large chopsticks to pick up the cremated bones and place them into the burial pot. In contrast, many Westerners choose cremation precisely because they take no part in the body's destruction; the cremation is carried out invisibly and by nameless operatives. Clean and hygienic, such cremations remove from the mourner's consciousness the physical reality of death, so evident in burial or in Indian or Japanese cremation.

Today, earth burial, cremation, and placement in a mausoleum are the most common forms of disposal. Cremation is the norm in Hinduism and Sikhism, which teach reincarnation, and common in Buddhism, which teaches rebirth, though it is only in the past century and a half that cremation has become standard in Buddhist Thailand or Japan. Burial is historically common in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, all of which teach resurrection of the body. In medieval Christianity, numerous altar paintings and cathedral portals depicted the dead getting out of their graves on the Last Day, to be judged on their way to either heaven or hell. Even today, Catholics, when asked why they prefer burial to cremation, often answer ‘because of the resurrection’. In medieval Europe and still today in Islam, following gruesome deaths in war, in which body parts might be missing, great concern can be expressed if the whole body cannot be buried, as this might impede resurrection.

Cremation has increased markedly in some Western countries. In most European societies there were experiments in cremation in the late nineteenth century and the earliest Western crematoria date from that time. Cremation prospered in secular and Protestant areas; only in 1965 did the Pope allow cremation, and the Catholic church still does not encourage it; Orthodox Christians do not cremate. The popular mythology that the most crowded countries cremate the most is not born out by the facts. In the West, cremation is highest in secularized Protestant countries, and lowest in religious, Catholic, and especially Orthodox societies. Great Britain (72%), Denmark (71%), and Sweden (63%) contrast markedly with Eire (4%) and Italy (3%) (all figures for 1997). The US has a curiously low cremation rate at 24%. The American cremation rate is extremely low in the deep religious South; and lower than the national average in areas of high immigration, where permanent burial in the American soil is a symbol, if not of having achieved the American dream, at least of having arrived.

In most societies two funerals are conducted. The first is the ‘wet’ funeral, the initial disposal of the fresh corpse. The second is a subsequent relocation of the dry remains. In the case of cremation, this may follow quite soon, with the ritual interring or scattering of the products of cremation. In the case of burial, the secondary ritual is typically years later once the flesh has decomposed; the bones are removed, as in medieval Europe or in Greece today, to an ossuary, or disposed of in some other way. Following the studies of Robert Hertz and Arnold van Gennep in the early twentieth century, anthropologists have noted that this in-between period, in which the corruption of the body is being cleansed, may parallel both the period in which the soul is thought of as being prepared for its next existence and the period in which mourners have to reorganize their lives. In this period, body, soul, and mourners are all ‘in limbo’, and the end of the limbo period needs to be marked by the final funeral. Many Western funerals, however, have only one ritual, or a number of rituals (cremation, church service, refreshments) all on the same day.

The funeral then usually has three main participants: corpse, soul, and mourners. In the US, the embalmed and cosmeticized corpse plays a central role. With the high levels of religious belief in the US, the soul is also of considerable concern. In Britain, however, there is a trend toward minimizing the presence of the corpse, while secularization reduces the importance of the soul. This leaves the mourners as the sole participants. Reflecting this, a number of recent commentators see the funeral's purpose as having little to do with the deceased's body or soul and being simply to ease the grief of mourners (though this is largely an article of faith, since little research has been conducted into the circumstances in which funerals might help or hinder grief). Such funerals focus more on memories of the deceased, which may form a secular equivalent of the soul.

Socially, the funeral is an occasion in which the family, explicitly or implicitly, displays its status and resources. Gordon Childe has argued that, if that status is uncertain, there is an incentive to produce a more elaborate funeral in which a claim to status can be staked out. Hence the scale of funerals does not always reflect income per se, but the need to display income. This may account for the relative cheapness of the typical twentieth-century funeral in Britain, a society in which most people knew their place, compared with both nineteenth-century Britain and twentieth-century US — both societies with high rates of migration from, respectively, the countryside and around the world. Migrants are unsure of where they fit, and the funeral becomes a way to demonstrate respectability in the new society. In the US, cremation, equated there with cheapness, is primarily chosen by those whose ancestors migrated to the US some generations ago; they have proved themselves in life, and have nothing more to prove in death.

The economics of the funeral is a matter of some concern in a number of countries. On the one hand, people are prepared to pay funeral directors a lot of money to handle the corpse, which they themselves are frightened of. On the other hand, mourners are vulnerable, needing to know they are doing the right thing for the deceased in the eyes of God or their neighbours. They have therefore always been open to economic exploitation by priests or funeral directors. The implication is that, if you don't pay up, the dead, or your social standing, or your psychological health, or all three, will be harmed. Jessica Mitford, a Briton criticizing the American way of death, wrote a best-selling exposé of this kind of exploitation.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a few very large American funeral companies are buying up funeral homes, crematoria, and cemeteries in other countries. The biggest, Texan-based Service Corporation International (SCI), now has a major presence in Europe, Australia, and the Far East. Its basic strategy is to retain local funeral directing outlets but to centralize most operations, including embalming, thus reducing costs (but not prices). The dearly beloved corpse is therefore carted to-and-fro around town in unmarked vans, in the care of total strangers, while the family mistakenly presumes it is all the while in the care of the nice gentleman with whom they arranged things in their local funeral parlour. The extent to which the funeral market can be globalized, however, is still an open question, and SCI has experienced some difficulty acculturating to the funeral habits of its new European customers. In the global village, in which Coca-Cola or Japanese cars may be found even in the remotest jungle or desert, there is still remarkable variation in funeral customs between one country and another.

Tony Walter


Davies, D. (1997). Death, ritual and belief. Cassell, London.
Mitford J. (1999). The American way of death revisited. Virago, London.

See also corpse; death.