Skip to main content

funeral customs

funeral customs, rituals surrounding the death of a human being and the subsequent disposition of the corpse. Such rites may serve to mark the passage of a person from life into death, to secure the welfare of the dead, to comfort the living, and to protect the living from the dead. Disposal of the body may be by burial, by conservation (see mummy), by cremation, by exposure (see Parsis), or by other methods. Funeral ceremonies have certain common features: for example, the laying out of the corpse; the watching of the dead, of which the wake is a standard example; and the period of mourning with the accompanying ceremonies.

Disposition of the Corpse

Preparation of the corpse is usually most elaborate in the case of burial (see coffin; embalming), but it is a general practice to wash and clothe the body. Many of the observances connected with death recall the rites of passage associated with other life crises. The body is then taken to a resting place, sometimes only temporarily. It may be laid on a scaffold, to await later cremation, or it may be buried until the flesh has rotted away, after which the bones are exhumed for a second burial. Such secondary burials are quite common in traditional societies. All of these customs derive from a belief that the soul remains in this world for a brief period before departing for the next. Final disposition of the corpse implies final disposition of the soul, and the mourners have certain ritual obligations toward the deceased until then. In the past, the spirit of the deceased was regarded by certain peoples as potentially both harmful and helpful. Attempts to discourage it from returning and disturbing the living were made by placing near the corpse such foods and personal possessions as would help the spirit during its journey and equip it for the other world. As the social and economic status of the deceased was often reflected by the quality and quantity of their burial goods, the systematic analysis of funerary remains can provide archaeologists with an important means of investigating the social organization of an ancient culture.

Religious Customs

Funeral customs have traditionally varied by religion. In Buddhism, death is prepared for through meditation, and death itself is viewed as a rebirth. Once dead, the body is washed, rituals are performed over it, a wake is held, and then it is typically cremated. Christian custom has changed from an earlier period where a funeral was treated as a joyous occasion to one where it is a time for mourning. In the Roman Catholic Church, the body is prepared for burial, usually by embalming; this is followed by a requiem Mass and burial; additional Masses may be conducted periodically over the next year. Protestant churches usually hold one ceremony, followed by either burial (the usual form) or cremation. Hindu ceremonies are closely tied to a belief in reincarnation. Thus an elaborate set of rituals is conducted, mostly by relatives, to ensure a proper rebirth. Islamic ceremonies include washing and preparing the body, prayers, reading from the Qur'an, and placing the body on the right side facing Mecca for burial (cremation is not practiced). Early Judaism, with perhaps the simplest of all ceremonies, included a prayer service, washing the body and wrapping it in linen, followed by a funeral banquet.

Bibliography

See E. Bendann, Death Customs (1930, repr. 1969); R. Hertz, Death and the Right Hand (tr. 1960); R. W. Habenstein and W. M. Lamers, The History of American Funeral Directing (rev. ed. 1962) and Funeral Customs the World Over (rev. ed. 1963); R. Huntington and P. Metcalf, Celebrations of Death (1979).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"funeral customs." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"funeral customs." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/funeral-customs

"funeral customs." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/funeral-customs

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.