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.
Most of the time when we talk about funerals we are talking about the ceremonial aspect. We know that bodies have to be dealt with, and they usually belong, in a sense, to those making the decisions about what to do. Bodies are meaningful because the human body is not merely an object but a person. We think about end of life matters relative to the body as centering almost completely on questions of ceremony.
But the first purpose—the practical matter of disposition—actually is the most important, based on the amount of trouble we’d have were it neglected. Over the centuries and millennia, even as ritual burial practices developed into varied and complex forms and required significant resources, the practical problem of taking care of the dead body has remained at the center of the diverse customs.
We have the luxury today of overlooking this task because our funeral directors have insulated us from it by taking on the job for the past several generations. But we should have no illusions: just as surely as we must eat and drink and sleep, we must remove the process of decomposition from our immediate vicinity.
Today, we have several options to meet the need. The main one since the late 1800s in much of the country has been a two-step process wherein we first delay decomposition with embalming, and then inter the body in the ground or in a tomb away from our immediate living area. This is the technological and commercial marvel that I call the twentieth-century funeral, which has allowed American society to remain virtually insulated from one of the harshest realities of death.
The other main option used today is cremation, which can follow embalming, refrigeration, and viewing, like any other funeral, but often means having the body taken directly to be cremated. Ceremonies can be held without a body present, or with the ashes present in an urn. Depending on state law, a funeral director may have to be involved in the process or it may be legal for survivors to deal directly with a crematory.
Another option, chosen less often today but the one used for much of history, is to get the body interred as soon as practically possible with no embalming. For much of history, we can assume, there was some unpleasantness involved in doing funerals this way. Funerals with whole-body burial and no embalming are still performed today, usually requiring the body to be refrigerated until the next step can be carried out. Certain religions specify burying a body within a short time after death. “Green” or “natural” funerals in which the body will be held for viewing for a period of time usually entail refrigeration or, when conducting a “home funeral,” using a coolant like dry ice if the temperature is warm prior to burial.
Body donation is a fourth option, chosen by only a small portion of the population, that typically ends in cremation. The ashes may or may not be returned to the family.
State governments try to ensure that decomposing bodies will be removed by requiring they be cremated, refrigerated, and/or turned over to the custody of a funeral director (or someone “acting as” a funeral director) within a relatively short time after death. Funeral directors are tasked with refrigerating, embalming, cremating, or quickly burying bodies they receive.
In states where you are allowed to act as a funeral director for the body of someone close to you, you’re expected to follow applicable laws about burial, cremation, and transportation, and generally not to make a mess of things. Few Americans decide to act as funeral directors. I’ve included a link to the National Home Funeral Alliance in the “Resources” tab because learning about how home funerals are done is a great way to learn the details of what needs to be done when someone dies.
Home funerals are a new and slowly-developing movement. NHFA materials are excellent resources in themselves, but are also valuable for learning the rudiments of the funeral profession and the first purpose of funerals—and what you are paying for when you hire a funeral director.
Ironically, there is probably no better course in appreciating how far we’ve come from the days before the twentieth-century funeral than to get educated in the home funeral phenomenon. If you’ve never moved a dead person from one place to another, thank the modern American funeral industry. If you don’t know what a dead body smells like, thank a funeral director.
To get an idea what funerals were like in America fairly recently but before the magic of modern embalming became universally available, I highly recommend James Crissman’s history of death in Appalachia,1 where they still had to do funerals the old-fashioned way when the rest of the country was going to the picture show, driving around in motor cars, and having funerals for embalmed bodies prepared for the occasion by hired undertakers.
The period before modern embalming comprised thousands of years when most dead bodies were dealt with by family and friends far more intimately than Americans have had to do for a long time. There have been cultures where embalming or some other type of preservation was available, sometimes to a large portion of a population, but for most people preservation of dead bodies has not been an option.
But people did learn to cope with the dead without embalming or refrigeration, and they did so in a variety of ways. The methods used, and how those methods changed over time, can shed light on the ways our modern death practices are changing in the post-twentieth-century funeral era.
James K. Crissman, Death and Dying in Central Appalachia: Changing Attitudes and Practices (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994)↩