Tag Archives: history

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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Understanding History Part 1: Introduction

When we’re trying to decide what types of funeral arrangements to buy there are certain considerations that come to mind, including how much we can afford, and what is necessary as far as legal requirements, respect for the deceased, religious traditions, and all of the concerns we have about grief and mourning.

Is too much of a funeral extravagant? Is too little of a funeral a mistake?

These questions underlie much of the work on this site, including the research studies I’ve been reviewing in recent weeks. Studying what people have been doing for their funerals and how that has been working out for them is helpful, and I plan to continue describing new research as it comes to light.

When making arrangements or advising others or just thinking about all the choices, one question that has arisen in my mind is, what have people done in the past? And I don’t just mean the past decades or even the past century: I mean, what different ceremonial things did we do for the thousands of years we’ve been taking care of our dead and leaving physical traces or written explanations that can be examined today?

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The Funeral, Deconstructed

In the field of archeology, Jill Baker uses the concept of a “funeral kit” to describe combinations of elements in burials that seem to indicate “routine practice, rite, ritual, and ceremony” within a culture.1 We can use “the twentieth-century funeral” to identify the American funeral kit of the recent era.

The industry’s explanation of this funeral kit was spelled out many years ago and stayed consistent for decades—in fact, there are people today who use the same explanations as those used 50 or more years ago to describe the functions of the various funeral parts. That is not a criticism, because it just means there came a time when people had to come up with clear ways to describe their businesses, and they did a good job of it.

We usually explain practices when they come under attack. Obviously, throughout the entire history of religion in the West, we find the councils, creeds, and confessions emerging during times of division or in response to some heresy or other challenge.

Ethnicity is played out the same way. As Fredrik Barth fascinatingly noted, groups view their distinctive symbols as most important at the margins, where they interact with others.2

In the same way, the American funeral concept was formulated and rationalized in large part as a response to the five Cs—critics, consumer advocates, clergy, cooperatives, and cremationists—in the twentieth-century.

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The Twentieth-Century Funeral

The next major theme in our analysis of American funerals, for which this post can serve as the kick-off, is the broad topic of rituals and ceremonies. What have we done in the past; what do we do now; and what do we actually need?

To answer those questions, We’ll start with an overview of the combination of parts that make up the funeral, and then review the results of research studies on funerals and the people who attend them and arrange them. We will be exploring material gathered from the social sciences, history, psychology, and general consumer research.

For a long stretch of history, ranging anywhere from 75 to 130 years depending on where you lived, the American funeral consisted of a viewing period with an embalmed body in a fairly expensive casket as the centerpiece, followed by a ceremony, concluding with a ride to a cemetery led by specially-designed vehicles, and ending with a brief service at the grave site where the body would be lowered into a vault in the ground, or placed into a crypt space. It was all orchestrated by and, mainly, purchased from a funeral home. The cost would vary according to quality of casket, length of viewing, type of burial vault, number of limousines, and a few other variables. Purchases of cemetery space, vault, and memorial might be made separately through the cemetery, and could cost as much as or more than the purchases from the funeral home.

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