The practice of paying our last respects to the dead and disposing of their remains with care and reverence is a long and well-established one, all over the globe and in all walks of life. But how exactly did it start? Where, when and how did funerals originate, and how do modern-day services differ from those of previous eras?
While it is difficult to know much about how people lived (and died) thousands of years ago, archaeological finds can shed some light on ancient attitudes towards death, dying and the afterlife. This, coupled with our knowledge of evolution and observation of the behaviour of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom – primates – suggests that some sort of funerary behaviour has been around since the dawn of humankind itself.
Humans as animals
Humans may appear to be unique among animals in the reverence they show to the dead. But while many other creatures do simply disregard the corpse of their fellows after death, signs of mourning can be observed in a number of species. This is particularly noticeable in primates, as demonstrated by the studies carried out by Christophe and Hedwige Boesche on bonobos in the Ivory Coast.
In one remarkable instance, a female chimpanzee named Tina was attacked and killed by leopards. After her death, her clan congregated around her and alternated between periods of silence and loud shrieking, before grooming the body and dragging the corpse around for short distances. From this behaviour observed in our distant ancestors, it can be inferred that the human race has always held a special kind of respect for our departed brethren.
The earliest examples of deliberate removal of deceased remains dates back as far as 225,000 years ago. In Pontnewydd Cave in north-east Wales, the teeth of up to 15 Neanderthal males were found inside the cave, and although it’s possible that they arrived here coincidentally, it’s highly unlikely. Similar remains were found at the “Pit of Bones” in Atapuerca, Spain, denoting the burial or disposal of up to 32 people from 200,000 years ago.
Meanwhile, defleshing (the removal of skin after death to demonstrate the bone, but not for cannibalism purposes) also appears to have been a fairly common practice in Europe around 100,000 years ago. Examples of defleshed remains have been found at a variety of sites, including in Belgium, Croatia and France. It’s impossible to say with certainty why this ritual took place, though it’s believed that it was a means to converting bones into sacred relics.
The first known burials
The first instances of actual burials (as opposed to remains being deposited in a cave or down a shaft) all concern early humans as we are in our current form. Therefore, these can actually predate some of the Neanderthal cases mentioned above, suggesting that perhaps the practice of burial was transferred from the more evolved species to its predecessor. Again, it’s impossible to state any such hypothesis with a degree of certainty, but the theory is an attractive one.
These kinds of burials date from between 27,000 to 23,000 years ago and are found in places as far and wide as Australia, Israel, Iberia and Wales. Many of the remains were buried with animal bones, while the latter two featured the use of red ochre to tint the bones a reddish colour. After these Gravettian burials, further examples have been discovered in the Late Upper Palaeolithic period dating between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. These share many facets in common with the previous burials, but show greater evidence of funerary activity, such as the interment of belongings and trinkets.
Funerals in the West originate, as do many other things, from Ancient Greece. The word for funeral in the Greek language (kēdeía) means to take care of someone and interment was used as the favoured method of disposing of the dead between 3,000 and 1,100 BC. After this time, cremation on a funeral pyre became the norm and remained that way until the advent of Christianity, which took a dim view of burning corporeal remains.
The word funeral itself comes from the Latin funus, used by Ancient Rome to denote all manner of things surrounding death and the dying. Romans were largely cremated and their remains housed in columbariums (or dovecotes devoted to urns), but as the Catholic Church became more influential, interment gradually became more popular. The tradition of burial, along with attendant services, masses and wakes, has sprung from here to take hold across much of the Western world.
The situation today
Nowadays, more and more people are reverting back to traditions of old. Even among the Christian community, cremation is no longer viewed as the same sort of heresy it once was, and many people prefer to celebrate the life of the deceased rather than spend exorbitant amounts creating elaborate funerals to mark their passing. One such option which has become increasingly popular is direct cremation, which disposes of a person’s remains with minimal fuss and no frills, allowing the bereaved to pay their respects in the manner they see most fitting.
Indeed, freedom and flexibility are the hallmarks of a modern funeral. There are all kinds of ways of giving our nearest and dearest a good send-off, from themed funerals to burials at sea. Aspects of the person’s life can be incorporated into the service to make the occasion a deeply personal one, while the wonders of modern technology can even bring them back to life (metaphorically) through videos, holograms and interactive displays. While the nature of death may be constant and unchanging, the manner in which we deal with it is evolving all the time.