Changing Traditions: Evolution of Funerals from Neolithic to Modern Times

Funerals, they can't be avoided and they are sure to bring sadness. When the word "funeral" is heard images of a hearse, black suits, and gravestones come to mind. There are sure to be tears but there is also a sense of comfort that the deceased is in a better place. But how did we get here? What were the first funerals like? On this page we will explore the evolution of funerals dating back to Neolithic times, Medieval, and finally the modern funeral.

The Neolithic Funeral: Unsure but Hopeful
Bulgaria: Dutch Anthropologists Research Bulgaria NeolithicArchaeology Site
Bulgaria: Dutch Anthropologists Research Bulgaria NeolithicArchaeology Site

It is impossible to know exactly what the people of the Neolithic period were thinking when they buried their dead but it is fair to assume what may have been on their minds. In excavation sites of these funerals the body that has been buried is almost always found in the fetal position. If the person has many belongings buried along with them they are assumed to be a person of great wealth or importance to their tribe. These belongings may consist of the following: Spear Heads, Horses, Beads, Necklaces, Carved Stones. The goods were thought to be buried with a person so that they could have those goods with them in what ever may be on the other side of death

In a Neolithic burial study in Western Egypt Michal Kobusiewicz et al. described one of the burial grounds:
"All individuals had received numerous grave goods. A total of 896 artifacts of various types were recovered. Of these, 568 qualified as single gifts, considering that some necklaces were composed of many beads. In 331 cases, the goods can be connected with particular individuals. In 286 of these instances, it was also possible to state exactly their location in relation to different parts of the body.
The most common grave goods were artifacts made of flint and agate; next, in order of magnitude, were items of personal adornment, stone objects and bracelets."

Armstrong suggest that the Neolithic humans started burying their dead in a ritual manner when they began to have a sense of mortality. The idea of another tribesmen no longer living was extremely stressful on the early people, so to counteract the stress the Neolithic people began burying their dead. They would place the body in a fetal position to represent the cycle of death and rebirth. Although the deceased may no longer be apart of this world the tribe would hope that they were being reborn into a new world.

The position of the deceased and also the depth of the burial. If the bodies of a certain burial ground are all found with the heading pointing in a certain direction, it is commonly assumed that the direction has a specific importance to the people that buried them. However it is not possible to know what that is since since the concept of grave orientation did not emerge until Roman times. The depth of a grave has also be assumed that the shallow graves (around 2-3 feet deep) were made so the spirit could easily emerge from the ground.

As time has passed the funeral or burial practice has changed, we will now look at funeral practices of the Medieval times.

Figure 5: Zoomorphic pendant found near an infant skeleton of theel-Kerkh 2c phase. Although this burial lacked a clear pit, the pendantwas probably associated with the burial.
Figure 5: Zoomorphic pendant found near an infant skeleton of theel-Kerkh 2c phase. Although this burial lacked a clear pit, the pendantwas probably associated with the burial.

Artifact from a Neolithic Burial Mound in Syria

Medieval Ages: Church Burials Boom

During the Medieval times the Catholic church had a large presence in funerals. Funerals now were a rite of passage to heaven and had to be done in a strict manner. Not have a Catholic burial was seen as leaving the persons soul for hell so funerals were held with a Catholic mass. Early on the deceased were buried in costumes to showcase what positions they had held in their life, such as a king or knight. Cremation was a sin during this time period as many saw the desecration of the body into ash as destroying the body and thus rendering it impossible to rise to heaven.

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Early burials during this time took place outside of the city walls in burial grounds but after the Edict of Toleration in 313 AD, burials began to take place within the walls of cities. Once in-city burials began taking place people wished to be buried near or in the church they attended. This practice of being buried near a church gave rise to modern cemetery's that we see today.

Modern Funerals: Practices of Today
Almost everyone has been to a funeral. There is a service, a slow ride to the cemetery, the burial, and then a reception for people to gather and remember the life lost. It is a seldom event but there are sure to be a few smiles and laughs from stories about the deceased. With modern funerals the phrase "celebrate life" is commonly used to combat the phrase "mourn the loss". It seems as though death is common and accepted without much questions anymore.

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The majority of burials today are done two ways: Cremation and Embalming.

Cremation: The incineration of a dead body at 2,500 degrees F.
Cremation is seen as a an acceptable practice nowadays in various cultures across the world. People moved away from the belief that the deceased would no longer be able to rise to heaven is their body was burned and shifted to cremation as a means for controlling overcrowded cemeteries.

Fact: Cremation is still forbidden in Orthodox Jewish culture, just recently became accepted in Roman Catholicism, and is most common in the Hindu faith.

Embalming: The process of removing bodily fluids and replacing them with disinfecting and preserving chemicals. This keeps the body from decaying and rotting quickly so people may view the body. Making the face look presentable to loved ones is the most important job of the mortician.

Funerals no longer have to be a religious occasion like they were in the past. There are many funerals now where the family takes the ashes of the loved one and dumps it into the ocean instead of having a large church burials. There are usually a few kind words about the person and a few hopeful thoughts that their soul may find peace, but it is no longer seen by all that not having a religious ceremony will damn a person to hell.

All in all we end up as ash or in the ground, just as the Neolithic buried their dead. Although customs have changed and practices differ everyone holds onto the faith that the deceased will find peace in a better world, that has not changed. The reason that this belief has not changed is because the rituals have changed over time to the beliefs of the current society. Although many do not believe in an after life, the changing myth of the funeral has helped keep a view of the afterlife alive and in touch.

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