What Can We Learn From Ancient Funeral Traditions?

In the United States today, there are a variety of different funeral traditions. With that said, there are a great deal of similarities in the different funeral practices we commonly see in the United States. Some of the commonplace funeral traditions in the United States can be traced to funereal practices that stem back hundreds if not thousands of years. Some of these historical, even ancient, funeral traditions are presented here for consideration.

Earliest Known Burials

The earliest known burials appear to have taken place as far back as 50,000 years ago. Arguably, this has set the stage for one of the most commonplace burial practices in the United States and elsewhere around the world today. 

Although the first burials occurred many, many centuries ago, the burials were somewhat indiscriminate. The remains of the dead were placed essentially wherever they died. 

The first verified burial site dates back about 10,000 years. These burial sites were nearly always inside caves. This is rather akin to the mausoleums that have been widely used in the Western world, including in the United States, for many years. It is located in Qafzeh, which itself is located in modern-day Israel. At this ancient burial site, humans were placed in coffins prior to interment underground. 

The remains of people buried at Oafzeh were not embalmed as oftentimes happens today nor mummified as occurred in ancient Egypt, bodies did undergo a preparation process prior to burial. The remains of people buried in this ancient gravesite appear to have been painted. 

Burial Traditions in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia oftentimes is regarded as a true cradle of civilization. The Sumerians and Babylonians of Mesopotamia developed funeral and burial traditions that can be recognized even today. The peoples of these civilizations believed that their departed loved ones went to another place following death, which they knew as the Underworld. This literally was a geographic location, situated under the surface of the Earth. 

The belief systems of these two civilizations resulted in burial underground. The deceased were buried underground so that they would have easier access to their new “home” in the Underworld. They were also buried in community settings (rather like a modern-day cemetery) that were located near to where loved ones resided. This was done to permit living people the ability to visit those who had died. 

Burial Traditions in Egypt

Burial traditions in ancient Egypt were very similar to what was seen in early Mesopotamia. With that said, there were some notable differences in funeral and burial traditions in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. 

A key distinction is the meticulous efforts undertaken by ancient Egyptians to preserve the remains of the dead through mummification. There was a religious significance to this practice, a focus on preserving the remains for the afterlife. 

However, there was also a practical reason for the mummification of human remains. The ancient Egyptians had an understanding that if human remains were permitted to decompose, the prospect existed that disease could be spread. In the United States, the widespread practice of embalming parties commenced during the U.S. Civil War. Because people were killed at such a high rate, timely burial was impossible. Thus, embalming was utilized to permit later burial and to prevent the spread of disease. 

Greek Burial Traditions

Rather like modern-day Christians and other religions, Greeks believed that the spirit left a human body at the time of death. In order to ensure that the spirit made it safely to the Underworld, steps needed to be taken with the body. 

The body was anointed in oil and wrapped in a shroud. A coil was placed under a deceased person’s tongue, the money to be used to pay the ferryman for crossing the River Styx. The River Styx represented the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. 

The body was laid out for mourning by family and friends, quite like what occurs at a viewing and funeral today. The Grecian ritual was called Prothesis. Within a day or two following death, and before dawn, a funeral processing occurred. The body was taken to its final resting place for burial or for a funeral pyre for cremation. 

There was a ceremony associated with death, quite like a funeral service today. These ceremonies included the delivery of eulogies, testaments to the person who died. 

Roman Burial Traditions

Roman burial traditions were very similar to those practiced in ancient Greece. In addition to the funeral and burial practices just discussed in regard to ancient Greece, the Romans also created truly lavish funerary art. There was a good deal of social and economic mobility in ancient Rome. Thus, even former slaves had the ability to become wealthy. As a consequence, a considerable segment of Roman society was able to have expensive funerals and associated art.

Celtic Burial Traditions

Celtic civilization spanned a larger geographic area than most people realize. Oftentimes, people associated Celtic civilization with Ireland. However, at its height, Celtic civilization encompassed all of the British Isles (Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland), parts of France, and parts of Germany.

A key element of Celtic burial traditions that we see in funeral practices in the United States today is cremation and placement of cremains in urns. Oftentimes, during the ancient Celtic period, these urns were buried. 

Hindu Burial Traditions

Ancient Hindu traditions maintained that the body had no importance following death. The body as merely a vessel for the soul or spirit. The practice was to cremate the remains as quickly as possible following death. Cremation would occur at dusk or dawn, whichever came first. 

Despite the belief that the body only was a vessel, ancient Hindus did undertake a process of preparing the remains. This included washing the body as well as anointing it with oil and water from the Ganges River. 

Burial Traditions in the Americas

Indigenous people throughout the Americas engaged in a variety of funeral practices that were somewhat commonplace throughout the continents. For example, there was a fairly common belief that a soul departed the body following death. Moreover, the soul had the prospect of enjoying an eternal happy afterlife. This belief culminated in a myriad of different body preparation and burial practices in what today are North, Central, and South America. 

These practices ranged from the final internment of a body one year after death, with the remains kept in a hollow tree until that time, to inground burial immediately after death. Cremation was practiced to varying degrees throughout these areas among the ancient indigenous people. 

Common threads through these burial traditions, which we see today, are assisting with grieving and honoring the dead. In addition, there have been concerns about health and disease when it comes to burial traditions for generations.