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Funeral & burial customs

In our modern world most of us associate funerals with either a conventional graveyard or cremation. Throughout history, though, various peoples had different ways of sending their dead on their final journey. What has not changed is the fact that the grandeur of the funeral service will be affected by your status or your wealth.

The death of Princess Diana is an example of the pomp and ceremony usually associated with the death of royalty. The funeral of President Kennedy reflected how a great democracy dealt with the death of a modern day ‘Head of State’. It is common for such funerals to have a church service and a funeral procession where a strong military presence is expected. This is in stark contrast to the mass graves of the plague victims of earlier times who were simply thrown on a barrow to be brought to their final destination.

Obviously too, the climate of a country affects funeral practices. In very hot countries it has to be the practise, for health reasons, to dispose of the remains immediately. In Iceland, though, hunters found the remains of 8 mummies buried since 1475. They found there were well wrapped up for their long journey and were buried with 78 items of clothes for their journey to the other side.

Tombs often reflect the status of the dead. They also give an indication of housing at the period of death. In pre-dynastic times, circular huts were replaced by rectangular houses and the shapes of graves changed accordingly too. In Egypt tombs often had facades suggesting the exterior of a house and they might even have doors. Several of the royal tombs included a lavatory near the burial chamber, which gives a whole new meaning to en-suite!

Much of our knowledge of tombs and funerary rites comes from ancient Egypt, which has always had a complex religious system. The period of history most studied is from about four hundred years before the pyramids until the time of Christ. Perhaps the reason it is studied so much is because it was a well-organized, literary civilizations. So students have actual written records to study rather than simply word of mouth.

When we think of the word mummy we naturally think of the Pharaohs. Yet the ordinary Egyptians who buried their dead in shallow graves in the sand with stones on top to keep off the jackals probably did better than the nobility. Their dead were better preserved because the hot sand dried the moisture out of the bodies. The ruling classes, however, wanted something more spectacular for their leaders. They built burial Chambers were cut at the bottom of deep shafts underground. These were lined with stone or wood while the bodies were put in wooden coffins. Unfortunately these chambers were cold and damp and the bodies rotted. So they continued experimenting until the found out that they possessed a natural salt like substance called Natron where the Nile floods wash away. This absorbs water and is a natural anaesthetic. So they removed the insides of bodies re-packed it with stuffing and herbs and placed it in Natron for seventy days. Finally they wrapped it from head to foot in bandages before putting it in a coffin.

How many of those working in Health Food stores today realise that honey was also used as an alternative embalming substance? There is a story that Alexander the Great body was on show for many years in a glass coffin filled with honey so perhaps there is something in this belief.

Kas were spirits released when someone died and they remained homeless until the appropriate religious rites were performed. It is interesting to note too that Egyptian embalmers left in the heart, preserved the internal organs but threw away the brains! The First Chinese Emperor Qin on the other hand had hundreds of terra cotta soldiers around his grave to protect him from his enemies. So obviously in China too your importance dictated the majesty of your burial site.

Egyptians also believed that the body must be kept fed on its journey to the afterlife. So tombs often had food and drink in them although as time went by the actual food was often replaced simply by pictures on the walls. Some families, though, included agricultural equipment such as hoes so that the harvest could be sown and gathered.

Obviously the mighty ones were not going to do this themselves so, at first servants were buried with their masters. Later this was adapted and they brought figurines called Shabtis to represent servants to do the jobs for them. The more important the ruler of course the more servant figures he had. It was necessary too for amulets or magic charms to be wrapped in with the mummy to ward off all sorts of evil spirits.

The funeral procession would go on boat on the Nile pulled by oxen. The boats could be covered in wooden panels or in rich clothes. The funeral boat would be followed down the river by other boats all carrying mourners in various degrees of importance. Professional mourners were hired to wail and gnash their teeth. The procession would have servants at the head of the cortege carrying flowers and trays of cakes and other provisions. Then more servants would carry furniture such as folding chairs. Depending on who had died his sword or some item connections with his profession would also be carried

Before the body was consigned to the tomb there was a ceremony called the opening of the mouth. The mummy was unloaded and stood upright at the opening of the tomb. The priest, dressed panther skin, touched the mummy’s face with flint and presented the foreleg to it. After this ceremony the dead man was supposed to see and hear, speak eat and move his limbs. The mummy was replaced in its nest of coffins, which were then carried into the tomb and lowered into the burial chamber. Once the outer coffin had been shut all the furniture clothing and provisions were stacked around the chamber. When the mourners came out men began throwing rocks and stones down the shaft of the burial chamber, sealing if off. Then it was sealed with mortar and some stones laid to block the mouth and the feasting began

Obviously the poor could not afford such ceremony and they were often buried in trenches and a layer of sand spread over them. They did not have furniture to bury but only the tools of their trade, their sandals and perhaps a cheap amulet.

Today it is often the custom to visit the graves of the dead especially at Christmas or Easter or during November the month of the holy souls. In Egypt they had a beautiful festival of the West valley, which lasted a fortnight, and it was a time for celebrating at the mouth of the tombs with picnics. There is a Greek custom of bringing a dough like substance to funerals where it is distributed amongst the mourners. In other parts of the Greek world they shared out soul pies. In Cyprus though family parties went to see their mummified relations and changed their clothes and had family chats with them.

The Romans funeral procession, consisted of their dead being carried on a bier accompanied by torch bearers and it was a custom for a family member to call out the deceased’s name three time. They threw three hands of dirt to cover the body a custom that prevailed until recently in many graveyards in Europe. Today it is more common for some flowers to be tossed into a grave.

Obviously tombs filled with gold and jewels were a great attraction to tomb robbers and many Egyptians thieves ignored the threat of impalement if they were caught. In the late 18th century interest in medical science meant that the anatomists were happy to take fresh bodies from the body snatchers or resurrectionists as they were called. In Ireland in 1932 a gravedigger was sentenced to prison for turning his back on this practise. Around that time too a price of ten guineas was offered for the apprehension of a church sexton who removed a corpse and sold it. The bill to legalise post execution dissection of all criminals became law in Ireland in 1791. As death was the punishment for many crimes this provided medical students with the bodies they needed. In both England and New England whipping was the punishment for those caught grave digging.

Death is still the final barrier and the way we treat our dead reflects on our society and its values. Wakes have long been a traditional way of sending the dead on their last journey and even today this custom is still held in rural areas of Ireland. There death is supposed to be heralded by the wailing of a banshee, a fairy woman. On the lonely Aran Islands each family has its own knitting patterns so that if disaster struck one of the fishing vessels the bodies could be recognised by the pattern of the jumper a drowned fisherman wears.

The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland tried to stamp out the wake as being a pagan custom but this was perhaps, mainly because of the drinking that went on all night. Nonetheless there is no doubt that many families derived great comfort from the visits of friends and relatives who were willing to talk about the diseased and what he had meant in their lives. In fact having a wake is a way of celebrating a life.

Every country, every race has its own way of burying their dead. There are sepulchres and shrouds, graves and mausoleums. The American Indians sent their deceased to the great hunting ground in the sky; sailors go to Davy Jones Locker. The Norsemen sent their dead to Valhalla while in Greek legend their spirits found their Heaven in the Elysian Fields.

Yet whether we believe in the Buddhist Nirvana or the Christian Paradise we all share the same feelings of loss and grief when we lose someone we love. A funeral eulogy is a fitting way to express that grief and to say our good-byes. Such a tribute should not be restricted to Statesmen and public figures. All those we have loved and lost have contributed to our lives. It is fitting that we should publicly proclaim that fact as well as remember them in our hearts.

Those of us who live in big cities may find it difficult to imagine such a practice but all of us want to celebrate our loved ones and loving words still bring comfort. So whether your funeral is a traditional burial or the scattering of ashes over the sea immortalise your loved one for evermore with a eulogy expressing your love.


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Niamh Crowe, Speechwriters, Ireland.
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