funeral customs

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.

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.


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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Superbly organized and enhanced with figures, tables, images, organizational resources, and detailed appendices, the "Encyclopedia Of Death And The Human Experience" also includes funeral customs and practices, legal issues, cross-cultural perspectives, and the symbolisms associated with death and dying.
He said the importance of the discovery was that it would shed light on the traditional funeral customs and architecture of the time.
Standaert's book opens with a discussion of Chinese and European funeral customs outside of the context of interaction.
Dr Julian Litten, a Cardiff University graduate and long regarded as the country's leading expert on funeral customs, will be speaking at the Julian Hodge Lecture Theatre in Colum Drive, Cardiff, where he will cover all aspects of death, mourning and commemoration in the 19th century.
Street crime, the first modern circus of Philip Astley, the struggles of the poor, corner pubs, Bedlam, Newgate Prison, funeral customs, and growing political tension concerning the revolution in France form the intriguing background of this fast-paced, exciting story.
We compared different forms of commemoration across time, from obituaries to funeral customs. Most of the time, however, was spent on 'reading' cemeteries and tracing the changes in cemetery design and placement over time.
The results are shedding light on many aspects of daily life among early peoples, such as their technological skills and funeral customs.
That required wholesale destruction and partial reconfiguration of intercessory clergy, liturgies, patterns of conventional intercession and memorial, and the web of funeral customs. Protestant teaching was directed by the principle that the living can do nothing for the dead and the dead nothing for the living, since the dead are immediately adjudged to heaven or hell.
The majority of the contributions concern France (and all except two are in French), but there are also informative studies of the Emperor Maximilian's tomb (the building of which took nearly a century), of the reburial of the remains of the Portuguese king Manuel I in a monastery, of funeral effigies in Italy, and of Indian funeral customs in the Spanish New World.
The seven chapters of this book discuss the evolution of recent funeral customs, such as preparation of the body, burials and cremation, the funeral industry, and vehicles used in processions.