Tag Archives: embalming

Understanding History, Part 2: The First Purpose Of Funerals

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.

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1965-1969: Young Widows and Widowers During First Year of Bereavement

The First Year of Bereavement reports results of the Harvard Bereavement Study, which was conducted under the auspices of the Harvard Laboratory of Community Psychiatry. Studies of people who have recently experienced funerals are rare because it is hard to find the people. In addition to its prestigious pedigree, this project had access to data from the local office of vital statistics, and thus the researchers found good number of participants who fit the demographic requirements of the study.1

Subjects: 49 widows and 19 widowers, whose spouses had died within the past year from causes other than suicide or homicide. All under age 45. Several interviews were conducted the first year after death, and a follow-up interview 2-4 years later. Boston.

Topics covered in this project go well beyond funeral experiences but it is extremely valuable for its extensive focus on the latter—which even now, more than half a century later, has only been done a few times. As such, this Harvard study is an important snapshot of one aspect of funerals in the 1960s.

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