Funerary Customs, Western

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Funerary Customs, Western

Insofar as the West was historically coterminous with Christendom, the iconography of death is apparent. The female part in it is that of Mary, mourning at the foot of the cross. For centuries women played no other role than mourning in funerals, and all the ritual specialists involved were male. It is only recently that there have been women priests or ministers, and still only in Protestant churches. Even as late as 2007, undertakers in the United States are invariably male, even though their premises have been domesticated as funeral parlors and their role medicalized as grief councilors. The male management of death is consistent with the premise, self-evident to Westerners, that death is the polar opposite of birth. This goes some way in explaining why themes of sexuality and regeneration are so alien to funerary customs in the West as opposed to other parts of the world. Life is given and taken away by God, and no human activity can evade his will. If sexual mores were relaxed in the face of death, as had occurred during epidemics in medieval Europe, this could only be taken as a sign of despair by those anticipating divine judgment.

In the nineteenth century changes occurred in funerary customs and eschatologies that had been stable for centuries as a correlate of broader religious transformations. Several factors were involved. First, the place of priests and ministers at the center of communal life was undermined by urban migration and industrialization. This was most pronounced in the United States, where the absence of an established church left clerics without secure positions. The reaction was an intensification of moral rhetoric at events such as tent revival meetings. Preachers emphasized Christian values of meekness and reverence, comforting to those displaced and disempowered by rapid economic change.

Second, what has been described as the feminization of religion was also evident in the increased participation of middle-class women, who were losing their status as productive members of the households. Many turned their energies toward causes such as temperance and missions to the poor. Faced with congregations largely made up of women, ministers increasingly emphasized the values of family life and the civilizing influence of homemakers. Finally, these trends produced an outpouring of inspirational books and leaflets appealing to sentiment rather than dogma.

So-called consolation literature was a major genre in this outpouring, and it created a novel eschatology. Best sellers such as Our Children in Heaven (1868), Angel Whispers (1870), and Beyond the Gates (1883) described in striking detail an afterlife that was a more comfortable continuation of life on earth. Accounts covered menus, pastimes, courtship, and even child care. Images of dead infants became fashionable icons of innocence, and as photography became more widely accessible, parents who had never thought to have pictures taken of their children alive traveled long distances to do so if and when they died. Queen Victoria (1819–1901) had a sort of shrine lined with photographs of dead infants, which would not have seemed odd at a time when the empire was ruled by a matriarch permanently in widow's weeds. For those who could afford them, funerals became ever more grand, with elaborate glass-sided hearses trailing black damask and accompanied by solemn attendants in black suits and top hats. The same era saw the rise of the rural cemetery movement, which replaced crowded graveyards beside parish churches with acres of carefully tended lawns dotted with mausoleums in architectural styles from mock Egyptian to Gothic.

In Europe this romantic era was swept away by the horrors of World War I (1914–1918), which produced cemeteries of a very different kind: row upon row of identical crosses marching across the landscape of northern France. Nothing could console a whole generation of mourners, and the monuments they created—the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the grave of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey—recorded only emptiness and loss. In the United States the Civil War (1861–1865) had resulted in similar segregated, all-male cemeteries, but the result in terms of funerary customs was a technological innovation. Freelance undertakers collected corpses from the battlefields and embalmed them by draining arteries and refilling them with formalin. When relatives arrived weeks or months later, they could recover the corpse for burial on payment of a fee. The body of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was also embalmed, and it was viewed by thousands of reverent northerners as it traveled in stages back to his birthplace by train. Postcards showing the deceased president served as a focus of mourning in many homes. Subsequently, the practice of embalming became general, allowing an increasingly mobile population time to assemble for family funerals and to view the corpse before burial. It also brought into existence what is often referred to as the funeral industry, with its exclusively male professionals.

Surprisingly, there is little variation in funerary customs across the United States between different ethnic or even different religious backgrounds. Consequently, the procedures of embalming and viewing must be regarded as a specifically American culture trait, an example of what has been called the civil religion. In part this uniformity may be attributed to the lobbying and marketing techniques of the funeral directors' associations, but it also reflects American concepts of the proper life. The carefully restored corpse provides an icon of health and vigor, preserved to the very moment of death. In contrast to other things American, embalming has not spread across the Atlantic. Instead, European deathways have become ever more simple, especially in contrast to the pomp of Victorian times. No doubt this reflects an increasingly secular society but also a more skeptical view of the chances of a life without suffering.


Holcombe, William Henry. 1868. Our Children in Heaven. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Milliken, M. C. 1870. Angel Whispers. Augusta, ME: E. E. Patterson.

Morley, John. 1971. Death, Heaven, and the Victorians. London: Studio Vista.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. 1883. Beyond the Gates. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.

Ruby, Jay. 1995. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stannard, David, ed. 1974. Death in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Whaley, Joachim, ed. 1981. Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death. New York: St. Martin's Press.

                                                  Peter Metcalf