Funeral Traditions – From Ancient to Modern

Whether you are a curious researcher or a grieving funeral planner, understanding both modern and ancient funeral traditions will give depth to your process.

Funeral Tradition, Rituals and Practices: Modern and Ancient

Ancient Burial Traditions

Archeologists date burials back to the Paleolithic ago around 100,000 years ago. Discovered in Israel, a caved called Qafzeh housed several humans remains from the Paleolithic age.  It is assumed that the remains were purposefully buried at that location. The reasons for the burials remain a mystery, but the assumption of the purposeful act is based on the positions of the remains as well as the condition of the remains. Looking back at ancient civilizations, they all had rituals to memorialize the dead. SOURCE

Ancient Egyptian Burials

When people think of ancient Egypt, they often think of the tombs and mummification of the dead. Ancient Egyptian culture believed that the soul of the dead could take what they were buried with into the afterlife. This belief influenced burial practices until the civilization fell to the Roman empire.

Many of our preservation practices for the deceased come from Egypt. Ancient Egyptians believed that the body had to be as recognizable as possible so that the soul could find the body and their belongings in the afterlife. This led to the practice of embalming and mummification.

Not all Egyptians were treated equally, there was a cost to body preservation. (Just like we have costs associated with our modern funeral practices.) As a result, those without wealth had to settle for the bare minimum treatment for their deceased loved one.

Ancient Egyptian burial practices included the men and women of the family wearing a girdle and pounding on their chest through the streets upon the death of a loved one. They would then take the body to be embalmed and preserved.

Those that lacked wealth would use their old clothing to wrap the deceased. Those with the greatest wealth could afford hand carved boxes for their loved one, which would later be inscribed with afterlife directions. The wealthy would also get new cloth to wrap the body in and the embalming technique for the wealthy best preserved the body and the appearance. SOURCE

Modern Egyptian Burial Practices

Today, the population composition of Egypt is mostly followers of Islam. Consequently, most of them follow the burial practices of Islam. They do not focus on what the dead are buried with, unlike Ancient Egyptian times. Although they still build large buildings to house beloved leaders, these buildings must also be used for the community. Similarly, in Islamic faith, large buildings or tombs for the deceased are not allowed unless the buildings are for the greater benefit of the community. SOURCE

Ancient Greece Funeral Traditions

The ancient world had a lot of different practices and influences. In Greece, the mourning of death was a big event. It began with the deceased being dressed then laid in a bed in the house. People would visit the home and pay their respects. This is like today’s visitation or viewings. The family would then take the deceased to the cemetery in a procession.  The burial would be marked with a large monument that depicted the deceased’s life. SOURCE

Roman Funeral Practices

Roman and Greek funeral practices were very similar. Today’s funeral practices in western civilizations have clear ties and influence from Roman practices. Roman funerals included loud processions to signify a death. When a wealthy person died, the processions would even have several professional mourners who were paid to act distressed and devastated by the death.

There would also be actors to act like the ancestors of the deceased during the procession. Eulogies were done at funerals in Rome when the person was important or made a large impact on the family. This is something that is traditionally done in today’s western culture.

After the burial or cremation there would be a feast marking the family moving forward. The Romans also had specific days to remember the deceased. The remembering of the deceased allowed the deceased to remember parts of its life in the afterlife. SOURCE

Modern Burial Practices and Funeral Traditions

Cultures all over the world practice some form of funeral rituals. Many of today’s practices have been influences by ancient practices. Embalming, burials, cremation, processions, and viewings were all common in the ancient civilizations.

The techniques and options for these rituals have progressed along with society, but their roots still lay buried in the ancient world. As we find the body can be useful to the progression of society even after death, more and more people have began giving the rights of their body over to science and medicine. The act of donating ones body is a modern act, but there are still rituals, such as a celebration of life, that can be done even when the remains of the deceased are not present. SOURCE

Modern Day Funeral Planning

We use funeral traditions from all over for our modern funerals. If you are currently planning a funeral or pre-planning for one in the near (or far) future, here are some helpful resources:

funeral prayers, funeral poems, burial prayers, burial poems

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