Friday, February 17, 2012

Undertaking Death

It is inevitable - we will all die. And for most of us a funeral or memorial service will be held. But what is the advantage of this service?  Why do we expect it, and continue to do it?  Who really benefits from it?

Funeral Rites
Funeral rites have always been a part of our civilization.  All successful cultures have believed that the dead needed attended to in a proper manner. Burial grounds dating back to 60,000 BC show that gifts were left next to the body and rituals were performed - by Neanderthal man.

There are three conditions that are always found when dealing of the dead:

1) Funeral rites, ceremonies or rituals are held
2) The dead are taken to a sacred place to be left
3) The dead are memorialized in some manner

Many death rites and ceremonies were based in fear. They were used to protect the living from evil spirits that were associated with being in or near the dead body.

Sacrifices were offered after a death to appease these evil spirits, or to assist the deceased into another world.

Today, many of our funeral customs are still based in pagan rituals. 

For example:
Lighting candles was originally a way to keep evil spirits at bay while dealing with the dead.

Covering the deceased’s face with a cloth was actually done to stop their spirit from escape through the mouth, possibly stopping death from taking them.

Mourning clothes came about in order to fool returning spirits who might want to take others with them.

Wakes were originally held to make sure that the person was dead and did not ‘wake’ up.

Sending flowers with the body was a way of gaining favor with the dead.

Funeral music began as ancient chants used to pacify the spirits.

The tolling of bells began during medieval times as a way to warn evil spirits away.

Gathering after the funeral for food and fellowship began as a way to offer food to the gods or deceased for special favors.

Why Embalm?
In ancient times, embalming was done so that the soul would not leave the body.  It was believed that the soul would stay as long as the body was intact. Embalming was also done for sanitary reasons.

Dr Thomas Holmes
In America, embalming became accepted during the Civil War. President Lincoln was interested in a way to send soldiers home for interment.   Dr. Thomas Holmes embalmed over 4,000 soldiers and officers so that they could be returned to their families for a proper burial. Once Holmes understood the potential of embalming, he resigned his commission and offered embalming to the public for $100.

In our modern world, embalming is used to disinfect the body.  It is also a sanitary way to preserve the body for the visitation and funeral service. Embalming can also lend a life-like appearance to the deceased and improve the appearance of someone who had a traumatic death.

The Funeral Service

Ceremonies and rites were originally held to placate the spirits.  But for hundreds of years, funeral services have been held to assist the living in expressing their grief, find support through friends and family, and celebrate the deceased’s life. 

Each step of the service is a part of the grieving process. Having the body present during a visitation assists the bereaved in recognizing the reality of death.  According to Dr. Erich Lindemann, American author and psychiatrist, specializing in bereavement, The moment of truth comes when living persons confront the fact of death by looking at the body. Grief is a feeling. If you deny it, you have difficulty coping with it, but if you face it, you start the process of healthful mourning!”

The visitation and funeral service also allows visitors an opportunity to remember the deceased and share those memories with others.  It is a way to honor and celebrate the deceased’s accomplishments and life.

The final step, the committal of the remains, helps the survivors acknowledge that they must now break with the past and move on into the future without their loved one.

The Grief Cycle
A description of the cycle of grief was first introduced in 1969 by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, after studying more than 500 dying people.  It consists of five stages that a person goes through when dealing with death or tragedy.

1) Denial - Usually only a temporary defense.
2) Anger – A person realizes that they cannot continue with the denial and moves into this phase where blaming and rage occur.
3) Bargaining – Trying to negotiate for more time.
4) Grieving/Depression – This is the stage where the certainity of death is understood.
5) Acceptance – The last stage where a person comes to terms with death or tragedy. 

These stages are not necessarily felt in this order but everyone goes through at least two of them. Women are more likely to experience all five.  Results from the study indicated that those who felt they had found their purpose in life faced death with less fear than those who had not.

Sir William Gladstone summed it up best, "
Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals."

~ Joy


  1. I've only had the last few minutes to poke around your blog, but I have to say, I really like it. As a kid, I loved playing/exploring in graveyards. Still do. I'm now studying bioarchaeology and working on a project with a skeletal population from a prehistoric cemetery. So. Yeah. Just thought I'd say hi and dork out a little bit. :o)

  2. Glad you stopped by KM! The project you're working on sounds fascinating!! Can you tell us more about it? I would love to do something like that.

    1. Sure! It's been a while since I stopped by the first time (been really, really busy with school and helping with a conference that we held through my anthropology department).

      Anyway. My project. It's a cemetery population going back to about 3,000 BC. I'm working on the earliest time periods. It was excavated in the 1960s, so I have the skeletons to work with and analyze. Plus, the excavators did a really great job recording everything. I've been comparing quantities and types of grave offerings across age groups and through time to look for patterns.

      Anyway. Some fun facts for this cemetery that I'm working on ... in the really early periods, they made little mounds over burials. Sometimes stuff got put in the mounds, like pots or shaped rocks or parts of other people. As the site progresses, the people stop mounding and start putting pots in the fill of the grave and also on top of the burial. I don't think the archaelogists found anything in the pots, though.

  3. Thank you KM!! Your project sounds fascinating! Please keep us posted on how it's going.