The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A funeral is a ceremony marking a person's death. Funerary customs comprise the complex of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember the dead, from the funeral itself, to various monuments, prayers, and rituals undertaken in their honor. These customs vary widely between cultures, and between religious affiliations within cultures. In some cultures the dead are worshipped; this is commonly called ancestor worship. The word comes from the Latin funus, which had a variety of meanings, including the corpse and the funerary rites themselves.

Funeral rites are as old as the human race itself. In the Shanidar cave in Iraq, Neandertal skeletons have been discovered with a characteristic layer of pollen, which suggests that Neandertals buried the dead with gifts of flowers; it has been interpreted as suggesting that Neandertals believed in an afterlife, and in any case were aware of their own mortality and were capable of mourning.


Funerals in the contemporary United States

Traditional funerals

Within the United States, in most cultural groups and regions, the funeral rituals have been divided into three principal parts:


A visitation (also called a "viewing" or "wake") in which the embalmed body of the deceased person is placed on display in the coffin or today most often called a casket.

At the viewing, the friends and relations greet the more distant relatives and friends of the dead person(s) in a social gathering with little in the way of ritual. The viewing often takes place on one or two evenings before the funeral.

The only prescribed aspects of this gathering are that frequently the attendees sign a book kept by the decedent's survivors to record who attended and that the attendees are expected to view the decedent's body in the coffin. In addition, a family may choose to display photographs taken of the deceased person during his/her life (often, formal portraits with other family members and candid pictures to show "happy times"), prized possessions and other items representing his/her hobbies and/or accomplishments.

The viewing is either "open casket", in which the embalmed body of the deceased has been clothed and treated with cosmetics for display; or "closed casket", in which the coffin is closed. This step in the mourning process is a part of Christian tradition, although in some cases it is closed, particularly if the decedant's body was too badly damaged because of an accident or fire, deformed from illness, or (in rare instances) if certain family members are emotionally unable to cope with viewing the corpse. However, this step is foreign to Judaism; Jewish funerals are held soon after death, and the corpse is never displayed.

The decedent's closest friends and relatives who are unable to attend frequently send flowers to the viewing. The viewing typically takes place at a funeral home, which is equipped with gathering rooms where the viewing can be conducted, although the viewing may also take place at a church. The viewing may end with a prayer service; in the Catholic funeral, this may include a rosary.


A memorial service (often called a funeral), often officiated by clergy from the decedent's or bereaved's church or religion. A funeral may take place at either a funeral home or church.

Often, funeral services include prayers; readings from the Bible or other sacred texts; hymns (sung either by the attendees or a hired vocalist); and words of comfort by the clergy. Frequently, a relative or close friend will be asked to give a eulogy, which details happy memories and accomplishments.

Tradition also allows the attendees of the memorial service to have one last opportunity to view the decedent's body and say good-bye; the immediate family (siblings (and their spouses); followed by the decedent's spouse, parents and children) are always the very last to view their loved one before the coffin is closed. This opportunity can take place immediately before the service begins, or at the very end of the service.

Note: In some religious denominations, for example, Roman Catholic and Anglican, eulogies are prohibited or discouraged during this service, in order to preserve respect for traditions.

Burial service

A burial service, conducted at the side of the grave, tomb, mausoleum or crematorium, at which the body of the decedent is buried or cremated at the conclusion.

Sometimes, the burial service will immediately follow the funeral; other times, this part of the service will take place at a later time, when the final resting place is ready.

In many religious traditions, pallbearers (usually, males who are close relatives (such as cousins or grandchildren) or friends of the decedent) will carry the casket from the chapel (of a funeral home or church) to the hearse, and from the hearse to the site of the burial service. The pallbearers often sit in a special reserved section during the memorial service.


In many traditions, a light dinner or other gathering following the burial service, either at the decedent's church or another off-site location.

For Irish descendants, a wake is often quite extended and may include much drinking.


Generally speaking, the number of people who are considered obliged to attend each of these three rituals by etiquette decreases at each step:

  • Distant relatives and acquaintances may be called upon to attend the visitation.
  • The decedent's closer relatives and local friends attend the funeral or memorial service, and subsequent burial (if it is held immediately after the memorial service).
  • If the burial is on a day other than the funeral, only the decedent's closest relatives and friends attend the burial service (although if the burial service immediately follows the funeral, all attendees of the memorial service are asked to attend).

Also, etiquette dictactes the bereaved and other attendees at a funeral wear semi-formal clothing - such as a suit and tie for men or a dress for women - in a darker color (usually, gray, dark blue or black). Note: Years ago, women who were grieving the death of their husband or a close boyfriend traditionally wore a black dress with a veil (to conceal their face, which was usually tear-stained), although this is not always true today.

Private services

On occassion, the family of the deceased may wish to have only a very small service, with just the decedant's closest family members and friends attending. In this case, a private funeral service is conducted. Reasons vary but often include:

  • The decedant was an infant (possibly, they may have been stillborn) or very aged and therefore having few surviving family members or friends.
  • The decedant may be a crime victim or a convicted criminal who was serving a prison sentence. In this case, the service is made private either to avoid unwanted media coverage (especially with a crime victim); or to avoid unwanted intrusion (especially if the decedant was convicted of murder or child molestation).
  • The family does not feel able to endure a traditional service (due to emotional shock) or simply wants a quiet, simple funeral with only the most important people of the decedent's life in attendance.

In some cases (particularly the latter), the family may schedule a public memorial service at a later time.

Memorial services

Increasingly, traditional funerals are being replaced by memorial services. These are often less formal than a traditional funeral, and includes such things as eulogies, music and fellowship. A member of the clergy often participates in these services, usually to open and close the procedings and offer prayers and a brief message of comfort.

Funerals in contemporary Japan

Main article: Japanese funeral

Most funerals in contemporary Japan are conducted with Buddhist rites. Many feature a ritual that bestows a new name on the deceased; funerary names typically use obsolete or archaic kanji and words, to avoid the likelihood of the name being used in ordinary speech or writing. Most Japanese are cremated.

African funerals

The custom of burying the dead in the floor of dwelling-houses has been to some degree prevalent on the Gold Coast of Africa. The ceremony is purely animist, and apparently without any set ritual. The main exception is that the females of the family of the deceased and their friends may undergo mournful lamentations. In some instances they work their feelings up to an ostentatious, frenzy-like degree of sorrow. The revelry may be heightened by the use of alcohol, of which drummers, flute-players, bards, and singing men may partake. The funeral may last for as much as a week. Another custom, a kind of memorial, frequently takes place seven years after the person's death. These funerals and especially the memorials may be extremely expensive for the family in question. Cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, may be offered in remembrance and then consumed in festivities.

Ancient funeral rites

The most simple and natural kind of funeral monuments, and therefore the most ancient and universal, consist in a mound of earth, or a heap of stones, raised over the ashes of the departed: of such monuments mention is made in the Book of Joshua, and in Homer and Virgil. Many of them still occur in various parts of this kingdom, especially in those elevated and sequestered situations where they have neither been defaced by agriculture nor inundation.

The ancients are said to have buried their dead in their own houses, whence, according to some, the original of that species of idolatry consisting in the worship of household gods.

The place of burial amongst the Jews was never particularly determined. We find that they had burial-places upon the highways, in gardens, and upon mountains. We read, that Abraham was buried with Sarah, his wife, in the cave of Macphelah, in the field of Ephron, and Uzziah, King of Judah, slept with his fathers in the field of the burial which pertained to the kings.

The primitive Greeks were buried in places prepared for that purpose in their own houses; but in after ages they adopted the judicious practice of establishing the burial grounds in desert islands, and outside the walls of towns, by that means securing them from profanation, and themselves from the liability of catching infection from those who had died of contagious disorders.

Funerals in ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, the eldest surviving male of the household, the pater familias, was summoned to the death-bed, where he attempted to catch and inhale the last breath of the decedent.

Funerals of the socially prominent were usually undertaken by professional undertakers called libitinarii. No direct description has been passed down of Roman funeral rites. These rites usually included a public procession to the tomb or pyre where the body was to be cremated. The most noteworthy thing about this procession was that the survivors bore masks bearing the images of the family's deceased ancestors. The right to carry the masks in public was eventually restricted to families prominent enough to have held curule magistracies. Mimes, dancers, and musicians hired by the undertakers, as well as professional female mourners, took part in these processions. Less well to do Romans could join benevolent funerary societies (collegia funeraticia) who undertook these rites on their behalf.

Nine days after the disposal of the body, by burial or cremation, a feast was given (cena novendialis) and a libation poured over the grave or the ashes. Since most Romans were cremated, the ashes were typically collected in an urn and placed in a niche in a collective tomb called a columbarium (literally, "dovecote"). During this nine days period, the house was considered to be tainted, funesta, and was hung with yew or cypress branches to warn bypassers. At the end of the period, the house was swept in an attempt to purge it of the dead person's ghost.

Several Roman holidays commemmorated a family's dead ancestors, including the Parentalia, held February 13 through 21, to honour the family's ancestors; and the Lemuria, held on May 9, 11, and 13, in which ghosts (larvæ) were feared to be active, and the pater familias sought to appease them with offerings of beans.

The Romans prohibited burning or burying in the city, both from a sacred and civil consideration, that the priests might not be contaminated by touching a dead body, and that houses might not be endangered by the frequency of funeral fires.

The custom of burning the dead had its foundation laid deep in nature: an anxious fondness to preserve the great and good, the dear friend and the near relative, was the sole motive that prevailed in the institution of this solemnity. "That seems to me", says Cicero, "to have been the most ancient kind of burial, which, according to Xenophon, was used by Cyrus. For the body is returned to the earth, and so placed as to be covered with the veil of its mother". Pliny also agrees with Cicero upon this point, and says the custom of burial preceded that of burning among the Romans. According to Monfauçon, the custom of burning entirely ceased at Rome about the time of Theodorius the younger. When cremation ceased on the introduction of Christianity, the believing Romans, together with the Romanized and converted Britons, would necessarily, as it is observed by Mr. Grough, "betake themselves to the use of sarcophagi (or coffins), and probably of various kinds, stone, marble, lead," etc. They would likewise now first place the body in a position due east and west, and thus bestow an unequivocal mark of distinction between the funeral deposit of the earliest Roman inhabitants of this island, and their Christian successors. The usual places of interment were in fields or gardens, near the highway, to be conspicuous, and to remind the passengers how transient everything is, that wears the garb of mortality. By this means, also, they saved the best part of their land:

—Experiar quid concedatur in illos
Quorum Flaminia tegitur cinis, atque Latina.
Juv. Sat I.

The Romans commonly built tombs for themselves during their lifetime. Hence these words frequently occur in ancient inscriptions, V.F. Vivus Facit, V.S.P. Vivus Sibi Posuit. The tombs of the rich were usually constructed of marble, the ground enclosed with walls, and planted round with trees. But common sepulchres were usually built below ground, and called hypogea. There were niches cut out of the walls, in which the urns were placed; these, from their resemblance to the niche of a pigeon-house, were called columbaria.

Funeral garlands

The primitive Christians censured a practice prevalent among the Romans, of decorating a corpse, previous to interment or combustion, with garlands and flowers. Their reprehension extended also to a periodical custom of placing the "first-fruits of Flora" on their graves and tombs. Thus Anchises, in Dryden's Virgil, Aeneid, book 6, says,

"Full canisters of fragrant lilies bring,
Mix'd with the purple roses of the spring;
Let me with funeral flowers his body strew—
This gift, which parents to their children owe,
This unavailing gift I may bestow."

Notwithstanding the anathemas of the church, these simple, interesting, and harmless (if not laudable) practices still remain. The early customs and features of all nations approximate; and whether the following traits are relics of Roman introduction, or national, we leave the antiquary to decide.

On Palm Sunday, in several villages in South Wales, a custom prevails of cleaning the grave-stones of departed friends and acquaintances, and ornamenting them with flowers, &c. On the Saturday preceding, a troop of servant girls go to the churchyard with pails and brushes, to renovate the various mementos of affection, clean the letters, and take away the weeds. The next morning their young mistresses attend, with the gracefulness of innocence in their countenances, and the roses of health and beauty blooming on their cheeks. According to their fancy, and according to the state of the season, they place on the stones snow-drops, crocuses, lilies of the valley, and roses.

A sacrifice such as this, so pure, so innocent, so expressive, is surely acceptable to the great God of nature.

Final disposition of the dead

Various cultures have devised different ways of finally disposing of the bodies of the dead. Some place the dead in tombs of various sorts, either individually, or in specially designated tracts of land that house tombs. Burial in a graveyard is one common form of tomb. In some places, such as New Orleans, Louisiana, burials are impractical because the ground water is too high; there tombs are placed above ground. Elsewhere, a separate building for a tomb is usually reserved for the socially prominent and wealthy. Especially grand aboveground tombs are called mausoleums. Other buildings used as tombs include the crypts in churches; burial in these places is again usually a privilege given to the socially prominent dead. In more recent times, however, this has often been forbidden by hygiene laws.

Burial was not always permanent. In some areas, burial grounds needed to be re-used because of limited space. In these areas, once the dead have decomposed to skeletons, the bones are removed; after their removal they can be placed in an ossuary.

"Burial at sea" is a somewhat misleading phrase that identifies the deliberate disposal of a corpse into the ocean, wrapped and tied with weights to make sure it sinks. It is a common practice in navies and sea-faring nations; in the Church of England, special forms of funeral service were added to the Book of Common Prayer to cover it. Science fiction writers have frequently analogized with "Burial in space".

Cremation, also, is an old custom; it was the usual mode of disposing of a corpse in ancient Rome. Vikings were occasionally cremated in their longships, and afterwards the location of the site was marked with standing stones. In recent years, despite the objections of some religious groups, cremation has become more and more widely used. Orthodox Judaism and the Eastern Orthodox Church forbid cremation, as do most Muslims (orthodox Judaism forbids cremation according to Jewish law (Halakha) believing that the soul of a cremated person cannot find its final repose). The Roman Catholic Church forbade it for many years. But since 1963 the church has allowed it so long as it is not done to express disbelief in bodily resurrection. The church specifies that cremated remains are either buried or entombed. They do not allow cremated remains to be scattered or kept at home. Many Catholic cemeteries now have columbarium niches for cremated remains, or specific sections for those remains. Some denominations of Protestantism allow cremation, the more conservative denominations generally do not.

Hindus and Buddhists nearly always cremate their dead. Hindus bury their dead in the case of young children, and after mass disasters when there is not enough time or cremation fire fuel available such as after the industrial gas escape disaster at Bhopal and the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster.

Recently a new method of disposing of the body, called Ecological funeral has been suggested by a Swedish biologist. Based on cryotechnology, its main purpose is to give the body a possibility of becoming soil again.

Rarer forms of disposal of the dead include excarnation, where the corpse is exposed to the elements. This was done by some groups of Native Americans; it is still practiced by Zoroastrians in Bombay, where the Towers of Silence allow vultures and other carrion eating birds to dispose of the corpses.

Cannibalism is also practiced post-mortem in some countries. The practice has been linked to the spread of a prion disease called kuru.

Mummification is the drying of bodies to preserve them. The most famous practisers of mummification were ancient Egyptians: many nobles and high-ranked bureaucrats of the old Egyptian kingdom had their corpses embalmed and stored in luxurious sarcophagi inside their funeral mausoleum or, in the case of some Pharaons, pyramid.

Control by the decedent of the details of the funeral

In law in the United States, the deceased have surprisingly little say in the manner in which their funerals can be conducted. The law generally holds that the funeral rituals are for the benefit of the survivors, rather than to express the personal whims and tastes of the decedent.

The decedent may, in most U.S. jurisdictions, provide instructions as to his funeral by means of a Last Will and Testament. These instructions can be given some legal effect if bequests are made contingent on the heirs carrying them out, with alternative gifts if they are not followed. This assumes, of course, that the decedent has enough of an estate to make the heirs pause before doing something that will invoke the alternate bequest. To be effective, also, the will must be easily available, and some notion of what it provides must be known to the decedent's survivors.

Some people dislike the clutter and display of flowers at funerals, and feel that there is an unseemly competition in the number and size of the floral arrangements sent. Many newspapers refuse to print an obituary that requests that flowers not be sent; to do so would be to offend the florists' industry. Many obituaries, however, contain notices regarding "memorial gifts" to a charity. It is usually understood in these situations that a gift to the charity made in memory of the decedent relieves the donor of the social duty of sending flowers.

Anatomical gifts

Another way of avoiding some of the rituals and costs of a traditional funeral is for the decedent to donate some or all of her or his body to a medical school or similar institution for the purpose of instruction in anatomy, or for similar purposes. Students of medicine and osteopathy frequently study anatomy from donated cadavers; they are also useful in forensic research.

Making an anatomical gift is a separate transaction from being an organ donor, in which any useful organs are removed from the unembalmed cadaver for medical transplant. Under a Uniform Act in force in most jurisdictions of the United States, being an organ donor is a simple process that can often be accomplished when you have your driver's license renewed.

Making an anatomical gift requires a procedure that varies from one jurisdiction to the next in the United States. For advice in doing so, it is best that you contact the institution you wish to make the gift to; they usually have staff that processes these requests, and who can send you any needed paperwork and a donor card to carry. It is also prudent to tell your physician and your close relatives of your intention to make such a gift; your cadaver will require special treatment after your death to be useful. There are some medical conditions, such as amputations, or various surgeries, that can make your cadaver unsuitable for these purposes. Conversely, the bodies of people who had certain medical conditions are useful for research into those conditions. All US medical schools rely on the generosity of "anatomical donors" for the teaching of anatomy. Typically the remains are cremated once the students have completed their anatomy classes, and many medical schools now hold a memorial service at that time as well.

See also

External links

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy