The passing of a loved one is a time for mourning, reflection and celebration of life. This has rung true for as long as human life has existed on this planet. In fact, some of the funeral practices we see today are not so different from those that came many thousands of years before.
So what can ancient funeral practices teach us about our modern traditions?
Continue reading to get all the details from around the world.
Throughout history, death has always held symbolic meaning. For some cultures, death was seen as something to be feared. Others believed that death in this world simply meant the start of a new afterlife. As such, the funeral practices that went alongside these beliefs were widely different too.
It goes without saying that it’s hard to know exactly what happened many tens of thousands of years ago. Archaeologists have to rely on what they can find - evidence of burials, cremations, and rituals buried deep underground for thousands of years.
Still, archaeologists think that the first burials may have taken place over 60,000 years ago. Neanderthal burial grounds have been found where bodies were buried alongside animal antlers and flower fragments thought to be gifts for the deceased.
Burial sites such as Qafzeh in Israel show evidence of the dead being buried in caves, placed in coffins alongside burial items including clothing, food and trinkets. They were also often buried in family groups as early as 10,000 BC.
Doesn’t sound too far removed from what we might expect from a burial today, does it?
Now onto something different. The ancient Egyptians were among the first civilisations with elaborate funeral practices they deemed necessary for a safe passage into the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians believed that a body must be preserved for its soul to return after death. To do this, the body would be cleaned, prepared and mummified. This process looks a lot different from modern-day embalming, but the purpose is similar.
After the body had been prepared, it would be moved to its final resting place. For the rich and powerful, that would be a lavish tomb. For the poor, it would be a grave dug into the ground. A burial ceremony would take place, where the body would be wrapped in cloth and buried alongside any objects needed to make the afterlife more comfortable.
Archaeology gives us some clues as to what we can expect of our ancestors on the British Isles many thousands of years ago.
We know that large groups of people would gather after the death of a loved one, often involving a large feast in their honour. There is also evidence of the dead being burned, with their ashes placed in urns and then buried - not dissimilar to modern-day cremation. The spot in which they were buried would be marked with a stone.
We also know that mourning was something that was shared within the community. There is evidence of rituals involving crying, wailing or shrieking taking place after death - traditions such as ‘keening’ being particularly well-documented in Irish and Scottish history - which allowed people to be vocal about their grieving and share in the healing process.
The Romans were ahead of their time, even in how they approached death. So developed was the Roman society that their funeral practices wouldn’t look too out of place now, many thousands of years later. Back then, people would even pay fees to groups known as collegia to make sure proper burial rites were carried out.
There were generally five parts to a Roman funeral. See if you can spot anything else that sounds familiar...
A procession out of the city would be held, moving the body to its final resting place. Large groups of mourners would join the procession, with musicians playing music along the way: the more famous and wealthy the deceased, the larger and grander the procession.
Cremations were common. The body would be burned on a funeral pyre, and the ashes gathered and placed in an urn which could then be buried in the necropolis, the city of the dead. Romans high up in society would’ve had elaborate tombs to mark their resting place.
Eulogies (funeral speeches) were common at Roman funerals, especially if the deceased was particularly high up or considered to be an important member of society.
It wouldn’t be a Roman funeral without a party. Where nowadays we might have a wake after a funeral, the ancient Romans would’ve had a large feast to mark their loved making the rite of passage between life and death.
Ancient Romans believed that the dead had to be remembered to avoid bad spirits rising from the underworld. There were set dates in the Roman calendar for celebrating ancestors, and individual families had their own dates in which they would visit the tomb and leave offerings. Traditions like this honouring the dead are still common across the world now.
The pyramids in Eygpt. An 8,000-strong army of terracotta warriors in a Chinese Emporer’s tomb. The Taj Mahal in India. Some of the world’s most famous landmarks were, first and foremost, built as ways to remember the dead. While funeral practices change from culture to culture and over time, honouring the dead is a practice that has never gone out of style.
Wherever you look throughout history, regardless of culture, customs or religion, there is a clear common factor - people have always wanted their loved ones to be treated respectfully and with care, even in death. While our modern funeral practices may look a little (or a lot) different, that is one thing that we have in common with our ancestors.
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