Funeral customs are changing constantly. Over time, the way we wish to mourn those we have lost evolves, our clients’ expectations change.
Here at the Heart of England, we’ve been organising funerals for a long time and have seen a lot of changes.
Making funerals more personal is very popular and technologies have advanced to make this easier. From recorded music in the ceremony to picture coffins, funerals are more than ever becoming a way to celebrate the life of the individual. Cremations now account for around 80% of our funerals which means new ways have been found to memorialise people’s ashes.
However, many old traditions still remain, and we thought we’d look at where these traditions come from and why they came to be.
Funeral rites are as old as the human race itself. Every culture and civilization have attended to the proper care of their dead. Simple ceremonies with the deceased wrapped in plain cotton shrouds have evolved over time into something more elaborate and symbolic.
We no longer bury people, as the Celts did, with all the possessions they will need for the afterlife, but there are lots of things we still hold dear.
We associate widow’s weeds with Queen Victoria, but it was the Tudors who first dressed in black. The funerals of ordinary people were simple affairs, but the rich and powerful would have coffins, processions and gravestones. Mourners wore black to differentiate themselves from mere onlookers.
Mourning rings were also popular, albeit slightly macabre, featuring skulls, coffins and crosses. The Victorian upped the ante with post-mortem photography and the weaving of their hair onto jewellery and ornaments.
These traditions died out but have recently been revived in a different form with the development of Ashes Jewellery which uses a tiny amount of a loved one’s ashes in the setting.
By and large, people still wear black but now it is not unusual for mourners to wear a favourite colour or a bright theme as a celebration of a life.
Funeral processions led by the hearse (funeral car carrying the coffin) are still used in UK funerals. There are actually no motoring laws surrounding this aspect of a funeral, but even though the days of horse and cart corteges have gone, except when specifically requested, modern passers-by still recognise the procession and will often be seen to stop and pay their respects before moving on.
Funeral processions in Roman times looked and sounded very different too. Professional mourners were paid to form part of the funeral procession, wailing loudly. The larger the procession, the more noise and music, the wealthier and more powerful the deceased person was regarded to be.
Waking The Corpse
The wake is a time to share memories, to celebrate their life, and to grieve together.
It’s now held after the service, but traditionally the wake was the period of time when people would sit with the body at home.
This gave time for mourners to travel from further away, but also had its roots in superstition. A vigil meant that the body had to be kept safe from ancient dangers such as body snatchers or evil spirits. The night-long activity was then known as “waking the corpse.”
Chapel of Rest
The funeral director’s private viewing area or “chapel of rest” gradually replaced the wake at home. Victorian attitudes to hygiene and superstition changed and people began to feel more comfortable allowing mourners to visit the dead at a place separate from where they would continue to live.
Today, not everyone visits the chapel, nor should they feel pressured into doing so if it doesn’t feel right. However, it remains an option for those people who find comfort.
Flowers had a practical use. There were used, alongside candles, to mask unpleasant smells during a wake. Mortuary care has made this unnecessary, but they continue as a mark of love and respect. White lilies remain the most popular flower choice, stemming from their symbolism of the innocence of the soul. Personalised flower displays can also be a positive way to remember someone we love.
Donations instead of flowers may seem like a modern custom, but this is actually a long-standing tradition from Elizabethan times, when money would be given to the poor as part of the feast of mourning.
Stop All The Clocks
There are some customs that have fallen from favour. These are the customs that are more about superstition than the person themselves. These included stopping the clocks in the room the person died in to prevent bad luck, covering mirrors so their soul wouldn’t get trapped in the glass, and turning family photographs face-down so that the people in them would not be possessed by the spirit of the dead.
The Future: Green Goodbyes
We are seeing more people than ever planning their own funerals. Some through pre-payment plans, and some through discussing details with their own friends and family.
Green Funerals are growing in popularity, with people not wanting their death to have an added environmental impact on the world.
More environmentally friendly coffins have emerged, alongside the growth of woodland burials and memorial trees planted in place of traditional headstones.
For many, we have gone full circle, back to simple ceremonies designed to celebrate life. The combining of this with other cultures and customs mean that more than ever, we can create a unique and personalised goodbye that our loved ones who have left us, can be proud of.