What is a Funeral?

What is a Funeral?
Learn what is a funeral. Death traditions and practices for different people and cultures and rites or services are held to honour the dead.
9 minute read

Daniela Fortino

For thousands of years, funerals have been an important rite of passage to celebrate the life of a loved one who has died. Although the concept of a funeral is relatively universal, how funerals are celebrated is varied and diverse. Different cultures and societies have their own set of traditions and beliefs associated with honouring a deceased loved one. This article will dive further into the concept of a funeral, its purpose, and the different types of funeral services practices you may find across the world.

What does the word funeral mean?

The word "funeral" can mean different things to different people. For some, it may refer to how the body is handled after death; for others, it can mean elaborate celebrations or parties held in honour of a deceased.

The etymology of the word "funeral" comes from the Latin “words 'funer' and 'funus' which mean death rites.

Although there are subtle nuances between different cultures and societies, funerals can be viewed as ceremonies, celebrations, practices, or observances connected to the final disposition of a person who has died. In most cases, it involves the burial or cremation of the person's body.

History of funerals

Funerals can be traced to the dawn of mankind, with every culture having some form of ritual for the dead. Archeological evidence reveals funerary traditions that date back 40,000 years, with gifts placed alongside the corpse and some form of grave marker.

At about 4,000 BC, Egyptians began embalming their dead. Mummification, a form of embalming, became extensively practiced, with a person's stature in life dictating how well their bodies were treated and preserved. Members of royalty were mummified and then entombed in a decorated case called a sarcophagus.

In Europe, in the same time period that the Egyptians started mummification, catacombs were used to store the dead.  There is a notable catacomb in Paris, France, that contains an estimated six million cadavers in tunnels beneath the city.

In the first century, following the death of Christ, the Romans started to use columbariums to store the urns containing human ashes. This practice is still in use today in modern cemeteries. Ancient people also used stone mounds to mark the location of the dead.

What we know as a funeral in Western nations today has roots in traditions practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries. Families would care for their dead and prepare them for burial before transporting them in a procession to a graveyard where the deceased was buried. This practice was eventually taken over by businesses in the late 1800s that called themselves funeral "homes." In growing industrial cities, it was increasingly impractical to prepare the dead in smaller urban residences. So the death care tasks were taken on by professionals called "morticians."

While cremation has been a funeral rite in Asian cultures for thousands of years, it has only become popularized in recent decades in the West. In the 1960s, cremation rates were only 3 per cent in the U.S. over burial. By 2017  cremations account for more than 51 per cent of final dispositions. That rate has since expanded and is expected to approach 60 per cent in 2022.

That has led to new funeral practices around handling cremation ashes. Burial of ashes or interment in a columbarium is still practiced. But biodegradable urns can also be planted with a tree sapling, displayed in a niche, turned into fireworks, shot into space, scattered, and more. Some prefer to stick with more traditional ceremonies, while others adapt to the continuously changing and evolving way that death and dying are handled.

Purpose and value of funerals

Funerals are meant to be a rite to honour or remember our loved ones that have passed away. However, funerals offer much more than that. Below are some of the ways funerals help grieving family and friends:

  • Grounds you. For many, the death of a loved one can be hard to accept. It is common to try to find ways to disprove or explain the death. Funerals can help reinforce that a loved one has died, allowing family and friends to accept and confront the death. More often, this is one of the integral parts of the grieving process.
  • Allows mourners to say goodbye. Funerals are the last time friends and family will see the deceased or their ashes in most cases. Therefore, many will use funeral services to say goodbye or provide a final sendoff for their loved ones.
  • Provides support. When dealing with the death of a loved one, many find support in friends and family. Knowing you are not alone in your grief can also be comforting. Funerals offer a space for loved ones to gather and support each other through a difficult time.
  • Keeps the memory of the deceased alive. Funerals are also an excellent space for family and friends to get together to share memories and reminisce about the good times they had with the deceased. This is a great way to honour their memory while also offering a break from the seriousness of death.
  • Provides a safe space for emotions. During a funeral, many feel the same types of emotions. Funerals can often offer an outlet for you to express those emotions without fear of judgment, as others are going through a similar experience.
  • Helps you move on. Funerals encourage people to collectively face the reality that life with the deceased is now over. In a sense, funerals can be viewed as a way to mark the end of one chapter of life (with the deceased) and the beginning of the next (without the deceased).
  • Allows for reflection on life and death. Funerals help remind us about the inevitability of death. Life can be precious and short. It is best to live life to the fullest while you can. Funerals can help remind us of this.

Types of funerals

There are many different types of funerals. Here is a list of some of the most common options offered, beginning with burial and cremation practices. Most of the other options mentioned are available to those who choose either body handling practice.

Burial

Burials were one of the first widely used funerary practices. As the name suggests, a burial means that the deceased will be buried, usually in a box called a casket or coffin, in the ground. This can be at a cemetery, a private family plot, at a green burial site (in a shroud), at sea, and more. You can be buried alone, with a loved one, spouse, etc. Some may also opt for interment in a mausoleum over a ground burial.

There is a fair amount of flexibility with burials. However, it is important to note that burials are often more expensive than other options.

Cremation

Cremation is a funerary process in which a dead body is reduced to "cremated remains" or "ashes" through exposure to high heat in a furnace or using  aquamation, a water and chemical process called alkaline hydrolysis.

The ashes can be kept in a decorative container called an urn. They can be buried or placed in a niche or columbarium in a cemetery. Or ashes can be scattered. There are two main types of cremation – flame cremation and aquamation.

Flame cremation

Flame cremation exposes the body to extremely high temperatures in a cremation chamber. Organic material in the body is consumed by the extreme heat in the chamber, except for bone and any non-combustible materials. The remaining bone fragments are mechanically processed into fine dust particles and placed in an urn.

Aquamation

Aquamation uses the chemical process of alkaline hydrolysis to cremate remains. In this process, a body is treated with a combination of water, alkali (a chemical called potassium hydroxide), heat, and pressure, which produces a reaction that speeds up the body's decomposition. When complete, it leaves behind bone fragments, is reduced to a grey powder, and placed in an urn. A sterile liquid is a byproduct of the aquamation process, and it is disposed of into municipal wastewater.

Direct cremation


Direct cremation is another popular and cost-effective cremation service. (Eirene Cremations is a direct cremation provider).

Human remains are sent directly to a cremation centre shortly after death for flame cremation or aquamation and the ashes are returned to the family. It eliminates more expensive services such as embalming, visitation, viewing, wake, and need for a casket. After this process, friends and family can choose to hold a memorial or funeral service at any time.

Some crematoriums will allow families to witness and participate in the cremation process. For example, some places have small, designated areas where family members can gather to see the process and hold a ceremony or celebration of life beforehand. Then, they can watch as the casket is placed in the cremation chamber, witness the start of the cremation process, or click a button to begin the process themselves.

Full or Traditional Funeral Service

A full or traditional funeral service is still a fairly common choice, although its popularity is arguably diminishing in favour of the simplicity of a direct cremation. It involves many or all services being taken care of by a funeral provider. This includes embalming, cremation, visitation, burial/internment, etc. It is common for portions of this service to be held in churches or initiated by a clergyman.

This funeral option is suitable for those who want much of the funeral handled by third parties. However, a downside is that it often comes at a higher cost.

Religious service

Each religion has funeral practices rooted in their doctine. A religious service organizes funeral events according to their beliefs. This can include prayers, a mass, scripture readings, a standard period of reflection (e.g., shiva at Jewish funerals), and more.

Many religions allow for burial and cremation. However, some have a preference. Likewise, certain practices may not be available depending on which faith is followed. This is important to keep in mind when opting for a religious service

Home funeral

A home funeral is a blanket term used to describe death care that family and friends of the deceased partially or entirely carry out themselves. That also means the use of a funeral home and commercial services is primarily avoided or minimized. Instead, family and friends take on many of the roles and responsibilities of preparing the body and planning the funeral in its entirety or collaboration with funerary service providers.

Home funerals provide a loving way to say goodbye, allow for more time for closure, encourage bonding and cooperation between family and friends, allow for more control of funerary decisions, and can save money. They can also incorporate cremation and burials with the assistance of funeral professionals.

Graveside or Committal Service

A graveside or committal service is held at a cemetery or crematorium. The type of service varies, but common elements include eulogies, prayers, placing flowers in the casket or on the gravesite, etc.

Memorial or celebration of life

A memorial or celebration of life event is a ceremony or party where family and friends get together to memorialize the life of a loved one who has died. A celebration of life is usually upbeat, but it can also have somber moments. Often it is a mixture of both. The most important thing to keep in mind is it is an opportunity to remember someone who has died and celebrate their life through activities, music, food, decorations, and more.

Ash scattering

Another common cremation tradition is to scatter the ashes. This can be done on land or the water or in a place of significance for the deceased or the family. The location of where to scatter ashes is a matter of choice. For example, some families scatter the ashes on their property, on a golf course, or at a place loved by their deceased relative. That place can later be visited by family members when they remember their loved ones.

When choosing a location to scatter ash, it is important to follow local laws and regulations.

Viewing, Visitation, or Wake

A viewing, visitation, and wake are essentially the same thing. It often occurs before the formal or religious funeral service. Close friends and family will come to support those closest to the deceased and say their final goodbyes. Viewing is for those who have an open casket burial (or viewing before cremation); A visitation is an event where the deceased is contained in a closed casket. It allows visitors to pay their respect before cremation or burial. Roman Catholic devotees call this event a wake. Although among secular people, a wake is a gathering to celebrate the deceased, These services are not exclusive to particular cultures or religious affiliations.

Alternative funeral options

Many of the examples mentioned above can be viewed as more "traditional" funeral options. However, there are many new and unique ways to memorialize a loved one. For example, you can make the funeral more eco-friendly with a green burial, where the body is wrapped in a shroud and placed in the earth

you can light the sky with lanterns; go virtual, have an open-mic night, and the like. There are also many beautiful cultural traditions found around the world. Essentially, funeral options are endless, and you or your family are free to choose which ones best memorialize your deceased loved ones.

You can also find funeral and cremation ideas in previous articles on the blog. You can find some of these here: