1902 Encyclopedia > Funeral Rites

Funeral Rites




FUNERAL RITES, ceremonies attending the burial, burning, or disposal otherwise of the dead.

The prevalent modes of disposal are very various. The rudest is that of certain nomadic tribes, who, from the exi-gency of their wandering life, simply expose their dead, un-less the custom of some tribes in modern Guinea be still ruder, who, like the ancient Ichthyophagi, throw their dead into the sea, and think they have thus got rid of corpse and ghost to-gether. In exposing the dead, various rules prevail: some leave them where they die and move their own camp on to other hunting grounds; others, like the Wanyamwesi, carry them a little distance into the forest and leave them to be devoured by beasts of prey; while others still, like the Kamtchadales, refine upon this practice, and keep special dogs for the purpose of consuming the dead, reconciling themselves to this custom by the doctrine that they who are eaten by dogs here will drive fine dogs in the other world. Probably the straits of war explain the practice of the Latookas of Zanzibar, who bury their dead, but make it a rule to leave those slain in battle to be devoured by wild beasts where they lie, The custom of exposure has survived among cultured nations in the case of the Parsees, who bring their dead to certain round towers, called towers of silence, to be eaten by vultures which make these towers their dwelling-places. There is evidence that a more startling mode of disposal still is sometimes practised. Certain tribes of the ancient Scythians are said to have eaten their dead, and Burton says that at Dahomey the body of a person killed by lightning is riot buried like others, but is hacked in pieces and eaten by the priests. Skertchley says they do not actually eat it, but only make believe to do so ; but the make-believe is probably a survival of what was once the reality

Next to exposure, burial is the simplest method of dis-posal, and it'is the most widespread, being common alike to the lowest and the highest forms of culture. Burial likewise has its varying customs, from laying the body in natural holes or caves to erecting over it majestic tem-ples. A common practice is simply to lay the body out on the ground and pile stones, or, as among the Moors, prickly thorns, over it, to keep off beasts. The use of the coffin is no sure test of culture, for while some of the rudest peoples lay the dead in a hollowed trunk or a boat, the Mahometan nations use nothing of the kind. Nor is the possession of fixed burying places a better index to the stage of develop-ment, for while many primitive tribes have stated burial places, the more advanced Mexicans had none. Some American tribes bury their children in a separate graveyard from adults, and others bury them by the wayside that their souls may enter into persons passing by.

Refinements upon ordinary burial are the practices of first burning the dead, or embalming them, or drying, them on trees or artificial scaffolds, before burying them. That plain burial is the earlier custom, and that these other more elaborate and costly fashions are later en-graftments upon it, seems to be proved by the fact that many nations adopt more than one custom, and that, while they only bury their women, they first burn or dry their men. The ancient Colchians suspended the corpses of men in trees, but their women they buried. The Gonds and Bhils of India, who have adopted under Hindu influ-ences the practice of burning, still bury their women, while the Todas burn all now, except children the victims of in-fanticide, whom they bury, The Muddikers, who bury, burn lepers, probably from sanitary reasons; and certain tribes, who burn bury the lightning-struck on the spot where they fall. The Kalmucks follow all modes : their usual custom is exposure; but they also burn, or bury, or throw the corpse into the water, or under a heap of stones, or build a hut over it, according to what the priest declares to be most suitable to the condition of the deceased.

Another point of interest in burying is the position of the body in the grave. Some bury their dead lying, others sitting, and there is a remarkable consensus of custom for the practice of laying the body east and west, sometimes with the head to the east and sometimes to the west. This custom is evidently due originally to solar symbolism, and the head is turned to the east or to the west, according as the dead are thought of in connexion with the sunrise, the reputed home of deity, or with the sunset, the reputed region of the dead. This practice, however, though nearly universal, is not absolutely so, for some tribes lay their dead north and south; and others, like the Bongos, bury men with the face to the north and women with the face to the south;, while if one of the Wanyamwesi in Africa happens to die abroad, he is buried facing his native village.

The necessary act of disposing of the corpse has always been accompanied by ceremonies expressive (1) of affection for the deceased or grief for his loss ; (2) of present interest in and solicitude for his welfare ; (3) of a certain mysteri-ous fear of him in his present state; and (4) of affectionate remembrance of him. These ceremonies vary much under different changes of culture, yet have all the same central elements.

Among primitive nations the most common ceremonial expressions of grief are simple exaggerations of the natural expressions of the emotions,—a carelessness as to usual comforts, and a positive distracting agony. Fasting, neglecting the hair, wearing rags or sackcloth, sitting in ashes, daubing oneself with mud or pigment, are almost universal examples of the one ; while wringing the hands, tearing the hair, shaving the head, beating the breast, are common examples of the other. The New Zealanders daub themselves with red pigment and gash their bodies with broken shells. The Hawaians gash themselves, knock out front teeth, cut off a finger joint or an ear, and on the death of a king the nation feigns universal madness, and murders, robs, and commits all manner of crimes, as a ceremonial expression of a sorrow which has driven them frantic. Singing laments, playing plaintive music, dancing funeral dances, are not unusual expressions of grief, though it is probable that the music continuously kept up at the wakes of the Celts and other nations was meant to ward off evil spirits.





The most interesting funeral rites, however, are those which express men’s ideas of the present state, and their solicitude for the present welfare, of the deceased. There is no nation which does not believe that the soul con-tinues to exist after its separation from the body, in another world like the present, but invisible. Many of the funeral rites of the nations are determined by the belief that death is a journey of the soul from this world to that other, and are meant to provide necessary entertainment for the dead on the way, or even after arrival. Meat, drink, weapons, light, musical instruments, horses, money, servants, wives, are among the most usual things buried with the body. The Gonds even leave toothpicks with it. The Aztecs laid a waterbottle beside the dead to be used on the way to Mictlan, the land of the dead. The North American Indian buries with the dead a kettle and provisions, bow and arrows, a pair of moccasins, with a spare piece of deerskin to patch them if they wear out, and sinews of deer to sew the patches on with. The Laplanders lay beside the corpse flint, steel, and tinder to supply light for the dark journey. The Chippewas light fires on the grave for four nights after the funeral, for guidance on the journey, which they think lasts four days. The Karens give the deceased at the grave explicit instructions as to the relations of things in space being reversed in the next world. Taking a stick, they throw it to the north and say that is the south, and taking another, they throw it to the south and say that is the north. The Mexicans gave several slips of paper to the deceased, to serve as passports, taking him in succession past a precipice, a serpent, and a crocodile. The obolus which the Greeks put in the dead man’s mouth to pay Charon, and the coin the Irish place in his hand, are well known. It is a fine touch of the Greenlanders to bury with a child a dog to guide him, for they say a dog will find his way anywhere. The North American Indian buries his "medicine" with him to take him to the happy hunting -grounds. The Norse warrior had his horse and armour laid in the grave, with him that he might ride to Valhalla in full panoply.

Graver sacrifices, of animals, wives, and slaves, for the permanent use of the deceased in the next world, have pre-vailed at one period or another among most nations of Asia, Africa, and America. They are conspicuously absent from the Semitic peoples, though even among them a trace is found in the Arab custom of leaving the 0 dead man’s camel to die on his grave. Of human funeral sacrifices, Hindu suttee is the best known instance. The Fijians strangle wives, slaves, and friends to attend the deceased. The Dyaks of Borneo make head-hunting a main business of this life, under the impression that every person whose head they secure will serve them in the next. A kind of suttee by symbol still survives in certain nations when the sacrifice itself is abolished. The Chinese make paper images of sedan bearers and the like, and fly them in the wind over the grave, thus despatching them after the dead man to serve him; and the Japanese, with whom at one time it was the custom for 20 or 30 slaves to kill themselves by "hari-kari" with the dead, substitute images in modern times; and the Quakeolths of North America rested the widow’s head on the burning corpse, and then dragged her out half dead. Treasure buried with the dead was meant also for their use. In Madagascar as much as 11,000 dollars were laid in the tomb of a prince, The principle that lies at the root of those sacrifices is the prevalent belief in object souls as well as animal souls. The soul of the warrior rode upon the soul of his horse, and wielded the soul of his weapon.

Many of the primitive funeral rites seem dictated by a certain awe or fear of the ghost, and a wish to get it well away. Lane mentions a practice among modern Egyptians of turn-ing the corpse round and round so as to make it giddy, that it might not know where it was going. For the same end, apparently, the Santals carry the body three times round the pile. The Karens watk round the bier in opposite directions three times, each time exchanging candles they have in their hands, and then bid the ghost depart in peace, and to make more sure of his departure, destroy the village where the death occurred. From a similar desire to con-fuse the ghost, the Greenlanders take the body out by a window instead of the door, and the Siamese break out a new opening in the wall to take it through, and then carry it three times round the garden. The Siberians fling a red-hot stone after the corpse, and the Brandenburg peasants pour out a pail of water after it, to prevent it returning. The Pomeranians leave some straw behind in the graveyard that the soul may rest contented there; while the Bongos on leaving the burial place shoot arrows at a votive stake they erect on the grave, and leave the arrows sticking in the wood. The Australians take off the nails of the corpse and tie its hands, lest it scrape its way out again.

The affectionate commemoration of the deceased takes many forms, from simply mourning for a definite period up to periodical funeral feasts, the erection of memorial images, the preservation of the relies as instruments of super-human power, and the worship of the Manes. The natives of Dahomey keep up intercourse with the departed by killing a slave from time to time, whose soul is supposed to go to the dead with the news of the living. The Guinea negroes used to keep the bones of their friends in chests and go occasionally and hold conversation with them. The Mandan women in North America take food year by year to their dead kinsfolk, whose skulls have been preserved in circles of 100 on the prairie. Funeral feasts prevail exten-sively in America, Africa, and Asia, and arise partly, like our own anniversary dinners, from a simple desire to do honour to the dead, but partly also from the belief that the dead participate in the good cheer. They are not merely commemorative but communion meals. Funeral games were probably, like the elaborate dressing of the dead in Brazil and other places in the robes of their patron saints or deities, merely designed to show respect.

To come now to the more cultured peoples, the Greeks either buried or burnt their dead. The body was anointed, crowned with flowers, dressed handsomely and usually in white, laid out in a bed of state with an obolus in its mouth for Charon and a honcycake for Cerberus. These offices were performed by the female relations. The kinsfolk gathered round the bed, and lamented and tore their clothes and hair. On the third day after death the body was carried out by the friends in a coffin, usually of earthen ware, before sunrise,—men walking before it, women, at-tended by the hired mourners, behind,—and was buried out-side the town. A monumert with inscription was raised over the grave. All who took part in the funeral needed to be purified before they could again enter the temples of the gods. Funeral sacrifices were offered on the, third, ninth, and thirtieth days after. On the last of these days stated mourning exided, and the relatives might appear in public again. It was customary afterwards to visit the tomb and leave garlands, and burn meals as offerings to the dead.





The Roman ceremonies were analogous. Burial was the earlier custom. Burning was not general till the republic, but was universal under the empire; the preparation of the body for burial or cremation was performed by a hired body called pollinctores. The corpse was dressed in its best,—if a magistrate, in official robes; and if he had while alive been crowned, then wearing the crown, In early times the burial took place at night, but in later times this was the practice only of the poor who could not afford a funeral display. On the eighth day the body was carried to the grave in a stone coffin on a wooden, or in some cases a golden, bier, amid music and lamentation, and sometimes mimic repre-sentations of the life and merits of the deceased by profes-sional players. The sons of the deceased went veiled, and the women beat their breasts. When the body was burned, oil, perfumes, ornaments, and everything supposed to be agree-able to the deceased were thrown into the fire. On returning from the funeral friends were purified by sprinkling them-selves with water or stepping over a fire. Mourning lasted nine days, and on the ninth a funeral sacrificial feast was celebrated, sometimes with games and gladiatorial combats.

The funeral rites of ancient Egypt were too elaborate to be described here. Their chief peculiarities were the em-balming of the body and the judgment of the dead before burial. It is an error to suppose the embalming took place in order to preserve the body for a future state, for there is no evidence that the Egyptians believed in the resurrec-tion of the body, and embalming could not have reference to that belief if they did, for the whole body was not pre-served, but some of the most important internal parts were taken out first; besides, they embalmed not only men, but the lower animals also. The mummy was often kept in the house a whole year before being buried, and during that interval feasts were held in honour of the dead, and the tomb was being prepared. Then the case was taken out, set on a hearse, taken by a sledge to the sacred lake of the nome, across which it was carried in a boat by a boatman called Charon, and then deposited in the tomb on the other side. Before being allowed to cross, however, the judgment of the dead took place before forty-two judges summoned for the purpose; any one was allowed to bring forward any accusation against the deceased, and if he had led an evil life burial was refused. If there was no accusation, then the relatives ceased lamenting and pronounced encomiums, enlarging not on his descent, as among the Greeks, but on his personal merits. The denial of burial was not perpetual, however, its duration being measured by the extent of the crimes of the deceased. A gold or silver plate was put into the mouth of the mummy, not as a fee to the ferry-man, but as a passport or certificate of good character.

The Russians have a similar custom of putting a passport (in their case a paper one) into the hand of the deceased as a testimonial of his virtue, to be shown to Peter at the gate of heaven. More curious still are the custom of the Badages of 'the Nilgherry Hills, who let loose a scape calf at the grave to take away the dead man’s sins, and the practice mentioned by Brand as prevailing in Wales at one time, of em-ploying sin-eaters, men who receive a loaf over the corpse, and eating it take upon them all the sins of the deceased.

The Mahometans bury their dead usually on the day of death. The prophet forbade wailing but this prohibition is generally neglected. Even hired wailing women are employed by some, who wail during all the time the coarpe is in the house and on the way to the grave; parts of the Koran are recited by religious officials in the house. In the funeral procession the male relatives go in front of the bier, and are preceded by four or six poor old men, mostly blind, who chant the profession of faith, and followed by four or six schoolboys who chant passages from a poem descriptive of the last judgment; while the female relatives come behind the bier, accompanied by the wailing women with their tambourines, and cry and shriek, and celebrate the praises of the deceased. If the dead man was rich, then several camels follow bearing bread and water to give the poor at the tomb, and last of all comes a buffalo to be slaughtered there for the same purpose. The bier is then brought to the mosque, laid in the usual place of prayer, with the right side towards Mecca; and the imam standing at its left side, with the people behind him, recites the funeral service, after which he calls upon those present to give their testimony respecting the dead, and they reply, "He was of the virtuous." The body is then laid in the tomb, and is there instructed in the answers to be given to ques-tions, such as Who is God, and who is his apostle? which the angels are expected to put.

Christian rites are marked by high reverence for the body, due to the belief in its future resurrection. Under Christian influence cremation gradually disappeared from Europe, northern and southern alike, and burial became universal, as being more expressive of the truth held so precious. Christians bury in separate places of their own, which, except among Presbyterians and other sections of Protestants, have been usually consecrated for the purpose by a special ceremony. Interment in churches of favourite martyrs and apostles was at one time much sought after, and had to be repeatedly forbidden by ecclesiastical councils. Bishops and distinguished churchmen or laymen were sometimes allowed to be buried in the church, only not near the altar. Among the early Christians the washing and anoint-ing of the body for the burial were not done by hired persons, but were counted a work of love, done by friend for friend, and by the charitable for the poor and the stranger. The body was swathed in white, decked some-times with the insignia of office or personal ornaments, placed in a coffin and laid out in the church or in the chamber of death for friends to come and take a last look at it. Three or four days usually elapsed between the death and burial, and vigils were held with prayers and hymn--singing. Hired mourners were forbidden. The funeral took place by day, for, Christian death being a victory, it was meant to give the procession the aspect of a triumph ; for which reason those who took part in it carried branches, not of cypress, as among the Romans, but of palm and olive. Evergreen leaves were strewn on the coffin, but the practice of crowning the head with wreaths was forbidden, as savouring of idolatry. Lamps and torches, however, were sometimes carried. The body was borne on a bier, and covered with a pall costly in proportion to the rank of the deceased. It was laid in the grave with face upward and feet to the east, in token of the resurrection at the coming again of the Sun of Righteousness. A service took place at the grave, and, as a rule, does so still among most Christians. In Scotland this was abolished at the Reforma-tion, as being liable to be mingled with superstitious ideas, and a service and exhortation in the church were recommended instead, but this is seldom practised. Christian burial in consecrated ground, and with a religious service, was denied by canon law to all who were not Christians, to excommunicated persons, suicides, criminals, usurers, schis-matics, heretics, and, among Roman Catholics, even un-baptized children of Christian parents. The eucharist was celebrated at the grave as early as the 4th century; and for some centuries, in spite of repeated phohibition by ecclesiastical councils, the practice prevailed in West Africa, Gaul, and the East, of placing the consecrated bread itself, steeped in wine, in the lips of the dead. An-other practice, which has indeed the sanction of Basil, was not uncommon, that of burying the eucharistic bread with the dead. Special prayers were offered for the soul of the departed, and the priests, and afterwards other friends, gave the corpse the last kiss of peace. See CREMATION.

For descriptions of the funeral rites of different nations the reader may be referred to general works on ethnography, such as Dr Robert Brown’s Races of Mankind; Herbert Spencer’s Descriptive Sociology; Prichard’s Researches into the Physical History of Man; Fr. Müller’s Allgemeine Ethnographie; Waitz’s Anthropologie der Natur-Völker; Klemm’s Allgemeine Culturgeschichte der Menschheit; and more particularly to Parcacchi, Funerali antichi di diversi populi e nationi, Von. 1754 ; Muret, Cèrèmonies funèbres de toutes nations, Paris, 1677 (English translation by Lorrain, 1683) ; Feydean, Hist. générale des usages funèbres et des sèpultures des pouples anciens, Paris, 1858, 3 vols.; De Gubernatis, Storia popolare degli usi funebri Indo-Europei, 1873 ; Tegg, The Last Act, London, 1876 ; and Sonntag, Die Todtenbestattung, Halle, 1878. For the funeral customs of the Bengal tribes reference may be made to Dalton’s Ethnology of Bengal ; for those of the American races, to Bancroft’s Native Races of the Pacific States of America; and for interpretations of funeral rites, to Tylor’s Primitive Culture, vol. ii., and Spencer’s Principles of Sociology. Spencer not only treats of the origin and meaning of funeral rites, but strives to deduce all religious ideas and institutions out of those rites as their original source. For classical rites see Guichard, Funérailles . . . des Romains, Grecs, &c., Lyons, 1581; Meursins, Do funere Grecorum et Romanorum, Hague, 1604; Gutherius, De Jure Manium, Paris, 1613 ; Kirchmann, De funeribus Romanorum, Hamburg, 1605 ; Stackelberg, Die Gräber der Hellenen, Berlin, 1837; and Becker’s Charicles and Gallus; and for early Christian rites, Gretser, De Funere Christiano, Ingoldst., 1611; Durand, Rationale Divinorum Officium, composed in the 13th century, and first published at Mainz, 1459 ; Bingham's Antiquities of the Christian Church, book xxiii.; and Augusti’s Christliche Archaeologie, Bd. ix. For English ceremonies see Agard, Dethick, Holland, &c., "On antiquity of ceremonies used at funerals," in Hearne’s Collection ; Brand’s Pepular Antiquities; Strutt’s Manners and Customs. Weinhold has treated of early German customs in Die heidnische Todtenbestattung in Deutschland, Vienna, 1859. (J. R.)



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