When we look at past funeral practices we can lose sight of their main purpose, because their main purpose is so taken-for-granted now that we never even have to think about it.
But for most of history people sure did have to think about it.
In order to understand many elements of funerals—for instance, cremation and embalming—we have to step back from the conveniences of modernity to put ourselves in the shoes of our cultural ancestors. In doing so, we also can get a clearer understanding of how funerals are evolving today.
Our death practices serve two main purposes, one practical and one ceremonial.
The practical purpose is to take care of a dead body, which generally means stopping the decomposition process and/or putting it somewhere away from where people live.
The ceremonial purpose is to hold a social gathering which might be considered optional but usually isn’t, because the body is meaningful. Whether the ceremony is a religious ritual or a secular event, whether for many people or only for a few, whether conducted according to a traditional program or ad hoc, we usually do something careful, respectful, and social when someone dies.