In Medieval times, people were very familiar with death. Since disease, war, and famine were common, death was something people didn’t fear in the way they do today. In addition, the focus on Christianity and leading a life free from sin meant there were elaborate funeral rituals of laying a body to rest.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Did European People in the Middle Ages View Death?
- What Happened During a Medieval Funeral Service?
- How Did Medieval People Bury the Dead?
As hard as it is to understand, death was very much at the center of life in the Middle Ages or Medieval times. Because of this, people created strong beliefs around the way to prepare for death and the best traditions for honoring loved ones.
For a deeply religious society, these funeral customs and burial practices brought peace in a time of uncertainty. In this guide, we’ll turn back the clock to learn more about medieval funerals.
COVID-19 tip: If you're planning a virtual funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still adapt many of these Medieval traditions, like songs, prayers, and even traditional funeral food, to include your online guests. Brainstorm with your funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.
How Did European People in the Middle Ages View Death?
Unlike modern times, Europeans in the Middle Ages didn’t have access to technology and advanced medicine. In fact, they didn’t have much medical intervention at all. Infant mortality, disease, famine, war, and common injuries were at the foundation of everyday life.
People lived much shorter lives than they do now. While the average life expectancy in modern times is over 70 years, it was much shorter in the days of Medieval society.
In the UK in 1276, for example, the average life expectancy for males was 31 years. With high percentages of infant mortality and pandemics, reaching 31 would be an accomplishment. The incredibly short nature of life played greatly in the Middle Ages’ perspective on death.
Living for the grave
Because death came so early, the only real reason to live was to prepare to die. People lived their life according to Christian tradition. To live was to prepare oneself for the afterlife and the judgment of God.
People measured time by Christian holidays, many of which focused on resurrection like Easter. With churches at the center of society, it was more important than ever to live a life free from sin. That was the only way to avoid an unfortunate fate when death did come.
Judgment in the afterlife
Like modern Christianity, people in Medieval Europe worried about whether they would go to heaven or hell in the afterlife. The fate of one’s soul relies on how one lived their life. Did they live free from sin? Or did they fall prey to earthly pleasures?
However, this wasn’t the only thing one’s soul faced judgment on. In addition, Medieval Christians considered the manner of someone’s death. It was desirable to pass away from what was called a “good death.” A “good death” is one that’s typically at home, surrounded by friends, family, and a priest. The priest administers the Last Rites and forgives the dying person of their sins.
It was only once all these steps were completed that someone could have a “good death” and earn a chance to go to Heaven. Otherwise, one might face a “bad death.” This was something to be feared.
A “bad death” was when someone passed away unprepared. They didn’t confess their sins or receive the Last Rites. This could earn the deceased a spot in purgatory or even hell. People on earth would pray for those trapped in purgatory or hell as a way to purify them of their sins.
What Happened During a Medieval Funeral Service?
The clear distinction between a “good” and “bad” death is one of the hints that people in Medieval Europe took their funeral practices seriously. Like studying death in different cultures, it’s important to also see how cultural practices shifted over time. Handling the bodies and souls of the deceased was no small task in this time.
Funerals were very much a way to show off one’s social status in the Middle Ages. Having a large, extravagant funeral for a loved one showed that the individual was affluent and led an important life.
While these over-the-top funerals were primarily for the upper classes, it wasn’t uncommon for common people to also replicate these traditions. Common people would host the same masses, vigils, and periods of mourning. For those in a guild, the members joined together to donate to the cost of the funeral and burial.
Like most Christian funeral practices, people in the Middle Ages attended mass after the loss of a loved one. People from the community were invited to pay their respects, and this could be a large affair depending on how connected the deceased was during their lifetime.
Death was a sacred event. During funeral mass, religious songs, hymns, and prayers were a part of the service. This was a way to honor the deceased and ensure the body reaches Heaven. The fixation on the divide between heaven and hell was at the focus of the mass event.
The Black Plague
It’s impossible to talk about death in the Middle Ages without including the Black Plague. Between 1347 and 1351, the Black Plague, also known as the Black Death, ravaged Europe. With a death toll of 25 million, the careful funeral rites of before no longer were possible in the cities most devastated by this plague.
During the Black Plague, mass graves became common due to the sheer number of bodies. People collected bodies of plague victims around town, stacking bodies on top of each other. There was no room for sacred traditions and customs amidst so much death.
During this time, the Last Rites were not performed because nobody was willing or able to administer them to dying people. The Black Plague had huge consequences on the traditional funeral practices of the Middle Ages.
How Did Medieval People Bury the Dead?
The burial process was something families were intimately familiar with. Family members prepared bodies for burial, and this was a time to encourage the soul on its journey to Heaven. People in the Middle Ages did not shy away from this.
Preparing the body for burial
It was very important that the body was treated properly after death to ensure the soul finds its way to the afterlife. After the person dies, the family washes their body in water. This is yet another symbol for purification of the soul and freeing it of sin. Then, the family wraps the body in a winding sheet or shroud. This is a way to prepare it for burial.
Once the body is in the casket, family members and friends sit vigil with the body. They read prayers, sing, and say their goodbyes. Mass is held both over the body and in church for the elite as a way to honor the dead.
Cemeteries in Medieval times
Finally, people were buried the standard six feet underground. Graves were in the courtyards of churches. Cemeteries weren’t something that was hidden away from the public. Since they were near or in churches, they were the gathering spot for the entire community. The only exception to this was during the Black Plague, when cities laid bodies to rest in mass graves outside the town’s walls.
However, even in times of relatively good health, there was a big difference between the burial process for nobles and regular folk. Peasants were not to be buried in a coffin. These were only for the wealthy, and these caskets were decorated lavishly to reflect social status.
Anthropologists discovered some of the more extravagant caskets, noting how the dead were laid to rest with fine clothing and jewelry. While they couldn’t take this with them to Heaven or hell, it’s still a sign of one’s status.
A Medieval View of Death
Though we describe things that are out-of-date as “Medieval,” the Middle Ages had a very progressive, open perspective on death. In the Middle Ages, death was public and present. Because the Church preached that the afterlife was the most worthwhile thing to live for, people didn’t fear death in the way many do today. It was merely a stepping stone to what comes next, whether that next path is heaven, hell, or something in between.
In modern times, death doesn’t always feel real. It’s something that happens in movies, on TV, and in history books. In Medieval times, death was everywhere. It could be lurking around the next corner. Instead of worrying, they found unique ways to remember family members while looking forward. The fact that they created such a thing as a “good death” tells us a lot about their feelings on the end of life.
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- Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. “Death and Dying in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.” Collegium: Studies Across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences. 2015. Helsinki.fi.