What was the original meaning behind funerals? What was their purpose? Let's find out. Let's also walk through the reasons why funerals have changed so much and why they’ll continue to change.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Main Reasons People Have Funerals
- History of Funerals
- Cultural Importance of Funerals
- How Funerals Work Today
- Frequently Asked Questions: Why Do We Have Funerals?
When planning a funeral for a loved one, you may want to focus on the unique wishes of your loved one instead of past funeral traditions.
Main Reasons People Have Funerals
Curious about the main reasons people have funerals? Some explanations go beyond the obvious, or at least come from a different perspective. The main reasons include a combination of tradition and culture, healing, as well as the wishes of the deceased person. We’ll also elaborate later in this article about some reasons people decide not to have funerals as well.
Tradition and Culture
Funerals serve as a tradition for many groups and cultures. Funerals present important opportunities for certain religious groups. They can ensure their deceased loved ones get taken care of in both the physical and spiritual world.
Without funerals, those living would not rest peacefully without their deceased loved ones. On the flip side, some groups believe that the deceased loved one would not be able to pass away peacefully unless they follow certain rituals and customs.
Furthermore, funerals present unique opportunities for families to properly grieve under the care of professionals — experts on topics such as death and memorials.
To Help Their Family Heal
Even if a family doesn't follow a specific religion or culture, funerals still present an opportunity for the family and loved ones of the deceased person to begin healing. Funeral services open up the circle of healing to other people who knew the individual so they can pay their last respects. This widens the circle of support for everyone grieving.
Funerals give evidence of community and a powerful reminder of who the deceased person had an impact on during his or her life. It’s the perfect time to bring everyone together to share stories, speeches, prayers, and more to honor the deceased person in a proper way.
Though traditionally somber affairs, funerals offer a great way to get families and loved ones together. It’s important to respect and honor the deceased person throughout the event but it’s arguably just as important to get your family together and to enjoy each other’s company.
It Was an Expectation of the Deceased Person
Some people may make a specific request for a funeral once they pass away. While some families may struggle to fulfill a loved one’s dying wishes, it's important to acknowledge these wishes.
Even if you cannot accommodate all of your deceased loved one’s wishes exactly as they requested, many professionals and resources can help you find acceptable alternatives or even better options than before!
Some people make it a point as part of their end-of-life planning to set up prepaid funeral plans to lessen financial burdens on their families. You can also familiarize yourself with digital end-of-life planning tools.
History of Funerals
Like most social and cultural practices, funerals have changed throughout history. While it would be impossible to capture all of the nuances across the U.S. or the globe, we can touch on a few important points.
These points include things like the meaning of funerals, where they took place, as well as burial practices.
How Some of the Earliest Funerals Began in America
One of the key differences between the early and modern funerals is that it was once up to families to take care of both the body and the burial from start to finish.
It's probably pretty difficult to imagine yourself doing this for one of your family members today. Since these funerals weren’t completed by medical professionals, burials were often delayed for several days for fear of burying loved ones alive.
People once believed that cemeteries held bad or even evil energy, no matter how “good” the people were that were buried there. This idea led to the creation of the funeral profession in both urban and eventually rural areas.
How Embalming and Other Practices Came to Be
Curious how embalming traditions began? You may recall similar practices completed in Ancient Egypt and through mummification.
However, Industrial Age embalming, while similar in intent, actually differs quite a bit. Embalming practices were first developed on a large scale during the Civil War. People often died far away from their homes and it was necessary to both preserve and restore their bodies for their families.
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Funeral Trends Throughout History (in Brief)
The following details briefly dive into changes and trends in the overarching values of funerals and the people who performed them.
For a deeper dive into this topic, you may want to read "The Changing Discourse of Death: A Study of the Evolution of the Contemporary Funeral Industry."
Earliest funerals: The earliest funerals in America, beginning around the 1800s, consisted of home burials and body care by immediate family.
Services were small, if even much of an event at all, since everyone’s “circle” was far more immediate. Photography was still fairly limited, but postmortem photography became more predominant. Often, families only had one or two photos of their loved ones — one at birth and one at death.
Funerals of the 1900s: Other trends started to emerge, such as a focus on “professional” funerals. There was some disagreement regarding who funerals were actually for, and this continued throughout the century (and until today).
Sometimes, a disagreement develops between practices that honor the dead versus the wishes of survivors instead. A rise in the expense and “commercialism” of funerals also caused strains on some families.
Funerals of the 1970s and beyond: As social and literal wars increased, people began questioning the values and the meaning of death. The question of what makes a funeral meaningful also perpetuated on a greater scale and continues today.
Other changes occurred, too, with the influx of both technology and progress. Burial options became more varied, including an increase in cremations as well as “alternative” options such as green burials.
Contemporary funerals: As cultures vary and intermingle, some traditions have gone by the wayside. New traditions take root just about every day, often paying homage to older ones.
As the definition of American culture changes, everyone’s relationship with death and associated rituals changes as well.
Cultural Importance of Funerals
We have touched briefly on the changing relationship between the individual, society at large, as well as ideas about death.
Some cultures remain less susceptible to change than the general U.S. population. Many cultures around the world have maintained funeral traditions for thousands of years.
The Purpose of Funerals
The purpose of funerals remains complex and depends on which culture you ask. However, funerals should honor what the person leaving the world brought to it.
How do you honor someone who isn’t here to pick out the right flowers or the perfect music? Enter digital end-of-life planning. While not foolproof, it can get you and your loved ones that much closer to those preferences, so that last event goes off without a hitch.
Funerals in Different Cultures
Every individual has a unique relationship with death. This has a lot to do with not only your experiences, but also your demeanor, culture, and religion. Some cultures treat death anniversaries with unique holidays or other types of celebrations.
How do some other cultures deal with death? Below, we’ve provided a few details about funeral customs in other cultures:
- Mexican culture celebrates the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos.
- Hindu culture and religion expect specific practices, such as cremation.
- Hawaiians celebrate a paddle-out ceremony.
- The islands of the Caribbean also have unique customs, including a Nine Night.
- Most of the Vietnamese culture asserts a strong belief in ancestor worship.
How Funerals Work Today
While it’s true that every funeral is different, you may want to take note of some specific modern funeral trends.
Funerals haven't changed in their entirety, but you can point to quite a few differences compared to a few decades ago.
What are Some Aspects of Modern Funerals?
Personalization has changed — there's now more of an emphasis on the importance of the individual and everything he or she did. Modern funerals often have unique parameters when it comes to all aspects of funeral planning or even funeral attendance. This may come down to the attire you wear, the music you can expect, the food you eat, and, of course, where the funeral itself will take place.
What’s a Celebration of Life Ceremony?
A celebration of life ceremony focuses on celebrating the individual in a unique way and puts less of an emphasis on grief and mourning.
Whether this means guests should wear tie-dye shirts or expect party music, funeral planners can come up with many ways to make a celebration of life ceremony something you and your loved ones will never forget.
However, just because celebration of life ceremonies seem like “celebrations,” this doesn’t mean that you can’t appropriately incorporate more somber moments, too.
No matter what kind of funeral service makes the most sense for you or a loved one, you may want to find a balance between respecting the past but honoring the future. You owe it to your loved ones to remember them but it’s also important to realize that you’re still here even if they aren’t.
A great way to do so is to celebrate an angelversary. Or, perhaps you’d like to set a grander agenda for your next birthday, such as making a birthday resolution that’s somehow inspired by a loved one.
Frequently Asked Questions: Why Do We Have Funerals?
You’re not alone in asking, “Why do we have funerals?” In fact, some people may see them as sad, outdated, and expensive events. However, you can point to some good reasons for having a funeral.
Is it okay to not have a funeral?
In a word: Yes! You don't have to have a funeral, for many reasons, which could relate to health or safety, expense, personal preference, logistics, and much more.
It’s no secret that funerals can be expensive. Many families have had success with crowdfunding for funerals and memorial fundraising, but this may not make sense for your situation.
Next, it might just be too difficult for your family to have a funeral right now or in the near future. If you decide to forgo a funeral for a loved one, you can always hold a special memorial, service, or another event at a later date instead.
Finally, some individuals may request no funeral once they pass away. It's your family’s prerogative and the deceased person’s wishes that matter most at the end of the day. Don’t give in to external or societal pressure. As long as your family finds peace and heal through your loss, that’s all that matters — funeral or no funeral.
What are some common alternatives to not having a funeral?
Alternatives to holding a funeral include events like a celebration of life, which is much more like a party. You can also celebrate a death anniversary or an angelversary instead. The details of these festivities can even change each year or each time you celebrate.
You can also hold viewings, vigils, or memorials. These events typically have rules and a structure to follow but you can truly make them your own to meet you and your family’s needs.
Remember Whose Wishes Matter Most
Though there’s both significant meaning and purpose behind funerals, all of this may or may not matter specifically to you and your loved ones. You probably want your loved ones to keep your wishes in mind for your funeral. You owe them the same, no matter how obscure their wishes may be.
For more tips about funeral planning, inspiration, and other end-of-life planning resources, check out more from Cake.