By Tim Lambert
Prehistoric people buried their dead but there is, obviously no way of knowing if they carried out any kind of ritual when they did so. The Neanderthals buried their dead. Bodies were sometimes buried with animal bones. One Neanderthal grave was found with flower pollen on it. That may mean the dead person was buried with flowers. Some dead Neanderthals were buried in the fetal position as if they were sleeping. Perhaps they were deliberately buried to resemble a sleeping person. Modern humans entered Europe about 35,00 BC. They buried their dead. Bodies were sometimes covered in red ocher. We don't know why although it has been suggested that the red ocher represented the blood of the living.
Farming was introduced into Britain about 4,500 BC. Stone Age farmers made elaborate tombs for their dead. They dug burial chambers then lined them with wood or stone. Over them, they created mounds of earth called barrows. Some of these barrows still survive. Bronze was introduced into Britain about 2,000 BC. Bronze Age people continued to build barrows, although cremation was practiced. The dead were buried with useful artifacts. Presumably, the living believed the dead would need these in the afterlife. About 650 BC a people called the Celts entered Britain. In Celtic times the old practice of building barrows to bury the dead in died out. Instead, people were interned in individual graves. They were still buried with grave goods.
In Ancient Egypt when a person died the body was mummified but the type of mummification depended on the families ability to pay. So did the type of coffin. The dead person would be buried with their possessions in the belief that they would be needed in the next life. The Egyptians believed it was important to have the right rituals and say the right spells to ensure the wellbeing of the dead person in the afterlife.
In Ancient Greece burying the dead was a religious duty and it was taken very seriously. So much so that anyone encountering a dead body was supposed to throw a handful of dirt over it. When a person died the body was washed, anointed and clothed. A wreath was placed on it. Sometimes a coin was placed in the mouth to pay Charon the boatman who ferried the dead over the River Styx. The body was laid out on a bed and the living would mourn for them. The deceased was carried to a cemetery in a funeral procession called the ekphora. Offerings of food and drink such as honey, milk, and wine were made to the dead person and after the burial, the mourners shared a meal. The rich would have a stone monument erected over their grave. In Athens, the dead were cremated and the ashed placed into an urn.
In Rome it was still the custom to place a coin in the dead person's mouth to pay the boatman. Roman funerals began with a procession. When a rich Roman died there would be professional mourners and musicians in the procession. If the dead person was important a eulogy would be offered. Of course, the poor could afford none of these things. They might only have a man playing the flute. The body was carried on a funeral bier and it could be either buried or cremated. Christians did not believe in cremation so they created vast underground cemeteries called catacombs. The dead were buried in catacombs till the 5th century when it became customary to bury them in churchyards.
Vikings were either buried or cremated. Rich and important Vikings were sometimes cremated in a ship (on land not at sea, the idea that the dead were cremated on burning ships as they sailed away from the shore is a historical myth) or they were buried inside a boat. They were also buried with their goods. Sometimes slaves were sacrificed so they could serve their master in the afterlife. After the burial, a mound of earth or stones was erected over the grave.
In Anglo-Saxon England from the 5th century to the early 8th century rich people were buried with their goods, in the belief they would be needed in the next life. By the end of the 7th century, the Anglo-Saxons had been converted to Christianity but old pagan practices persisted into the 8th century.
In the Middle Ages when a person died they would be wrapped in a shroud and the body would be placed in a church (if they had been someone important) or in a home so they could be viewed. Some people were buried in wooden coffins. The rich might be buried in stone or lead coffin. However the poor were buried in just a shroud. In most churchyards there is a gate with a roof at the entrance, called a lychgate. Its name is derived from an old word for corpse. The priest met the coffin or shroud bearers there before they entered the churchyard.
In England in the 16th century a priest was summoned when a person was dying. Before the Reformation, the priest heard their confession then gave the sacrament of extreme unction. (He anointed the dying person with oil and asked God to forgive their sins). Extreme unction was abolished in 1552 but a priest would still visit a. dying person to give them communion (bread and wine) and ask them to repent of their sins. In the Middle Ages prayers and masses were said for the soul of a dead person but Protestants rejected this practice.
A dead body was placed in a shroud. It was usually placed in the family home for a few days so it could be viewed until the funeral. A common superstition in the 16th century was sin eating. You passed bread and beer over a dead body to a hired sin-eater. It was believed that when he ate and drank he took the dead person's sins on himself. This superstition went on for centuries but it died out in the 19th century.
Poor people were still buried in shrouds and only the rich could afford gravestones. At the time of the funeral, the church bell would ring. Then as now, mourners wore black and after the funeral, they shared a meal. A hearse was originally a frame to hold candles over a coffin. In time it came to mean a bier. By the mid 17th century it meant the vehicle used to carry a coffin.
For centuries people were buried in churchyards but by the 19th century, with a rapidly growing population they were overcrowded. In many towns and cities, cemeteries were opened. Only a small minority could afford a gravestone. For those who could, they often contained symbolism. A broken column, for example, represented a life cut short. With the Industrial Revolution coffins became mass produced. If you were rich they could be very elaborate with brass handles. Funerals were big business.
In the 19th century some people took photos of their deceased loved ones to remember them by. Up till the early 20th century, it was common to lay an open coffin with a dead loved one in it on a table in your home. People were expected to wear black for a period of time after the death of a loved one and there were rules about how many months you should wear black for after the death of each type of relative. Some women even sewed black ribbons to their underwear.
In the late 19th century some people advocated cremation as an alternative to burial. In Britain, the Cremation Society was formed in 1874. But it was not clear if cremation was illegal. In 1884 a man named William Price was arrested for attempting to burn the body of his infant son (the body was removed from the flames). However, the judge ruled that cremation did not break any law. The first person to be legally cremated in Britain was a woman named Jeanette Pickersgill in 1885. However, in the early 20th century cremation remained unusual. However, in the second half of the century, it became more common and in 1968 the number of cremations exceeded the number of burials for the first time. Today in Britain more than 70% of bodies are cremated.
Today funerals are becoming increasingly non-religious. Very often secular songs are played rather than hymns. Some people now have personalized coffins and choose a variety of vehicles instead of the traditional hearse.
A history of Christianity in England
A history of Medicine
A history of Marriage
A history of Life Expectancy