The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


October 25, 2013

End-of-life rituals have changed dramatically over the years

Of all the animal species, mankind alone buries its dead.

How far back the custom goes is unknown, but evidence uncovered in a cave in Iraq in the 20th century indicates that Neanderthal man practiced burial some 60,000 years ago and even laid flowers on graves. The living probably returned at intervals.

This behavior graphically reveals the Neanderthal’s practice of burying their dead with ritual funerals rather than abandoning corpses as their ancestors did. The primal ritual also reveals early man’s first inclination toward a belief in an afterlife and the ceremonial good-bye.

In essence, the dead were the first to have a permanent dwelling, a cave or a mound marked by stones. Probably the earliest tombstones were meant to placate the restless spirits or to seal the mouth of a cave or crypt from robbers.

At the same time, one’s role in life often determined his or her position in the grave. In several African cultures a husband is laid on his right side facing east so the rising sun will wake him to hunt and farm. His wife is buried facing west so the setting sun will remind her to prepare the evening meal.

Whatever the reason, life’s ending has been surrounded by ceremony, if not pomp, for thousands of years. How people in a certain era bury their dead says much about the people, their historical time, and the prevailing attitudes toward death and dying.

In the last 150 years, we have seen the body’s last earthly address undergo a radical transformation unlike any in previous history.

In earlier times, a family had its own private graveyard. This seemed to stem from two beliefs: that a family (and not the state) bore an obligation to bury its dead and ties of kinship endured beyond death.

We still believe a family should bury its own dead. The family plot and private mausoleum are actually cultural hangovers from this conviction.

And though we no longer hold that kinship survives death, a family will spend enormous sums to transport a body back home — by air or by ship — so kin can be buried with kin.

In the ancient world, a family also jealously protected its private graveyard. A clan would never permit the body of a stranger to lie beside relatives. Still today, no family would appreciate a stranger buried in its plot.

We continue to regard the bodies of dead relatives as family, and hold that the family that prays together, and pays for the plot together, stays together.

And though most of us think of cemetery overcrowding as a modern phenomenon brought on by growing towns and cities, this is probably not the case.

By the sixth century, Christians were so numerous that their preference for church or churchyard burials presented severe problems of space and sanitation. Burial vaults inside churches were crammed with cracked and rotted wooden coffins, the air polluted in summer by stench and flies. As a result, many churches were a direct source of disease to worshipers.

Outside the stained-glass windows, in the adjoining churchyard, the situation was worse. Corpses were no longer six feet under; coffins had been stacked tier upon tier until the uppermost bodies were within inches of the ground’s surface.

It was a series of virulent epidemics that struck the Northeastern United States in the early 1800s that forced cemetery reform. The transformation came in the way of the picturesque “garden cemetery.” It would not be built by the church, but by individuals and cooperatives, first as a nonprofit organization. This occurred throughout the Western world on a mass scale and transformed the image of our final resting place.

The purpose of a funeral, meanwhile, has changed radically. Centuries ago, when theological opinions predominated, funeral rites were primarily for the benefit of the dead, to ensure safe and smooth passage into the afterlife.

In our more skeptical age, when immortality is perhaps less persuasive, funerals mainly exist to soften the grief of the living.

A decade ago Americans spent more money annually on funerals and death accessories than on hospital costs. Today, we spend more than two billion dollars a year on funerals.

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Top of the morning!

— Blankenship is a reporter

for The Register-Herald.


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