Archaeologists tell us that as early as 35,000 B.C., Cro-Magnon man practiced ritual funerals. Throughout pre-historic times and into recorded history, there is a common thread of honoring the dead and belief in an afterlife.
Latin origins of the word "funeral" denote a torch light procession, a way for the living to help the dead find their way to the next world.
Although funeral rites may vary from culture to culture, their purpose is to memorialize the person's life, to guide the soul of a loved one into the next life and to provide solace for those who mourn.
Buddhists celebrate death as a way to pass on to the next reincarnation and move closer to nirvana, a state of absolute bliss. Buddhist funerals are often more like celebrations with chanting, gongs and incense.
Priests may speak directly to the dead and offer guidance and instructions as to what the deceased can expect. Sometimes, funeral rites continue for several days and may include ritual meals.
Christian services emphasize the promise of life after death.
Catholics conduct vigils or wakes where family members gather, usually at a funeral home, to pray for the deceased. On the next day, a Mass of Christian Burial at the parish church will commemorate the deceased and be followed by the Rite of Committal with prayers and song which take place at the cemetery just prior to burial.
In the Protestant faith, family members also gather before the funeral service to view the deceased and pray. The funeral ceremony is usually a simple celebration of the deceased's life. Music and hymns, prayers and bible readings, a eulogy and a brief sermon are features of Protestant funerals. Graveside services are generally brief, consisting of a few prayers and maybe a song.
After a Hindu's death, the body is traditionally prepared for the funeral by the family and wrapped in a shroud. Sometimes funeral directors assume this responsibility. Funerals, whether they take place at home or at a funeral home, include prayers and chants. Some families, often led by the eldest son, carry their dead to the cremation site.
In India, the pallet carrying the body is ceremoniously immersed in the Ganges River before it is taken to a landing along the river where cremation occurs. After cremation, an urn carrying the ashes is lowered in the Ganges.
After the death of an adherent of Islam, the body is washed and wrapped in seamless white cloth. No cosmetics are used and burial preparations are very simple. Muslims follow the teachings of Mohammed who cautioned that, "The sooner a good man is buried, the sooner he will reach heaven and be at peace," so funerals and burials take place soon after death, usually within 24 hours.
Prayers are said by family and friends at these funerals which may be held at home or at the mosque. The dead are buried simply, facing the direction of Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed and the most holy city of Islam.
Funeral customs are different within various Jewish communities. In traditional congregations, a Chevra Kadisha or sacred society performs the Taharah, the religious ritual of washing, purification and dressing the deceased.
A Shomer or guardian recites psalms and watches over the deceased who should not be left unattended. Traditional Jews are buried as soon as possible after death, dressed in a linen shroud in an all-wood constructed casket. Funerals are usually held in Jewish funeral chapels or sometimes in a synagogue. The rabbi reads from religious writings and offers a eulogy for the deceased.
As the casket is carried to the grave, it is traditional for the pallbearers to stop seven times to allow mourners to reflect on the meaning of life. At the grave, more prayers are recited and the mourners toss handfuls of soil on the grave.
For those who do not practice a formal religion or who do not believe in the afterlife, a great variety of remembrances can be held, ranging from no ceremony at all to an elaborate celebration of the deceased's life.
Whatever a person's position on religion or the afterlife may be, funeral service professionals strongly recommend that funerals be planned ahead of time so the deceased's final wishes may be fulfilled by family and friends who survive.
Research material for this article was derived from R.I.P The Complete Book of Death and Dying by Constance Jones.