Funeral Customs

funeral customs, rituals surrounding the death of a human being and the subsequent disposition of the corpse. Such rites may serve to mark the passage of a person from life into death, to secure the welfare of the dead, to comfort the living, and to protect the living from the dead. Disposal of the body may be by burial, by conservation (see mummy), by cremation, by exposure (see Parsis), or by other methods. Funeral ceremonies have certain common features: for example, the laying out of the corpse; the watching of the dead, of which the wake is a standard example; and the period of mourning with the accompanying ceremonies.

Disposition of the Corpse

Preparation of the corpse is usually most elaborate in the case of burial (see coffin; embalming), but it is a general practice to wash and clothe the body. Many of the observances connected with death recall the rites of passage associated with other life crises. The body is then taken to a resting place, sometimes only temporarily. It may be laid on a scaffold, to await later cremation, or it may be buried until the flesh has rotted away, after which the bones are exhumed for a second burial. Such secondary burials are quite common in traditional societies. All of these customs derive from a belief that the soul remains in this world for a brief period before departing for the next. Final disposition of the corpse implies final disposition of the soul, and the mourners have certain ritual obligations toward the deceased until then. In the past, the spirit of the deceased was regarded by certain peoples as potentially both harmful and helpful. Attempts to discourage it from returning and disturbing the living were made by placing near the corpse such foods and personal possessions as would help the spirit during its journey and equip it for the other world. As the social and economic status of the deceased was often reflected by the quality and quantity of their burial goods, the systematic analysis of funerary remains can provide archaeologists with an important means of investigating the social organization of an ancient culture.

Religious Customs

Funeral customs have traditionally varied by religion. In Buddhism, death is prepared for through meditation, and death itself is viewed as a rebirth. Once dead, the body is washed, rituals are performed over it, a wake is held, and then it is typically cremated. Christian custom has changed from an earlier period where a funeral was treated as a joyous occasion to one where it is a time for mourning. In the Roman Catholic Church, the body is prepared for burial, usually by embalming; this is followed by a requiem Mass and burial; additional Masses may be conducted periodically over the next year. Protestant churches usually hold one ceremony, followed by either burial (the usual form) or cremation. Hindu ceremonies are closely tied to a belief in reincarnation. Thus an elaborate set of rituals is conducted, mostly by relatives, to ensure a proper rebirth. Islamic ceremonies include washing and preparing the body, prayers, reading from the Qur'an, and placing the body on the right side facing Mecca for burial (cremation is not practiced). Early Judaism, with perhaps the simplest of all ceremonies, included a prayer service, washing the body and wrapping it in linen, followed by a funeral banquet.


See E. Bendann, Death Customs (1930, repr. 1969); R. Hertz, Death and the Right Hand (tr. 1960); R. W. Habenstein and W. M. Lamers, The History of American Funeral Directing (rev. ed. 1962) and Funeral Customs the World Over (rev. ed. 1963); R. Huntington and P. Metcalf, Celebrations of Death (1979).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Funeral Customs: Selected full-text books and articles

International Handbook of Funeral Customs
Kodo Matsunami.
Greenwood Press, 1998
Death and Bereavement across Cultures
Colin Murray Parkes; Pittu Laungani; Bill Young.
Routledge, 1997
Dying, Death, and Bereavement
Lewis R. Aiken.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001 (4th edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Funerary Rituals and Religion"
The Cultural Defense
Alison Dundes Renteln.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "The Dead"
Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage
Ronald L. Grimes.
University of California Press, 2000
Grief, Mourning, and Death Ritual
Jenny Hockey; Jeanne Katz; Neil Small.
Open University Press, 2001
Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America
Gary Laderman.
Oxford University Press, 2003
Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America
Stephen Prothero.
University of California Press, 2001
Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England
David Cressy.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Consorting with Saints: Prayer for the Dead in Early Medieval France
Megan McLaughlin.
Cornell University Press, 1994
Death, Burial, and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity
Jon Davies.
Routledge, 1999
Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome
Donald G. Kyle.
Routledge, 1998
The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand
Alan Klima.
Princeton University Press, 2002
Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends
Michiko Iwasaka; Barre Toelken.
Utah State University Press, 1994
Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore
Tong Chee-Kiong.
RoutledgeCourzon, 2004
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