Throughout the world every culture and religion have their own funeral traditions. The concept of a funeral dates back at least 300,000 years; evidence has been found of neanderthal skeletons being buried across Europe. Therefore, there is a rich history with many practices firmly entrenched. Depending where in the world the funeral is taking place the history of funeral ritual will be slightly different, in this article we will focus on the history of funerals in the United Kingdom.
Funeral Ritual in the UK
Discovery of ancient burial sites gives us the best clues as to how funeral rituals have evolved over time. One of the oldest known sites currently to be discovered is Paviland Cave, Gower Peninsula, South Wales. Here bones belonging to a young man have been found that are thought to date back to around 33,000 B.C. The bones were dusted in red ochre and ceremonially buried; they were initially thought to belong to a Roman Lady leading the burial site to be named the Red Lady of Paviland.
There are many further examples of burial sites leading us through the ages to modern day as practices have evolved. Around 4,000 B.C stone monuments began to be placed, these are thought to represent a link between the living and the dead. The Roman’s introduced the coffin around 350 A.D., and tombs for the wealthy have been uncovered from the 1300’s.
With the industrial revolution, in the 1700’s small churchyards could no longer accommodate the growing number of funerals and large cemeteries on the outskirts of cities began to appear. In 1885 the first official cremation took place in the UK, and the practice has since become commonplace. According to the Cremation Society in 2021 over 80% of people that died were cremated.
British Funeral Customs
Many of the rituals that are currently followed for funerals in the UK only date back to the 20th and 21stCentury. Some of these rituals include:
- Wearing black clothing
- Funeral procession
- Remembering the dead
Black funeral attire dates to the 1500’s but was popularised by Queen Victoria’s prolonged mourning for Prince Albert in the 1860’s. Black or dark coloured clothing is still the primary tradition in the UK; however, people are increasingly opting for their own style. You can find out more about traditional versus modern funeral attire in this recent blog.
In Britain funeral processions are thought to date back to Roman times, however, they are an ancient tradition worldwide. Today a hearse carries the deceased in their coffin and is often followed by close family in accompanying funeral limousines. Traditionally a procession would be longer than those of today, and passers-by would stop and pay their respects as the procession passed; you may see older people still doing this today.
Flowers were traditionally used to cover the smell of the decomposing body. However, improved handling of dead bodies has eliminated this issue, the symbolic meaning of flowers has kept them as part of the ritual of funerals. More recently, flowers have begun to slip out of favour as people see them as not cost efficient and there are also environmental concerns.
A wake was the time before burial and was a constant vigil of the body by family and friends. In Anglo-Saxon times this became a celebration including food and dancing in memory of the deceased. Today a wake is still part of the custom of funerals, usually held after the service and serves as an opportunity for family and friends to celebrate the life of the person that has died, share memories, and provide a sense of community and support.
In Victorian times hair of the deceased was often woven into jewellery or ornaments; a practice that today would be considered macabre. However, there is a new service based around this idea in which companies produce jewellery and other items using the ashes of the deceased.
Modern Funeral Rituals
Recently there has been an acceleration in the modernisation of funerals. The move toward cremation, and away from religious services has provided an opportunity for funeral services to become more unique. There has been an increase in Celebration of Life services, these are less sombre, and instead of focusing on the sadness death and the life lost, they celebrate the achievements of the deceased and the life they lived.
Technology has also played a part in the modernisation of funeral services. There is now the option to live stream and record the service, and large television screens are available in most venues for photographic and video tributes, music is rarely played live, and the traditional options have been replaced with an availability of any song imaginable being streamed from an online catalogue.
Future of Funerals
There are many factors affecting the evolution of funeral tradition. One of the driving forces of change is environmental considerations. The impact on the land and water supply from burial, and the carbon dioxide production from cremation means that there is no clear-cut best option for an eco-funeral. However, many people are planning green funerals in which biodegradable coffins are used, such as those made from cardboard, these are buried in woodland funeral locations. People are also opting to have trees planted instead of stone memorials, and there are even online memorial gardens.
As technology evolves it is likely that funeral ritual will also move on. However, the primary traditions surrounding death and funerals will likely always remain paramount and that is caring for the deceased in a dignified manner, paying respects to their memory, and disposing of the body in a suitable manner.