Select one of the groups represented in Chapter 10 and in 250 – 300
words, describe their funeral, burial or mourning rituals. Discuss how
commonly these are found in the United States. Consider burial plots,
headstones, cremation, crying at funerals, wearing of black, and any
other traditions predominantly practiced by that group. Please respond
to a minimum of two classmates in a substantive manner, and support your
comments with at least one scholarly reference.
CHAPTER 10 Diversity in Death Rituals.docxCHAPTER 10
DIVERSITY IN DEATH RITUALS
Some children love to watch the cremations. The skull is usually the last thing to be burned.
Sometimes it collapses with a loud pop, like a balloon bursting. When that happens, the
children clap their hands.
—Alexander Campbell, The Heart of India
Death occurs in all societies, yet it evokes an incredible variety of responses. At the moment of
death, survivors in some societies remain rather calm, others cry, and still others mutilate their
bodies. Members of some societies officially mourn for months, whereas others complete the
ritual within hours. In many societies families are involved in preparing the corpse for the
funeral ritual; in others, families engage professional funeral directors to handle the job.
The variety of responses to death was further noted by Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf
in Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (1992). They stated that
corpses are burned or buried, with or without animal or human sacrifice; they are preserved by
smoking, embalming, or pickling; they are eaten—raw, cooked, or rotten; they are ritually
exposed as dead or decaying flesh or simply abandoned; or they are dismembered and treated
in a variety of these ways. Funerals are times for avoiding people or holding parties, for
weeping or laughing, or for fighting or participating in sexual orgies.
Whereas death rituals in the United States are generally subdued and rather gloomy affairs,
some societies engage in rather spirited activities. The Bara of Madagascar, for example,
engage in “drunken revelry” at a funeral—rum is consumed, sexual activities occur, dancing
takes place, and contests involving cattle occur (Huntington & Metcalf, 1992). Among the
Cubeo of South America, simulated and actual ritual coitus is part of the mourning ritual
(Goldman, 1979). The dances, ritual, dramatic performances, and sexual license have the
purpose of transforming grief and anger over a death into joy.
In most non-Western societies, death is not seen as one event but rather as a process whereby
the deceased person is slowly transferred from the land of the living to the land of the dead
(Helman, 1985). The process is illustrated by rituals marking biological death, followed by
rituals of mourning, and then by rituals of social death. The deceased person is often viewed as
a soul in limbo during rituals of mourning, though he or she is still a partial member of the
society (Sweeting & Gilhooly, 1992).
For the Kota people of south India, for example, a person is not socially dead until after the
dry funeral—the second funeral for the deceased, held annually and lasting 11 days
UNDERSTANDING DEATH RITUALS
Ritual can be defined as the symbolic affirmation of values by means of culturally
standardized utterances and actions (Taylor, 1988). People in all societies are inclined to
symbolize culturally defined feelings in conventional ways. Ritual behavior is an effective
means of expressing or reinforcing these important sentiments, and it helps make death less
socially disruptive and less difficult for individuals to bear (Haviland, 1991). Rituals differ
from other behaviors in that they are formal— stylized, repetitive, and stereotyped
(Rappaport, 1974). Rituals are performed in special places, occur at set times, and include
liturgical orders—words and actions set forth previously by someone. In cultures that deny
death, rituals can make death a reality, normalize the grieving process, and introduce the
possibilities for hope, imagination, and new life for survivors (Giblin & Hug, 2006).
DEATH RITUALS AS A RITE OF PASSAGE
Throughout life we will occupy social positions within the societies of which we are a part.
Whenever our social position changes, our identities change as well. These transitions in
identity require of us, as well as of those who are significant in our life, the ability to adjust
and adapt to the transitions. Human beings construct rituals as one means of
acknowledging and adapting to change. Consider the following transitions: A child
becomes an adult, a single person commits to another in marriage, a married couple
become parents, a worker retires, and a person dies. In most societies, each of these
transitions is marked by collective actions (or social rituals) that acknowledge a change in
Death is a transition, but only the last in a long chain of transitions, or rites of passage,
according to Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf (1992). In many cultures and religions,
being dead is another status change, replete with new roles and obligations. Often the dead
are expected to give advice, cure illness, reward good deeds, and ensure a good harvest. In
Ireland, the dead are called upon to cure the afflicted and to comfort the lonely (Enright,
1994). Thus, at funerals in Ireland, people never say farewell because they fully expect to
hear from their friends and loved ones again.
The moment of death is related not only to the process of afterlife but also to the process
of living, aging, and producing progeny. Death relates to life—to the recent life of the
deceased and to the lives that he or she has procreated and now leaves behind. There is an
eternity of sorts on either side of the line that divides the quick from the dead. Life
continues generation after generation, and in many societies it is this continuity that is
focused upon and enhanced during the rituals surrounding a death.
One of the best-known accounts of death as one of a series of such rites of passage
through the life cycle comes from A. Van Gennep (1909/1960) in his treatment of funerals.
Van Gennep compared funeral rituals with other rites of passage (such as marriage
ceremonies and graduation exercises) and claimed that all rites of passage have three
subrites—rites of separation, rites of transition, and rites of reincorporation.
In the rite of separation, those whose identity is undergoing change will be perceived by
the group as different or “other.” At the graduation or wedding the graduates or the
members of the bridal party dress differently. In the middle of the rite of passage the
identity of the ones changing will experience some ambiguity— after the bride and groom
have exchanged vows, are they married or single? Is the deceased person in the casket as
dead as he or she will be after burial or cremation? Finally, for all rites of passage there will
be a rite of reincorporation in which the community incorporates in a new way those who
have taken on a new identity. These rites of reincorporation are often meals or feasts—
graduation or wedding receptions and after-funeral meals.
Funeral or mortuary rites in many societies are critical because they ensure that the dead
make the transition to the next stage of life or nonlife. Although many cultures continue to
have relationships with the dead, they only do so when the dead are safely in the next
world. However, persons for whom no rites are performed
… are the most dangerous dead. They would like to be reincorporated into the world of the
living and since they cannot be, they behave like hostile strangers toward it. They lack the
means of subsistence which the other dead find in their own world, and consequently must
obtain them at the expense of the living. (Van Gennep, 1909/1960, p. 160)
In these two pictures we view French police officer, Brigadier Benoît-Christophe
Legendre (1975–2006). The first picture was taken a week before his death, and the
second is of him lying in his bed at his father’s house, near Marseille, in south France,
after he was prepared by the undertaker. Consider how difficult it must be
psychologically for survivors to make the transition from alive to dead of their loved
one. The social function of rites of passage is to ease this process of transition.
The view of death rituals as rites of passage is supported by a study of the similarities
between the Irish funeral wake and the events staged to send immigrants to America in the
19th century (Metress, 1990). Both affairs involved public participation and an opportunity
for the family and community to come together to grieve over their loss. Though sad, one
could actually rejoice at the departed’s rebirth to a new state: Death and immigration freed
one forever from the stark hopelessness of poverty.Music, singing, dancing, and wake
games were usually a part of the affair.
However, research by J. Hunter (2007–2008) suggests that funeral rituals in America
often create an incomplete rite of passage. This is because, while funeral rituals may assist
the bereavement in providing an immediate structure for coping with the death, funerary
rituals are not effective in proving for the long—term emotional needs of survivors as they
are attempting to reconstruct the meaning of their lives while they are grieving the loss of
the loved one.
As we discussed in Chapter 1, the term function refers to the extent to which some part or
process of a social system contributes to the maintenance of that system. Function means
the extent to which an activity promotes or interferes with the maintenance of a system
(Cuzzort & King, 1995). Rituals are a particularly effective means of promoting the
maintenance of social systems.
The structural—functional perspective of sociologist Emile Durkheim (1915/1954) and
anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski (1925/1948) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1964)
reduced the ritual process to an equilibrium—producing system. The specific functions of
rituals include validating and reinforcing values, providing reassurance and feelings of
security in the face of psychological disturbances, reinforcing group ties, aiding status
change by acquainting persons with their new roles, relieving psychological tensions, and
re-establishing patterns of interaction disturbed by a crisis (Taylor, 1988). T. Oestigaard
and J. Goldhahn (2006) argue that from the perspective of Norwegian society, death is
more important for the living than the dead because funerals are one of the most important
settings for re-creating society through the re-establishment of alliances in the society.
Similarly, burial rite functions can be enumerated as follows: First, they give meaning
and sanction to the separation of the dead person from the living; second, burial rites help
effect the transition of the soul to another, otherworldly realm; and third, they assist in the
incorporation of the spirit into its new existence.
Finally, death rituals are emphasized as mechanisms that re-create social solidarity and
reaffirm social structure. Death disrupts social networks, relationships, and patterns of
interaction. Rituals performed at death help to restore order to that which has been
disrupted. Individuals gain strength from the ritual affirmations of the community, and they
are then better able to continue their lives.
The function of reaffirming social structure is often accomplished through the family
reunion that occurs as an unintended consequence, or latent function, of the funeral ritual.
The intended consequence, or manifest function, of a funeral is to pay respects to the
deceased and support the survivors. The latent function is to bring family and community
together. This latent function is as important as the manifest function.
Ronald Barrett (1992: 214) observed that African American funerals are indeed “a
primary ritual and a focal occasion with a big social gathering after the funeral and the
closest thing to a family reunion that might ever take place.”
This is a particularly important restorative function for African Americans, whose history
of slavery included families being routinely, and arbitrarily, broken apart. However, a study
by Melvin Williams (1981) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, revealed class differences in the
way that the restorative function of the funeral operates. For the middle class, a funeral may
establish, validate, and reinforce social status, whereas for the lower class, funerals tend to
be rites of intensification (where the feelings of the bereaved are experienced more
intensely) and solidarity—as people put aside feuds and squabbles for the moment.
This function of reaffirming the social order is also evident in some egalitarian tribal
cultures in which funerals involve elaborate feasting and gift-giving. The Death Across
Cultures box illustrates how the egalitarianism of the Vanatinai is reinforced by funeral
For some, the burial ground can serve as a symbolic representation of the social order
(Bloch & Parry, 1982). Among the Merina of central Madagascar, for example, after death
one returns “home” to the tomb, representing a regrouping of the dead—a central symbol
of the culture and an underlying joy of the second funeral. By the entry of the new corpses
into the collective mausoleum, the tomb and the reunited dead within it represent the
undivided and enduring descent group and become the source of blessings and the fertility
of the future. The force of this symbol of the tomb as the representation of the eternal
undivided group can be sustained only by downplaying the individuality of the corpses that
DEATH ACROSS CULTURES | HONORING THE DEAD
Maria Lepowsky (1994) characterized the matrilineal society of the Vanatinai as being
egalitarian; that is, there are no ideologies of male superiority or of female inferiority.
This egalitarianism is reflected in the elaborate mortuary rituals. Mortuary ritual and the
hosting of feasts and exchange of valuables that accompany it are the primary avenues to
personal power and prestige in the society. On Vanatinai, the deaths of men and women
are marked equally by elaborate mourning and feasting, and the burden of mourning
obligations is the same for men and women. Women are expected to obtain and present
ceremonial valuables, and both women and men may strive to enhance their reputations
as “big men” (giagia, literally “givers”) by first accumulating these valuables and
subsequently giving them away and by hosting or contributing a great deal to feasts.
After the burial there will always be a series of feasts. The first feast, called jivia,
occurs within a few days or weeks. During this feast valuables are exchanged and the
deceased’s kin ritually feed the mourning spouse or representatives of the father’s lineage
(Lepowsky, 1994). A velaloga feast two weeks or two months later releases a widow or
widower from taboos against leaving the hamlet or bathing. There are a number of other
feasts associated with mourning, but the final feast is the zagaya, which is the largest and
most important of all. The zagaya is held after about three years of intensive preparations.
After the zagaya, all taboos are lifted from people and places, and the bereaved spouses
can again make themselves attractive, court, and remarry.
The relations of power revealed by ceremonial exchange on Vanatinai do not separate
men from women. Different forms of wealth are not associated exclusively with one or
the other. Strength, wisdom, and generosity are qualities looked for in both men and
women. Only those with these qualities will be able to host a successful zagaya feast. The
gigia are both male and female, and their power stems from their possession of wealth
and their knowledge of magic.
From “Honoring the Dead” by Daniel G. Bates and Elliot M. Fratkin, 1999. In Cultural Anthropology, 2nd
ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
C. Davis (2008), in her article “A funeral liturgy: Death rituals as symbolic
communication,” claims that funerals are ultimate in expressing “final stories.” These
symbolic representations of a person’s life provide the opportunity to bridge the liminal
space between the living and the dead and the sacred and the human, while serving to bring
together the past, present, and future of the deceased and their surviving loved ones. R.
Marshall and P. Sutherland’s (2008) anthropological research with Caribbean ethnic groups
supports the research conclusions by Davis (2008), demonstrating that the social aspects of
bereavement will have positive effects for intergroup relationships and social cohesiveness.
In older American cemeteries, family solidarity was preserved and symbolically
communicated in the family plot, where many members of a single family were buried
together in a space delineated by fences, headstones, and footstones. Shared tombstones for
married couples often declared this family unity and solidarity with the epitaph “Together
Conversely, changes in rituals caused by changes in religious commitments can also lead
to changes in the symbolic representation and experience of social unity. In other words,
changes in religious meaning systems and patterns of funeralization can be dysfunctional
for group maintenance. This perspective is illustrated by research in Papua New Guinea by
R. Schram (2007), where he discovered that the latent consequence of conversion from
traditional Papua religion to Christianity led to the new Christian converts emphasizing
individualism over ties to the lineage group and extended relatives. When people begin to
reject all reciprocal funeral feasts in favor of church meals, it is inevitable that the social
fabric of society will also change.
The expression of emotions experienced by those who lose a loved one ranges from complete
silence to amplified wailing, noted Effie Bendann in Death Customs: An Analytical Study of
Burial Rites (1930). She stated that after a death the Aborigines of Australia and Melanesia
indulge in the most exaggerated forms of weeping and wailing. They display other
manifestations of emotional excitement seemingly because of grief for the departed. At the
end of a certain designated time period, however, they cease with metronomic precision, and
the would-be mourners indulge in laughter and other forms of amusement. Likewise, Hindus
in India are encouraged to express their grief openly, even sometimes extravagantly, through
shrieks of women mourners and floods of tears, yet no weeping is to occur during the
cremation ceremony (Tully, 1994).
A study of ethnographic data from 78 societies (Rosenblatt, Walsh, & Jackson, 1976) to
identify the essence of universal grief behavior showed that death is nearly universally
associated with emotionality and that the most usual expression among the bereaved is
crying. One could argue that people display the outward emotion of crying at the time of
death because they are sorrowful. Perhaps it is not as simple as that. Anthropologist A. R.
Radcliffe-Brown (1964) noted two types of weeping. There is reciprocal ritual weeping to
affirm the existence of a social bond between two or more persons. It is an occasion for
affirming social ties. Although participants may not actually feel these sentiments that bind
them, participation in various rites will strengthen whatever positive feelings they do have.
The second type of weeping—weeping over the remains of a significant other—expresses the
continued sentiment of attachment despite the severing of this social bond.
Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf (1992) observed that Radcliffe-Brown was strongly
influenced by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim (1915/1954) argued that the
emotions developed are feelings of sorrow and anger and are made stronger by participation
in the burial rite, whereas Radcliffe-Brown argued that those participating in ceremonial
weeping come to feel emotion that is not sorrow but rather togetherness. What Durkheim
finds significant is the way that other members of society feel moral pressure to put their
behavior into harmony with the feelings of the truly bereaved. Even if one feels no direct
sorrow, weeping and suffering may result. Thus, to say that one weeps because of sadness
may be too simplistic. From this perspective, death rituals become rites of intensification
whereby feelings and emotional states are intensified by ritual participation. It is not
uncommon for people to say “I was doing quite well in dealing with my emotions until the
funeral began.” Oftentimes the function of death rituals is to intensify feelings and emotions
and then provide a means by which individuals can express their sentiments.
The feast of the Dead in Mexico demonstrates the belief in the continuity of relationships
between the living and the dead.
Even though expressions of sorrow seem to be pervasive in most cultures, there are other
cultures in which excessive alcohol consumption, dancing, and spontaneous expressions of
joy are encouraged as a socially acceptable response to death. Such experiences celebrate the
new exalted status of the person who has died and proclaim that the deceased person is better
off in this new situation. This is certainly evident in the Irish wake, where the merriment at
wakes for the dead may seem disrespectful. From a cultural point of view, the wake actually
demonstrates the strong belief that the physically or symbolically dead will continue to exist
more happily elsewhere. The American wake reiterates the significance of transitional times
for the Irish, whether changes in the seasons or major life changes such as birth, immigration,
and death (Metress, 1990).
LISTENING TO THE VOICES | CUTTIN’ THE BODY LOOSE: DANCING IN
DEFIANCE OF DEATH IN NEW ORLEANS
“They gon cut the body loose!” One short brother with a mustache was running up and
down the funeral procession explaining that they wasn’t going to have to go all the way to
the cemetery on account of they was going to cut the body loose. This meant that the hearse
would keep on going and the band and the second liners and the rest of the procession was
going to dance on back to some tavern not too far away. So we stood in a line and the
second liners were shouting, “open it up, open it up,” meaning for the people in front to get
out the way so the hearse could pass with the body. After the hearse was gone we turned
the corner and danced down to the bar.
Like a sudden urge to regurgitate and with the intensity of an ejaculation, an explosive
sound erupted from the crowd under the hot New Orleans sun. People spontaneously
answered the traditional call of the second line trumpet.
“Are you still alive?”
“Do we like to live?”
“Do you want to dance?”
“Well damn it, let’s go!”
The trumpeter was taunting us now, and the older people were jumping from their front
porches as we passed them, and they were answering that blaring hot high taunt with
unmistakable fires blazing in their 60-year-old black eyes. They too danced as we passed
them. They did the dances of their lives, the dances they used to celebrate how old they had
become and what they had seen getting to their whatever number years. The dances they
used to defy death.
Nowhere else in this country do people dance in the streets after someone has died.
Nowhere else is the warm smell of cold beer on tap a fitting conclusion for the funeral of a
friend. Nowhere else is death so pointedly belittled. One of us dying is only a small matter,
an occasion for the rest of us to make music and dance. Nothing keeps us contained. With
this spirit and this music in us, black people will never die, never die, never.
We were all ecstatic. We could see the bar. We knew it was ending, we knew we were
almost there and defiantly we danced harder anyway. We hollered back even that much
louder at the trumpeter as he squeezed out the last brassy blasts his lungs could throw forth.
The end of the funeral was near, just as the end of life was near for some of us but it did not
matter. When we get there, we’ll get there.
From “Cuttin’ the Body Loose: Dancing in Defiance of Death in New Orleans,” by K. Salaam, Utne Reader,
1991, September—October, pp. 78–79.
Expressions of joy and happiness during funerals or wakes may also offer a socially
acceptable method for escaping feelings of sadness and anger. As discovered by T. Bordere
(2008/2009), youth in New Orleans who lost friends through violent means found that
funeral rites involving musical processions, dancing to good music, and expressing their
grieving and emotions through t-shirt art discovered in their corporate grieving reasons for
celebration, remembrance, and community solidarity. Furthermore, during funerals for the
Bara of Madagascar, rum is consumed, sexual activities occur, dancing takes place, and
contests involve cattle are held (Huntington & Metcalf, 1992). In a functionally equivalent
manner, the Cubeo of South America encourage simulated and actual ritual coitus as part of
mourning rituals (Goldman, 1979).
The Listening to the Voices box provides an example of how dancing can be used to
transform cultural grief and sadness into joy and celebration.
As we have observed, societies encourage both the expressions of sadness and joy in their
mourning rituals. In the former, participants are given the opportunity to collectively express
their grief. In the latter, individuals will dance, participate in dramatic performances, and
even experience sexual license, all with the purpose of transforming grief and anger over a
death into joy.
CHANGES IN MOURNING BEHAVIORS IN THE UNITED STATES
In the days of the Puritans, elaborate and extended mourning was discouraged because it
was thought to undermine the cheerful resignation to God’s will that was essential to the
Puritan experience. However, in the 19th century, when the Romantic influence’s emphasis
on emotions led to simple sentimentalism, mourning practices became much more
For most of the 19th century, the main outlet for the grief of sentimentalism was the ritual
of mourning, including the funeral but extending beyond that. This ritual differed markedly
from the simple Puritan rite as mourners immersed themselves in grief to become, through
their expressive (and often excessive) emotions, the central feature of the ritual. It allowed
many members of the middle class (especially the women, who were supposed to be
creatures of the “heart”) to indulge in grief as therapeutic self-indulgence. Like other forms
of sentimentality, the sentimental mourning ritual counterpointed the “real world” because
it forced all mourners to consider the power of personal connections in their lives. It turned
people from life to death, from the practical to the ceremonial, from the ordinary to the
extraordinary, and from the banal to the beautiful (Taylor, 1980, pp. 39–48). This romantic
emphasis led to the development of the beautiful funeral. Concerned with an etiquette of
proper social relations, people used the funeral, which was designed to reflect taste and
refinement, to preserve appearances among their middle-class peers and distinguish
themselves from the common folk (Farrell, 1980, pp. 110–111). Especially around the mid1880s, the tastefully refined middle-class funeral was a dark and formal affair. After death,
which still generally occurred in the home, the family members either cleaned and dressed
the corpse or, if possible, hired an undertaker to care for the corpse. If they had secured an
undertaker, he would place a black badge over the doorbell or door knocker to indicate the
presence of mourning and to isolate the family from the unwanted intrusions of everyday
life. The family members would also close window shades and drapes. Sometimes they
draped black crepe over pictures, mirrors, and other places throughout the house
(Habenstein & Lamers, 1962, pp. 389–444).
By the time of the funeral, family members had swathed themselves in black mourning
garb that symbolized their intimacy of relationship to the deceased and their depth of grief.
After the funeral, custom encouraged the continued expression of grief, as widows were
expected to spend a year in “deep” mourning and a year in “second” mourning. For the first
year, a bereaved woman wore dull black clothes, matched by appropriately somber
accessories. In the second year, she gradually lightened her appearance by using a variety
of materials in somewhat varying colors. Widowers and children were supposed to follow a
similar regimen, but in practice, women bore the burden of the 19th century mourning
requirements. Social contact and correspondence followed similar rules, with widened
social participation or narrowed black borders on stationery as indicators of different stages
By the 20th century, the somber nature of the 19th century mourning rituals had evolved
along with attitudes toward death, which was now celebrated as a passage to eternal life,
not a moment of judgment. Death was defined as “a normal change in an eternal process of
growth” (Abbott, 1913). Mourning rituals were no longer somber dramatic affairs with
elaborate displays of grief. Instead, restraint and passivity characterized 20th century
The funeral director used the culture of professionalism to become the authority on
American death rituals. His middle-class clients, who feared death anyway, were all too
happy to allow the funeral director to take control. This led to a scenario in which the
funeral director was the stage manager and the family was the audience, responding to the
drama in prescribed ways in the hopes of achieving a catharsis of death. Instead of the
expressive grief of the 19th century, family members were expected to contain and control
their emotions and to meet death stoically. At the turn of the century, some religious
liberals saw grief as a lack of faith in the imminence of immortality. Others reacted to the
central place of the mourners in the mournful Victorian funeral and charged that “overmuch grief would seem mere selfishness” (Mayo, 1916, p. 6). Over and over again, writers
proclaimed that “the deepest grief is the quiet kind” (Sargent, 1888, p. 51). An 1890s
etiquette book suggested that “we can better show our affection to the dead by fulfilling our
duties to the living, than by giving ourselves up to uncontrolled grief“ (Pike & Armstrong,
1980, p. 125). Portraying grief as a selfish ploy to stop the ongoing business of life,
mourners were persuaded to keep their grief controlled and private. In the long run, they
predicted themodern practice of grief therapy in which grief is seen as a disorder (Mayo,
1916, p. 6; Pike & Armstrong, 1980, p. 125; Sargent, 1888, p. 51).
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, mourners were expected to dress the
part. In this picture, pallbearers wear mourning clothes, black sashes, badges, and dark
With this new ideal, Americans reduced their symbolic expressions of grief such as
mourning wear because such expressions were thought to offend those who preferred to
focus on life, not death. In concealing the uncouth and discordant expressions of grief,
Americans reversed the 19th century tradition of “good mourning,” and isolated mourners
were forced to discover their own private mourning rituals (Hillerman, 1980; Oxley, 1887).
The changes brought about by funeral directors early in the 20th century are still evident
in mourning behaviors today. Private expression of grief in grief counseling sessions is
preferred to public expression of grief. More recently, funeral services have become even
briefer, often without the eulogy, which might be too upsetting. Psychologists are
concerned about this decline in the expression of grief. Although many people do seek grief
counseling, others do not, repressing their feelings of grief and becoming depressed or
drowning their sorrow in alcohol. The decision to seek grief counseling is clearly gender
related, with women being much more likely to receive professional therapy and participate
in self-help groups for the bereaved.
GENDER DIFFERENCES IN MOURNING BEHAVIORS The Rosenblatt et al. (1976) study
mentioned earlier noted that in the 78 cultures studied, there were significant gender
differences in emotions during bereavement, with women tending to cry and selfmutilate
more than men. The men tended to direct anger and aggression away from self. One of the
traditional theories to explain gender differences in emotional expression is that it may be
easier to socialize women than men to be overtly nonaggressive; thus, crying may represent
a female expression of aggression. Another theory is that women are more affected by the
loss from a death because of their stronger attachments through their role as mothers. On
the other hand, women may not experience death more strongly, but they may simply be
used as the persons symbolizing publicly, in burdensome or self-injuring ways, the loss that
all experience. The analysis of data from these 78 societies concluded that the kind of data
needed to explain the emotional difference by gender is lacking. An outgoing display of
emotions is found among the Kapauku Papuans of west New Guinea (Pospisil, 1963). Their
ritual at death requires female relatives of the deceased to give a formal expression of their
grief as soon as the soul leaves the body. They weep, eat ashes, cut off their fingers, tear
their garments and net carrying bags, and smear their faces and bodies with mud, ashes, or
yellow clay. A loud singsong lamentation follows.
To express their grief, women among the Cheyenne Indians cut off their long hair and
gash their foreheads causing blood to flow (Hoebel, 1960). If the deceased individual was
killed by enemies, they slash their legs until caked with dried blood. Mourning gives the
women their own masochistic outlet. Cheyenne men, on the other hand, simply let down
their hair in mourning and do not bother to lacerate themselves. In traditional African
funerals (Barrett, 1992) women tend to wail, whereas men sing and dance; men are not to
cry in front of women because they would appear weak before the very group that they are
The Dinka women of the Sudan (Deng, 1972) cut their leather skirts and cover their
bodies with dirt and ashes for as long as a year. Widows among the Swazi in Africa
(Kuper, 1963) shave their heads and remain “in darkness” for three years before given the
duty of continuing the lineage for the deceased through the required levirate marriage to
her dead husband’s brother. Mourning imposed on the Swazi husband is less conspicuous
and shorter than that imposed on the wife.
Somewhat less dramatic than the previous examples, the Huicholes of Mexico (Weigand
& Weigand, 1991) display a “great deal of crying and wailing” at the actual moment of
death. This subsides during the preparation of the corpse but resumes again at the funeral
site. However, Huichol women who have suffered the death of a mother or a child often
express their loss by suicidal gestures—the stated goal of such behavior is to accompany
the deceased. In reality, however, these gestures seldom result in suicide, according to C.
G. Weigand and P. C. Weigand (1991).
In conclusion, cross-cultural studies of the ritual of mourning at death reveal that a
double standard prevails among some cultures—different “scripts” for different genders.
Women in many societies, including the United States, are expected to display more of
their emotions than are men. Mourning rituals also tend to last for a set period of time in
many societies, and women, in general, are expected to mourn longer than are men. One
indication of a different duration of mourning by gender is that, when compared to women,
men seem to remarry sooner without social sanction or ridicule, and women are more
inclined to remain single after being widowed.
CUSTOMS AT DEATH
As will be discussed in Chapter 11, in the United States a professional is called upon to
prepare the body for final disposition because we are a very specialized society with a high
division of labor. The funeral director takes the body away and returns it later for viewing.
The kin and friends in the United States normally play no significant role in handling the
corpse. Compared with most societies, we are unique in the level of professional
specialization relative to the preparation of the corpse and the actual disposition of the body.
Most of the cultures discussed in this section encourage families and friends to become very
involved in preparing the corpse for its final disposition.
There are two perspectives for viewing customs at death. From one viewpoint, it is possible
to conclude that each society creates different practices unique to the culture in which they
occur. An alternative point of view is to recognize that there are common human needs (e.g.,
to dispose of the body), and each society creates practices, rites, meanings, and rituals, which
are functional equivalents to those found in other societies. The social anthropological
perspective, which employs the latter interpretation, is exemplified by a recent research study
on the Muscogee Creek tribe by A. Walker and D. Balk (2007). This research gives an
excellent example of the common rituals examined in the section below related to customs at
death for the Muscogee Creek tribe.
NORMS PRIOR TO DEATH
Some societies have specific norms just before death. It is important in many societies,
including the United States, that one be with the dying person at the time of death. So often
it is said, “If only I had gotten there a few minutes earlier….” A visit before death allows
one to say goodbye. Among the Dunsun of northern Borneo (Williams, 1965), relatives
come to witness the death. The dying person is propped up and held from behind. When the
body grows cold, the social fact of death is recognized by announcing “he exists no more”
or “someone has gone far away.”
The Salish Indians of the northwestern United States (Habenstein & Lamers, 1974) leave
the dying person alone with an aged man who neither receives pay nor is expected to have
any special qualifications for the task. One who is near death must confess his or her
misdeeds to this man. The confession is to prevent a ghost from roaming the places that
were frequented in life by the dying person.
The Ik of Uganda (Turnbull, 1972) place the dying person in the fetal position because
death for them represents a “celestial rebirth.” The Magars of Nepal (Hitchcock, 1966)
purify a dying person by giving him or her water that has been touched with gold.
The Maori of New Zealand (Mead, 1991) have a ceremony just before the person dies to
send the spirit of the dying person away while the person is still alive and conscious of
what is happening. After the spirit is gone, the individual may not be medically dead, but,
in a Maori sense, is dead. Now that the person is a corpse, ceremonies begin and a space is
set aside in the meeting house for the corpse to lie in an open coffin.
Having a cultural framework prescribing proper behavior at the time of death provides an
established order and perhaps gives comfort to the bereaved. These behavioral norms give
survivors something to do during the dying process and immediately thereafter, thus
facilitating the coping abilities of the bereaved.
PREPARING THE CORPSE
It seems significant in most societies that the body be cleaned and steps be taken to assure a
tolerable odor before final disposition. A reverence for the body also seems prevalent. As
in the United States, it is important in many other societies that the deceased person look
good to the mourners.
CLEANING, DECORATING, AND CLOTHING THE BODY Ritual preparation of the body for final
disposition, including cleaning and wrapping the body (mummification), is common in
many societies, especially those that do not practice embalming. The material used for
wrapping is often white cloth, which is considered natural and pure, but may also consist of
other natural materials. For example, the Tiwi of Australia (Hart & Pilling, 1960) wrap the
body in bark. The Qemant of Ethiopia (Gamst, 1969) wrap the body in a piece of white
cloth and cover it with a mat of woven grass. After cleaning the body, the Ulithi in
Micronesia (Lessa, 1966) cover it with a tuberous plant and decorate the head and hands
with flower garlands.
Anthropologist Linda Connor (1995) noted that corpse washing in Bali is a pivotal point
in the process of grieving for relatives. For the Bornu of Nigeria (Cohen, 1967), family
members are required to wash the body, wrap it in a white cloth, place it onto a bier, and
take it to the burial ground. Similarly, the Semai in Malaya (Dentan, 1968) have the
housemates bathe the corpse and sprinkle it with perfume or sweet-smelling herbs to mask
the odor of decay. They then wrap the body in swaddling clothes.
The Mapuche Indians of Chile (Faron, 1968) sometimes smoke the body, then wash and
dress it in the person’s best clothes, lay it out on a bier in the house, and place it into a pine
coffin. Among some groups in southern Thailand (Fraser, 1966), the body is held and
bathed with water specifically purified with herbs and clay. The corpse is then rinsed and
dried, and all orifices are plugged with cotton.
In the French West Indies (Horowitz, 1967) the neighbors wash the body with rum and
force a liter or more of strong rum down the throat as a temporary preservative before
dressing the body and placing it onto a bed. Rather than use a strong drink like rum, the
Zinacantecos of Mexico (Vogt, 1970) pour water into the mouth of the deceased about
every half hour “to relieve thirst” while the grave is being dug.
The Tewa Indians in Arizona (Dozier, 1966) bury a woman in her wedding outfit and
wrap a man in a blanket for burial. The Hopi Indians wrap a man in buckskin and a woman
in her wedding blanket, bury them in the clothes that they were wearing at the time of
death, and do not wash or prepare the body other than to wash and tie back the hair (Cox &
Fundis, 1992). The Navajo in the southwestern United States (Cox & Fundis, 1992) bathe
the corpse, then dress it in fine clothes, and put the right moccasin onto the left foot and the
left moccasin onto the right foot.
Carrying Fish-like Casket in Ghana.
DEATH ACROSS CULTURES | CHRISTIAN KAREN FUNERAL OF MUSIKHEE
In the Christian Karen funeral a service is held in the home, and the casket is opened
before carrying the body to the cemetery in the forest. While the body is being buried,
the family burns the personal effects of the deceased. Following the committal service
at the grave, members of the village return to the home of the deceased for a feast
prepared by the family and members of the church.
Having lived in a Karen village for more than 15 years, on April 8, 2005, Michael
Leming attended his first Karen funeral. The man had died of colon cancer on April 6 in
the Karen village of Melaoop after a prolonged illness of more than one and a half
years.While his family had converted to Christianity many years earlier, this man was a
traditional Karen animist and infrequently worshipped the spirits found in the forest, land,
and water. In the final two months of his life he decided to join his family and became a
baptized Christian in the Karen Baptist tradition.
Prior to his death, he was visited by members of Melaoop village (a mixture of
Christian and Buddhist Karen people). Melaoop has approximately 400 people living in it
and in the weeks before his death, many people came to the man’s house and brought
food, read the Bible, and attempted to comfort him in his disease of colon cancer. On the
morning of Wednesday, April 6, he died in his home surrounded by his family, members
of his church, and friends of the village.
After he died his oldest child (a man), helped by his other five children (males and
females), placed his body on the floor the corner of living room in his house, took off his
clothes, put a plastic sheet under his body, and washed the body with soap and water. His
body was then dressed in traditional Karen clothes (including shoes, socks, pants, and
Karen woven shirt). The family must dress the body in new or clean clothes before it is
placed in a simple wooden box. Friends or members of the family typically build the
burial box before or after the death.
In the two days prior to placing the body in the box, the family covered the dressed
body in the corner of the living room, covered it with a Karen blanket, and poured
whiskey down the man’s mouth. It is thought that the whiskey provides comfort for the
dead person, delays the process of decomposition, and minimizes the smell which
mourners find unpleasant (temperatures at mid-day can reach the mid-90s in Melaoop in
April). After preparations were made— and on the evening of the day of death—family,
friends, and members of the village were called to come to the home to pray for the
family and the deceased. This was a worship service lead by the pastor and leaders in the
church. The service consisted of Christian Bible readings, songs, prayer, and words of
encouragement for the family. During this worship service the family also announced
plans for the funeral and burial service to be held in two days.
The service was lead by two Christian pastors, the village pastor and the father-in-law
of the daughter, who lived in a village four miles away. The service began after a gong
was rung to call the members of the village to the home of the deceased and the service of
worship held in his honor. The service consisted of Christian prayers, Bible readings,
songs, and a short sermon given by one of the pastors. Prior to the sermon, one of the
members of the family (in this case a son, the eldest child) gave a eulogy that
summarized the life of the man who died. The service ended with a prayer for the family,
but there was no concluding song, which usually ends Christian Karen worship services.
The box, which had been closed during the service and covered with flowers from the
village and from the forest, was then opened for all to see the man prior to his burial. The
blanket covering his face was pulled back and he was then doused once again with
whiskey, after which the box was closed again in preparation for the procession to the
cemetery. At this point a four-inch diameter bamboo pole, 12 feet in length was tied to
the box for the purpose of carrying the man to the cemetery, located in the jungle about
one-half mile away from the village and up a very steep hill. There were no roads to
cemetery, only a dirt path. From all appearances, the cemetery was only a place dedicated
for special use in the middle of the forest—old graves were overgrown with brush and
weeds, and it was difficult to determine where the graves were located.
Some of the men at the service, perhaps 10 to 12 people, then carried the body to the
grave that had been prepared on the day before. All people attending the service followed
the boxed body, which was preceded by a white cement cross on which the name and
birth and death dates were written. This cross would be used to mark the grave. When the
people reached the grave, the box was suspended over the grave and was hanging by the
bamboo pole. At this time one of the pastors read a few Bible verses and said a prayer,
and the 50 or more people at the grave concluded the service by singing the doxology (a
Christian hymn or song). At this point one of the family members cut the rope that tied
the box to the bamboo pole, and the box dropped to the bottom of the grave. The pole
was then removed from the grave and leaned against a tree that was near the grave.
At another site in the cemetery (forest), about 10 meters away, members of the family
brought the personal effects of the man and burned them all. These included his mattress,
blankets, sheets, some clothes, and a radio he played night and day before his death. The
smell of the plastic and organic materials was not pleasant and caused many to cough.
When I asked people why this burning took place, I was given two interpretations—one
was that the man would want his personal effects in the afterlife, and the other
interpretation was that this burning would prevent members of his family from arguing
over their disposition. (These two interpretations may reflect animist and Christian
interpretations of a traditional Karen practice created decades ago.)
Meanwhile, approximately 20 people remained at the gravesite while the other grievers
were eating at the man’s family home. A rectangular wooden form (approximately one
meter by two meters) was placed over the grave and cement was mixed in the form to
provide a covering for the grave. I saw no other grave in the cemetery that was covered
with cement but was told that the man was wealthier than others who had been buried
earlier. This 73-year-old man was buried next to his mother-in-law, who died at the age
After the cement cover was complete, the white cement cross marking the grave was
installed; trees, flowers, and bushes were planted around the grave; and the members of
the family posed for a picture next to the cross marking the grave. After the pictures were
taken, these members of the family returned to their home to join other grievers in eating
the meal of thanksgiving. Before eating, they too would wash their hands in the ritual
water used by others.
I was told that at an unspecified time, usually less than one year, members of the family
would have another service of remembrance and thanksgiving at their home, to which all
members of their church and community would be invited. At Easter time (in late March
or early April), members of the family would return to the cemetery, clean the grave site,
and place flowers on the cement cover as they remembered their father, grandfather, and
This funeral service is totally foreign to the traditional manner in which the Karen
animists have disposed of their dead in the past. Normally they would have made animal
sacrifices, chanted stories and incantations, and sung traditional songs and myths. The
service would have been in the home, but it would have been overseen by the village
priest. Furthermore, the body would have been burned and, depending upon the sex of the
deceased, the home would have been moved; or in the case of a village priest, the entire
village would have been relocated. Today, by comparison, the financial effects upon the
family are minimal, and the entire village assists the family as they grieve their loss and
re-establish their lives without the deceased. It is an easier adjustment for the people, but
it is different from everything they have known in the past.
From: Michael Leming, Professor and Director, Spring Semester in Thailand (www.AmazingThailand.org).
In Oregon, there is a Russian immigrant group whose body preparation practices date
back to the 17th century (Morris, 1991). Death is a “village” affair, and all turn their
attention to it when it happens. They rather rapidly do what they consider necessary to lay
the body to rest, rarely taking more than 24 hours. When death occurs, the body is washed
and dressed in a white, loosely based cloth. The body is then placed inside the casket with
the arms crossed on the chest and the hands formed into the sign of the cross in the old
style: The first two fingers are extended and the thumb is joined with the third and fourth
fingers. The service occurs in the living room of the home, where the casket has been
Body Preparation by Specialists. Most of the practices cited have used family or friends to
prepare the corpse for burial. However, this is not always the case. In many societies, there
are designated individuals who perform body preparation rituals. For example, Muslims
bring their dead to the mosque directly after death, where there are special rooms for
washing the body. During this preparation, prayers and passages from the Qur’an are
recited by a hoca—a lay holy man, not a priest—and care is taken that the body always
The Huicholes of Mexico (Weigand & Weigand, 1991:54) handle the corpse with a great
deal of respect and care. A singer/curer who is usually closely related to the deceased
supervises the preparation of the corpse for burial or placement into a cave. Clothing is
changed, personal items are arranged to accompany the body, and the individual’s hands
and face are washed with water. Most adults aid in the preparation unless “emotional
collapse prevents such activity.”
However, most people are rather calm during these preparations.
Anglo Canadians in and around Toronto, Canada (Ramsden, 1991) prefer to remove the
corpse from the company of the living as soon as possible. The corpse is disposed of
immediately after death, never to be seen again. This rapid removal of the corpse precludes
any opportunity to note changes in the individual after death, thus reinforcing the
perception of the Anglo Canadians that death is a static state. They wish to convey the idea
that the dead are physically and socially gone. From the moment of death, the physical
condition of the body is of no consequence, with the focus on permanently removing the
body from the world of the living and banishing the dead person from social relations. The
event of death is perceived as an instantaneous occurrence and marks a distinct boundary
between a state of being alive and a state of being dead.
EMBALMING In contemporary American culture, the process of final disposition of the body
should be studied within its cultural and historical context. As we have demonstrated
earlier, it is wrong to believe that the funeral is either unique to Western culture or has been
invented or created by it. To bury the dead is a common social practice. The methods to
accomplish burial, and the meanings associated with it, are culturally determined.
The burial process often requires the involvement of a functionary, who may be a
professional, tradesperson, religious leader, servant, or even a member of the family. The
functionary in each society is closely associated with the folkways and mores of the society
and its philosophical approach to life and death.
The Hebrew scripture reveals in Genesis 50:2 that physicians embalmed the body of
Jacob, the father of Joseph. This description is followed by a detailed description of the
funeral and burial. The historian Herodotus records embalming preparation as early as circa
484 B.C. These two sources and archaeological discoveries of earlier cultures give
evidence of the disposition of the dead.
With the discovery of the circulatory system of the body, circa 1600, and the possibility
of diffusion of preserving chemicals through that system, more sophisticated methods of
embalming the body were developed. Dr. Hunter of England and Dr. Gannal of France,
independently of each other, furthered the process in the early 1600s. In France, this work
coincided with the advent of the bubonic plague. During this period of time, extensive
attempts were made to preserve the bodies of the dead to protect the health of those who
survived the plague.
The most elaborate and famous burial customs were those of the Egyptians.
DEATH ACROSS CULTURES | DEATH IN ANCIENT EGYPT
The earliest burials known in Egypt date to a period well before 3000 B.C. and display
evidence, through funerary gifts in the graves, of a belief of continued existence after
death. During the middle and late predynastic period (before 3100 B.C.), the practice of
wrapping the body in animal skins gradually gave way to other forms of protection,
particularly the use of basket trays upon which the body was laid out.
Wrapped bodies of the first three dynasties were not truly mummified, since no
treatment other than the use of linen bandages and resin was used. By the Fourth
Dynasty, however, evidence was found of deliberate attempts to inhibit decomposition by
removal of the soft internal organs from the body— accomplished by means of an
incision in the side of the abdomen. Removal of the liver, intestines, and stomach
improved the chances of securing good preservation because the emptied body cavity
could be dried more rapidly. The removed organs were deposited in a safe place in the
tomb in order for the body of the deceased to be complete once more in the netherworld.
Bandages soaked in resin were carefully molded to the shape of the body to reproduce
the features, particularly in the face and the genital organs. As the resin dried, it
consolidated the linen wrapping in position, preserving the appearance of the body for as
long as it remained undisturbed. The corpse itself decomposed very rapidly within this
linen shell, leaving the innermost wrappings in close contact with the skeleton.
An important factor in the development of the Egyptian tomb was the necessity to
provide storage space for the items of funerary equipment considered essential for
continued use by the deceased in the hereafter. A significant part of the material provided
for the dead took the form of actual offerings of food and drink—required for the “very
survival” of the deceased before enjoying all the other possessions in the tomb. Because
of the need to provide offerings of food at the tomb, the tomb had to combine the
function of a burial place with that of a mortuary chapel in which the priests could
From Death in Ancient Egypt, by A. J. Spencer, 1982, New York: Penguin Books.
Whereas the ancient Egyptian process of embalming required 70 days to perform, body
preparation today is completed within a few hours and is more effective and acceptable.
Body preparation may be as simple as bathing the body, closing the eyes and mouth, and
dressing the body for final disposition. This procedure, though infrequently selected, is
used by families who wish direct disposition, which we will discuss later in this chapter as
a procedure that may be an acceptable and logical choice.
In the United States, it is estimated that four out of five bodies are embalmed before final
disposition. Embalming, by definition, is the replacement of normal body fluids with
preserving chemicals. This process is accomplished by using the vascular system of the
body to both remove the body fluids and to suffuse the body with preserving chemicals.
The arterial system is used to introduce the chemicals into the body, and the venous system
is used to remove the body fluids. This intravascular exchange is accomplished by using an
embalming machine. The machine can best be described as an artificial heart outside of the
body that produces the pressure necessary to accomplish the exchange of fluids. This,
together with the filling of the chest and abdominal cavities with embalming fluid,
constitutes the embalming procedure.
In addition to embalming and thorough bathing of the body, cosmetic procedures are used
to restore a more normal color to the face and hands. When death occurs, the pigments of
the skin, which give the body its normal tone and color, no longer function. Creams,
liquids, or sprays are used to give the appearance of normal skin coloration.
The question “But why embalm or cosmeticize the dead body?” is based on the
assumption that one of the needs of the family is the reality of death; thus, the body should
be left in its most deathlike appearance. Those who have seen a person die (especially if the
dying process was painful, prolonged, and emaciating) know that the condition of the body
at the time of death can be very repulsive. Many people cannot accept this condition. This
is why contemporary funeral directors embalm and cosmeticize the body.
Another reason for embalming is the mobility of the American population. Viewing,
which is practiced in more than 75 percent of the funerals today that involve earth burial
and 22 percent of cremation services (Dawson, Santos, & Burdick, 1990), often requires
more than a bathing and dressing of the body. Embalming is necessary to accomplish a
temporary preservation of the body to allow time for the family to gather—as many as two
or three days may be needed. If the body were to remain unembalmed for this length of
time, the distasteful effects of decomposition would create a significant problem for
Though arguments favoring embalming have been presented, it may not always be
necessary or desired. Embalming is not required in all states. In many states, for example, if
the body is disposed of within 72 hours, if it is not transported on a common carrier or
across state lines, and/or if the person did not die of a contagious disease, embalming is not
required. If a body is to be cremated and no public viewing is held, embalming would not
be necessary. Many consumers just assume that embalming should or must occur.
A frequently asked question is, “If a body is embalmed, how long will it last?” There is
no simple answer to this question. This is why funeral directors talk in terms of temporary
preservation. Most families are interested in a preservation that will permit them to view
the body, have a visitation, and allow the body to be present for the funeral. Beyond that,
they are not concerned with the lasting effects of embalming. For an extended discussion of
embalming, see P. Ashwood (2009).
Rituals and rites related to final disposition serve the functions of maintaining positive
relationships with ancestral spirits, reaffirming social solidarity, and restoring group
structures dismembered by death.
In many cultures and religions, individuals are considered to be composed of several
elements, each of which may have a different fate after death (Palgi & Abramovitch, 1984).
Thus, the actual destruction of the corpse, whether through cremation, burial, or
decomposition, is thought to separate the elements—the various bodies and souls. For
example, in India, when a son breaks the skull of his father on the funeral pyre (a
combustible pile for burning a corpse), he is demonstrating that the body no longer has any
value—because it is worn out—but the soul lives on (Tully, 1994).
As Gerry Cox and Ronald Fundis (1992:193) stated in their discussion of Native
American burial practices, “If nothing else is known, it is that tribal groups did not abandon
their dead. They provided them with ceremony and disposal.”
Indeed, many of the ceremonies and ways of disposing of the dead tend to go hand in
hand with death among different cultures. These disposition rites not only reaffirm group
structure but also enhance social cohesiveness.
There are two primary forms of final disposition, earth burial and cremation. As we will
discuss, the dominant religions that practice earth burial are Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam, whereas Buddhism and Hinduism practice cremation. Another practice, which used
to be common among Plains Indians in the United States, is above-ground burial on
scaffolds or in trees. This type of burial is often the first part of secondary burial rites,
which allows for open-air decomposition of the body, followed by earth burial, and
possibly subsequent reburials.
EARTH BURIAL Earth burial as a method of final disposition is by far the most widely used
in the United States. It is used in approximately 65.3 percent of the 2.43 million American
deaths annually. Almost without exception, earth burial takes place within established
cemeteries. In some instances, earth burial can take place outside of a cemetery if the
landowner where the interment is to be made and the health officer with jurisdiction grant
their permission. In 1997, Bill Cosby acquired permission from local authorities to bury his
son Ennis on the grounds of his estate. By law, cemeteries have the right to establish
reasonable rules and regulations to be observed by those arranging for burial in them. A
person does not purchase property within a cemetery but rather purchases the right to
interment in a specific location within that cemetery. Most cemeteries require that the
casket be placed into some kind of outer receptacle or burial vault. The cemetery will also
control how the grave can be marked with monuments or grave markers. For an extended
discussion of burial laws, see P. Elvig (2009).
Entombment, occurring in less than 5 percent of all final dispositions, might be
considered as a special form of earth burial. It consists of placing the body (contained
within a casket) into a building designed for this purpose. Cemeteries offer large buildings
(mausoleums) as an alternative to earth burial or cremation. In some instances, families
may purchase the right to interment in a cemetery and on the designated space build a
private or family mausoleum that will hold as few as one or two bodies or as many as 12 to
16. Both types of mausoleums must be designed and constructed to provide lasting
disposition for the body. Most states and/or cemeteries regulate the specifications and
construction of the mausoleum.
Some societies keep the corpses in or near the home of the deceased. The Yoruba of
Nigeria (Bascom, 1969), for example, dig the grave in the room of the deceased. In
Uganda, a Lugbara male (Middleton, 1965) is buried in the center of the floor of his first
wife’s hut. The Swazi of Africa (Kuper, 1963) bury a woman on the outskirts of her
Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale, CA is the site of many internments of
Hollywood “stars,” including Michael Jackson, Nat King Cole, Red Skelton, Clark
Gable, Carole Lombard, W. C. Fields, Jean Harlow, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and
To assure that the spirit will be reborn, some societies go to great lengths. For example,
the Dunsun of northern Borneo (Williams, 1965) kill animals to accompany the deceased
on the trip to the land of the dead. The Ulithi in Micronesia (Lessa, 1966) place a loincloth
and a ginger-like plant in the right arm of the deceased so that gifts can be presented to the
custodian at the entrance of the other world. For the Zinacantecos of Mexico (Vogt, 1970),
a chicken head is put into a bowl of broth beside the head of the corpse. The chicken
allegedly leads the “inner soul” of the deceased. A black dog then carries the soul across
The Russian Orthodox community in Oregon, mentioned earlier (Morris, 1991), shares
this concern for the rebirth of the spirit and constructs the grave site to accommodate that
rebirth. All the graves are lined up facing east, with an Orthodox cross at the foot of each
grave. At the Second Coming, the dead will rise from the grave and stand next to the cross,
facing East, toward Christ.
As with the Zinacantecos of Mexico, a chicken is used in the burial rites of the Yoruba in
southwestern Nigeria (Bascom, 1969). A man with a live chicken precedes the carrier of
the corpse, plucking out feathers and leaving them along the trail for the soul of the
deceased to follow back to town. Upon reaching the town gate, the chicken is killed by
striking its head against the ground. The blood and feathers are then placed into the grave
so that others will not die. A second chicken is killed, and its blood is put into the grave so
that the soul of the deceased will not bother the surviving relatives.
In the old days of the Wild West in the United States, one was buried “six feet under with
his boots on.” It is true that graves were six feet deep in earlier periods of United States
history, but efficiency (and perhaps agnosticism regarding the belief in ghosts) dictates that
today graves are less than six feet deep—typically around four-and-a-half feet, with 18
inches of dirt above the top of the casket or vault. With the sealed, heavier caskets of
today—often placed within a steel or concrete vault—it is not necessary to place the body
so deep in the ground as was the case with the unsealed pine box of an earlier period.
The Kalingas of the Philippines (Dozier, 1967) bury adults in graves six feet deep and
three feet wide. The Mardudjara Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia (Tonkinson, 1978) dig
a rectangular hole about three feet deep, line the bottom with leafy bushes and small logs,
and then place the body inside. Similarly, the Semai of Malaya (Dentan, 1968) dig the
grave two to three feet deep.
A less common form of burial is burial at sea or water burial. This form of burial can
involve the submerging of the entire body, weighted down to prevent the body from
resurfacing. However, more commonly, burial at sea will involve the scattering of cremated
remains over (fresh or salt) water. For an extended discussion of burial at sea, see D.
CREMATION Cremation is the other method of final disposition. As mentioned before, this
is the preferred method among Buddhists and Hindus. The practice of cremation among
both of these religious groups will be discussed in detail later in the chapter. In the past
many Christians were adverse to cremation because it was associated with Asian and
“pagan” religions. In 1886, the Vatican prohibited Catholics to use cremation as a way of
body disposition; the ban lasted until 1963. Most current Christian denominations allow
cremation even though Orthodox Judaism and Islam forbid the practice (S. Bolt, 2009).
Although earth burial is the dominant practice in the United States, the number of
cremations has increased dramatically in the last two decades. In 1989, 16 percent of deaths
in the United States involved cremation. In 2007, 34.7 percent of deaths in the United
States involved cremation. Nevada leads the nation with 66.7 cremations per 100 deaths,
followed by Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Arizona (in descending order, from 66.6
percent in Oregon to 62.4 percent in Arizona).
States with the fewest cremations are Mississippi (10.4 percent), Alabama (12.9 percent),
Kentucky (13.2 percent), Tennessee (15.1 percent), and Louisiana (17.4 percent). In
Canada, 55.9 percent of all deaths involve cremation with as many as 79 cremations per
100 deaths in the province of British Columbia (Cremation Association of North America,
2007). The Cremation Association of North America predicts that in the year 2025, 59
percent of all deaths in the United States will involve cremation (Cremation Association of
North America, 2007).
Asked why they were likely to choose cremation for themselves or a loved one, the
respondents, in a random survey of 371 individuals by the Wirthlin Group in 2005 (cited by
Cremation Association of North America, 2007), gave the following explanations:
Saves money (30 percent)
Saves land (13 percent)
Simpler (8 percent)
Body not in earth (6 percent)
Preference of the deceased (6 percent)
According to Cremation Association of North America (2007), the following major
trends are influencing preferences for cremation.
People are dying older.
Migration to retirement locations is increasing.
Cremation has become acceptable.
Environmental considerations are becoming more important.
Level of education is rising.
Ties to tradition are becoming weaker.
Regional differences are diminishing.
Religious restrictions are diminishing.
There is greater flexibility in memorialization services.
Until recently, the crematory was generally located within the cemetery. With the
increase in cremation as an option for final disposition, however, many funeral homes have
now installed crematories. There is a trend in the funeral industry to change the name of the
establishment from “funeral home” to “funeral and cremation services.” In 2006 there were
2026 crematories in the United States performing nearly 813,232 cremations for the nearly
2.43 million annual deaths—approximately 35 percent of all deaths in the United States
(Cremation Association of North America, 2007).
Crematories generally require containment of the body in an appropriate casket or other
acceptable rigid container. The containerized body is not removed or disturbed after it
arrives at the crematory and is placed into a furnace or retort.
Cremation is accomplished by the use of either extreme heat or direct flame. In either
instance, reducing the casket (or alternative container) and the body to “ashes” takes two to
three hours. Cremated remains do not have the appearance or chemical properties of ashes;
they are primarily bone fragments. Some crematories process cremated remains to reduce
the overall volume; others do not. Depending on the size of the body, cremation results in
three to nine pounds of remains (National Funeral Directors Association, 1997).
After the cremation, the remains are collected, put into an urn or box, and then disposed
of according to the wishes of the family. The cremains may be buried in a family plot or
cemetery, placed into a niche in a columbarium (a special room in a cemetery), or kept in
another place of personal significance, such as the home or church crypt. Subject to some
restrictions, cremated remains can be scattered by air, over the ground, or over water. Some
cemeteries provide areas for scattering and may provide a space where families can place a
commemorative plaque or other memorial. Table 10.1 shows a breakdown of the
disposition of cremated remains.
Many people choose to memorialize the site of disposition because they find consolation
in knowing that there is a specific place to visit when they wish to remember and feel close
to the person they have lost, regardless of whether the deceased person’s remains are
actually located at that place. Families should always choose an option that best fits their
The columbarium provides families with an additional option for body disposition. For
approximately 25 percent of the 2.3 million annual deaths in the United States,
cremation is used as the method of final disposition and approximately 10 percent
choose to place the cremated remains in a columbarium.
TABLE 10.1 CREMATED REMAINS DISPOSITION BREAKDOWN
Scattered on water/land
Placed in columbarium
Scattered on dedicated property
Not picked up from crematorium
Placed in common grave
Source: Cremation Association of North America. (1997). 1997 fact sheet. Milwaukee, WI:
One might assume that cremation would be the least expensive form of final disposition
because the typical cost of a simple “no-frills” cremation is approximately 40 percent of the
cost of the traditional funeral service with burial (Lino, 1990). However, a cremation
service may be as simple or as elaborate as family members wish. Some people are
surprised to learn that cremation does not preclude a funeral with all of the traditional
aspects of the ceremony. Visitation and viewing with a funeral ceremony and church or
memorial services are options to be considered. In some states, funeral homes are permitted
to rent caskets for viewing and services (National Funeral Directors Association, 1997). It
is entirely possible to spend more money on a funeral involving cremation if plans include
a traditional funeral that includes viewing a body in a casket and placing the cremated
remains into an urn in a niche in a columbarium. This fact is support by the research
findings of L. Kellaher, D. Pendergast, and J. Hockey (2005), which claimed that
increasingly families who select cremation as a means for disposition are burying in
cemeteries or placing cremated remains in columbaria—a much more costly alternative to
scattering and disposal.
There are other forms of body disposition discussed by S. Bolt (2009) but the frequency
of these alternatives is extremely limited in the United States. These alternatives include
mummification, body donation to science, plastination, water resolution, cryonics, and
cannibalism. Briefly, mummification involves dehydration of the body and is a permanent
condition where the body may be placed on display. Examples of this would be a Roman
Catholic saint who might be found in a glass sarcophagus under a church’s altar or the body
of Jeremy Bentham, which is kept in the University College of London. According to
As requested in his will, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet called an “Auto-icon.”
Originally kept by his disciple Thomas Southwood Smith, it was acquired by University College London in
1850. It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the
college, but for the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, Bentham was brought to the meeting of
the College Council, where he was listed as “present but not voting.”
Present but not voting.
The Auto-icon has a wax head, as Bentham’s head was badly damaged in the
preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years
between Bentham’s feet, but became the target of repeated student pranks, including
being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away for security reasons.
Body donation to science, as the name implies, involves delivering to a medical or
academic institution one’s body by bequest. The reasons of such donations are for
academic, medical, or scientific purposes. After the body has served its function it is
cremated or buried, usually by the institution that has received the bequest. Typically
family members are not involved in the final disposition, but this need not be the case. In
Thailand, when a body is received by the medical school for the purpose of educating
medical students, students refer to the cadaver as “Ajarn Yai” or “respected teacher.”
Plastination is a process developed by Gunther von Hagen in Heidelberg, Germany in
1977 to replace the natural body fluids with plastic to preserve human tissue. The outcome
of this process allows the body to be preserved for an indefinite period of time. Gunther
von Hagen’s Body Worlds is a mobile museum of human anatomy that has traveled the
world since 1995. Another similar show, created by Roy Glover and entitled Bodies,
opened in Florida in 2005. Both exhibits have attracted millions of visitors and much
controversy (Bolt, 2009).
PRACTICAL MATTERS | WATER RESOLUTION—A GREENER ALTERNATIVE
TO CREMATION AND EARTH BURIAL
Water resolution is an accelerated version of the natural process of hydrolysis-driven
decomposition after burial. It is accomplished by the application of alkaline hydrolysis to
human cadavers to produce a pure ash bone shadow. The individual body is essentially
placed into a horizontal pressure vessel, and then a fully automated process of pressure,
high temperature, and alkalinity accelerates the natural process of tissue hydrolysis back
into the building blocks of life. The product is sent back to the environment to be
The alkaline hydrolysis process has successfully been used worldwide for more than 12
years in laboratory and research applications and is a natural process. Bodies that are
buried in the earth are degraded by alkaline hydrolysis, expedited by the soil bacteria.
This is a very slow process. Food in the intestine is digested into usable nutrients by
alkaline hydrolysis, expedited by enzymes that operate at a pH of 7 to 8 at body
temperature. This is a moderately fast process for relatively small amounts of tissue. The
alkaline hydrolysis process uses strong alkali (pH 14) to solubilize and hydrolyze tissue,
expedited by heat at 150°C in a pressurized vessel. This process generates a solution of
amino acids, peptides, sugars, and soap (salts of fatty acids) that is suitable for release to
drain, applied to land as fertilizer, or recycled in many ways. Also produced are pure
white bone shadows (ash), which may be easily powdered and given to the relatives as in
cremation. The powder is 100 percent specific to that corpse.
Water Resolution is a “green” and genuine alternative to cremation and burial for the
Accelerated natural decomposition—returns organic elements to the ecosystem
No mercury emissions, no scrubber abatement required, no contamination
No burning of caskets—reduces CO2 production
Low carbon footprint—20 times less CO2 emissions versus average cremation
Energy efficient—one-tenth the energy per body versus cremation
The water resolution process is three to five times less expensive than cremation
Lower operating costs
Embalming fluid neutralized and cytotoxic drugs destroyed
Pacemakers can be left in, unlike cremation
Compact units easily adapt to existing crematorium set-up
Titanium medical implants recovered, intact and sterile, for possible reuse in
Third World countries
Ashes may be returned as in cremation, but unlike cremation in that the ashes
produced in the water resolution process are 100 percent separated from other bodies
As nature intended, the body’s organic building blocks of life are returned back to
Presently, the major disadvantage to the water resolution process is that the cost of
installation for the funeral professional is about double that of installing a traditional
cremation retort chamber—approximately $200,000 compared with $100,000 (not
Water Resolution is a relatively newer procedure by which the body is reduced to bone
ash, similar to cremation, but involving chemicals rather than burning or intense heat.
Cryonics involves the preservation of the body through freezing to stop physical decay.
Typically this process involves liquid nitrogen, and the body is cooled down to a
temperature of –196 degrees Celsius (Bolt, 2009). Cryonic supporters hope that in the
future advanced technology will be able to revive the “patient” and provide a cure for the
individual who has been suspended in time. Like body donation, this form of body
disposition is not thought to be permanent.
Cannibalism involves the eating of the human body as a form of body disposition. There
are two forms of cannibalism. The first is exocannibalism, where the group eats the flesh of
outsiders (or enemies), and the second is endocannibalism, where one consumes the body
from one’s own group. The latter involves a ritual which attempts to affirm group unity and
maintain social solidarity that was threatened by the loss of one of the group’s members.
Exocannibalism is a ritual of humiliation or disrespect, whereas endocannibalism involves
respect and honor for the deceased.
CASE STUDY: BURIAL AND MORTUARY PRACTICES OF NATIVE AMERICANS
LIVING ON THE PLAINS
There is probably more generalized knowledge of Plains tribes than of most Native
Americans, since they are the ones most often portrayed in movies and television. Unlike
the more sedentary tribes of the Southwest, the Plains tribes were mobile on a large scale.
With the great temperature variations of the Great Plains, the inhabitants needed to adapt to
all kinds of climatic changes. They were primarily dependent upon the bison as a source of
food, clothing, and shelter. Other animals and plant life were also major sources of food,
but the bison offered the most dramatic picture of the life of the Plains tribes. There were
sedentary tribes, but the various groups that spoke the Siouan language were the hunters
and nomads of film and television. The coming of the horse, following the arrival of the
Europeans, added greatly to their prowess as warriors and as hunters. A warlike tribe, the
Sioux have made their name in history by fighting against the European Americans in
famous battles such as Little Big Horn and suffering at their hands in the massacre of
Wounded Knee. The former was recently portrayed in Kevin Costner’s film Dances with
Wolves and earlier in the film Little Big Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman.
The eight Sioux tribes (seven main tribes and one, the Assiniboin, that was outside of the
loose confederation) had relatively similar burial and mortuary practices. Like many other
western tribes, the Plains tribes believed that everything in the world around them was
filled with spirits and powers that affected their lives, whether from the sun, the mountains,
the buffalo, or the eagle (Capps, 1973).
The Sioux feared the dead and would burn the dwelling of the deceased, forbid using the
individual’s name, and bury personal goods with the corpse to keep the ghost of the
deceased from coming along to live with friends and relatives (LaFarge, 1956). An
individual was expected to pursue honored roles as he or she progressed through life and to
learn how to play his or her roles well. The roles included a spirit of generosity, which
meant giving to others from birth to death (Malan, 1958). This spirit meant that the Dakota
cared for their dead with comradeship. Yet, death in old age was not feared nor were the
ghosts of dead persons, who were often thought to remain for a time after their death
(Spencer & Jennings, 1965). The Lakota practiced “ghost keeping” ceremonies to try to
keep the soul of the deceased on earth to purify it and to ensure that it would return to its
creator (Hirschfelder & Molin, 1992). To keep a ghost required that a family endure a great
sacrifice and would ultimately give away all of their personal possessions to the needy in
memory of the ghost (Powers, 1977).
The Sioux took the position that death will occur to all regardless of one’s achievements,
fame, wisdom, bravery, or whatever, and that the mortuary practices allowed the living a
way of showing their reverent respect for the dead (Hassrick, 1964). The Dakota (Lakota or
Sioux) tribes would prepare a tipi to honor the deceased. In front of the tipi, they would
place a rack upon which robes and articles of clothing would be displayed, while inside the
tipi mourners would prepare themselves for their bereavement (Hassrick, 1964). If the
deceased was a young person, particularly a child, the mourners would gash their arms and
legs and engage in ritual crying (Spencer & Jennings, 1965). When death occurred in the
home, the burial would be delayed for a day and a half in hopes that the deceased might
revive (Hassrick, 1964). The body would be dressed in the finest available clothes,
provided by a relative if the deceased had none. The corpse would be wrapped tightly in
robes, with the weapons, tools, medicines, and pipe included with the corpse. Then the
bundle would be placed on a scaffold for air burial, with food and drink placed beneath the
scaffold (Spencer & Jennings, 1965).
Some Dakota or Sioux groups used earth burial. There is evidence that in earlier times
they used mound burial (Spencer & Jennings, 1965). During the winter, when scaffolds
could not be built, trees were often used for burial (Hassrick, 1964). After the body was
prepared and properly wrapped, the adult members of the family began wacekiyapi, or a
worship rite for the deceased in which men might run pegs through their arms and legs,
women might slash their limbs and cut off their little fingers at the first joint, and both men
and women might cut their hair and express their grief by singing, wailing, or weeping
(Hassrick, 1964). The favorite horse of the deceased would be killed beneath the scaffold
of its owner and its tail tied to the scaffold, and the mourning would continue for as long as
a year (Powers, 1977).
By placing the corpse in a tree or scaffold, the Dakotas and other similar tribes believed
the soul would then be free to rise into the sky if the person died of natural causes. If the
person died in battle, the Dakotas would often leave the person on the plains where he was
slain to rise into the sky (Capps, 1973). For the Dakota or Sioux, the spirits of the dead are
not gone and lost to humankind but rather continue to exist here and can be reached by the
living for support and aid (DeMallie & Parks, 1987). The Lakota also have a memorial
feast, which is held around the time of the anniversary of the death. This ceremony ends the
mourner’s duties, and the final giveaway will occur at this time (Hirschfelder & Molin,
1992). The ghosts of the dead appear at their will and communicate with the living
There is evidence that Plains tribes used all known methods of disposal of the dead,
including burial (both ground and air), cremation, and mummification. It is also probable
that the cause of death, where the death occurred, and the age, sex, and social status of the
deceased person had an impact on the mortuary and burial practices of the tribe, but
information about how such factors influence burial practices is not conclusive.
Evidence suggests a general pattern that the tribes exhibit a fear of the dead. It is also
likely that climate, weather, availability of materials to dispose of the body, and religious
beliefs were major determinants in how bodies of the dead were disposed. Burial practices
also seemed to remain stable for a remarkably long period of time among the tribes
(Voegelin, 1944). Almost universally, tribes provide provisions for a spirit journey,
whether for a single or for a group burial (Atkinson, 1935). If nothing else is known, it is
clear that tribal groups did not abandon their dead. They provided them with ceremony and
(Adapted from an article written by Gerry Cox and used with his permission.)
INFLUENCE OF SOCIAL POSITION ON DEATH-RELATED BEHAVIORS AND RITUALS
A deceased person’s social position and gender will often determine the way the body is
prepared for burial and the final disposition of the corpse. For example, a deceased
Buddhist common person in Thailand (Leming & Premchit, 1992) is cleaned, dressed, and
placed into a casket. A high-status Buddhist individual, however, is embalmed and then
bathed and dressed with new clothes. The face is covered with gold leaves before the body
is placed into the casket.
In Greece (Brabant, 1994) the majority of individuals cannot afford permanent burial;
thus, they rent a grave for three years, and then the remains are exhumed and the bones are
placed into the “bone room.” More prosperous individuals in Greece can afford to pay to
have their remains stay buried permanently. The Death Across Cultures box about the
Kapauku Papuans gives details about position in the community determining how and
where burial or final disposition will occur.
Gender is also a factor. Among the Abkhasians near the Black Sea (Benet, 1974), women
are buried 10 centimeters deeper than men. The Barabaig of Tanzania (Klima, 1970) place
the bodies of women and children out into the surrounding bush, where they are consumed
by hyenas. Only certain male and female elders will receive a burial.
In exmining men’s and women’s 18th- and 19th-century gravestone epitaphs in cemeteries
in the northeastern United States, Tarah Somers (1995) revealed major differences in the
social expectations of men and women. Women were described in more passive and private
terms (“meek and affectionate” and “joyfully departed life”), whereas men were often
memorialized with active and public terms (“skillful and valiant in truth” and “triumphant
at the approach of death”).
DEATH ACROSS CULTURES | BURIAL RITES AMONG THE KAPAUKU
Among the Kapauku Papuans of western New Guinea, burial rites are determined by the
deceased’s status and cause of the death. The simplest burial is given to a drowned man,
whose body is laid flat on the bank of the river and protected by a fence erected around it.
The body is then abandoned to the elements. Very young children and individuals not
particularly liked and considered unimportant are completely interred. Children, women,
and elderly persons who were unimportant but loved are tied with vines into a squatting
position and semi-interred with the head above ground. A dome-shaped structure of
branches and soil is then constructed to protect the head.
A respected and loved adult male among the Kapauku Papuans receives a tree burial.
Tied in a squatting position, the corpse is placed in a tree house with a small window in
front. Corpses of important individuals, who are feared by their relatives, and of women
who died in childbirth require a special type of burial. Their bodies are placed in the
squatting position on a special raised scaffold constructed in the house where death
occurred. The house is then sealed and abandoned.
The most elaborate burial among the Kapauku Papuans is given to a rich headman. A
special hut is built on high stilts, the body is tied in a squatting position, and a pointed
pole is driven through the rectum, abdomen, chest cavity, and neck with its pointed end
supporting the base of the skull. The body is then placed in the dead house with the face
appearing in the front window of the structure. The body is pierced several times with
arrows to allow the body fluids to drain away. Years later, the skull of the respected man
may be cleaned and awarded a second honor of being placed on a pole driven into the
ground near the house of the surviving relatives.
From The Kapauku Papuans of West New Guinea, by L. Pospisil, 1963, New York: Holt, Rinehart and
Thus, in death as in life, one’s social status and gender determine how one is treated.
Whether one is buried or left to the elements is often determined by gender, age, standing
in the community, and cause of death. If one is buried in the ground. even the depth of
burial may vary by one’s social position. For an extended discussion of the relationship
between social class and death-related behavior, see M. Kearl (2009).
DEATH RITUALS OF MAJOR RELIGIOUS GROUPS
Whatever their differences, religious rituals for the dead are always communal events.
Feeding the survivors and the telling of stories cut across all traditions.
Jewish mourning rituals focus more on the bereaved than on the body. By custom, Jews try
to bury their dead within 24 hours—if possible, without embalming—in a plain, wooden
coffin. Traditional Jews do not put the body on view or have it cremated.
According to P. S. Knobel (1987), traditional Jewish burial customs require that the body
be cleansed by members of the Jewish burial society (hevra’qaddisha’ or “holy society”) in
a washing process called tahorah, or purification. Custom forbids embalming, cremation,
and autopsy unless local laws require these procedures. The body is dressed in plain linen
shrouds (takhrikhim); men are usually buried with their prayer shawls (tallit). The body is
then placed into a plain wooden casket and buried before sunset on the day of death, if at
all possible. Reform Judaism allows for cremation and entombment, but burial is the most
frequent form of body disposition. Throughout this process, it is considered inappropriate
to use the funeral as a means for displaying one’s social position and wealth.
PRACTICAL MATTERSMATTERS | JEWISH GROUP BURIES ITS OWN
When a Jewish congregation here first began the practice of offering simple, inexpensive
burials for its dead, some members were upset. But they now increasingly condone it.
Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman, spiritual leader of Adath Jeshurun Congregation, says
volunteers of its society to honor the dead—Chevra Kevod Hamet—now handle about
half the funerals of members. The Chevra was formed in 1976 after Goodman, in a
sermon, dealt with the impact of American values upon the funeral practices of Jewry. He
suggested a committee study the requirements of the Halacha, or Jewish law, for
responding to death.
Months of study convinced committee members that a simple wooden coffin should be
used, the body should be washed in a ritual process called tahara, and because dust is to
return to dust as quickly as possible, there should be no formaldehyde in the veins and no
nails on the coffin. The society decided to offer traditional funerals free to Adath
Jeshurun members. The congregation provided seed money. Memorial donations and
voluntary contributions from the bereaved are accepted.
Here’s how the Chevra functions: When death occurs, chaverim (friends) call on the
family, aid in writing the obituary, explain death benefits, aid in other ways, and remain
available for help. Chevra Kadisha (sacred society), people of the same sex as the
deceased and usually five in number, wash the body at the mortuary while saying prayers.
The body is dressed in a shroud sewn by Chevra members and placed in a wooden coffin.
Shomrin (guards) watch over the body, in blocks of two hours, until burial. The coffin
with rope handles is light enough to be borne by pallbearers, including women. Spurning
mechanical contrivances, the pallbearers lower the coffin into the grave. Chaverim, the
rabbi, and cantor shovel in dirt. Family members may participate.
Judaism historically insists that the greatest commandment is to take personal
involvement in burying the dead, Goodman says, but affluence enables people to pay
surrogates to do it. Goodman says a funeral costs the Chevra less than one-third the
normal price charged by a local funeral home director.
From “Jewish Group Buries Its Own,” June 25, 1982. Copyright 1982 Associated Press.
For the bereaved, the Jewish mourning ritual begins by the rending (tearing) of garments.
Survivors cut their clothing with a razor—on the left for a parent; on the right for a spouse,
child, or sibling—to symbolize the tear in life that death has produced. For some, the
ripping of a black ribbon, which is then attached to the clothing, has symbolically replaced
the process of rending garments.
After a ritual healing meal, shiva begins. For the first week, men do not shave, survivors
are not supposed to wash their whole bodies, and the entire family receives visitors while
sitting on the floor or on low chairs. From the death until burial, mourners are exempt from
normal religious obligations (e.g., morning prayers) and must not engage in the following
activities: drinking wine, eating meat, attending parties, and engaging in sexual intercourse
The liturgy for the funeral consists of the recitation of psalms, a eulogy, and the
following El Male’ Rahamin memorial prayer:
O God full of compassion, You who dwell on high! Grant perfect rest beneath the
sheltering wings of Your presence, among the holy and pure who shine as the brightness
of the heavens, unto the soul of [name of the deceased] who has entered eternity and in
whose memory charity is offered. May his/her repose be in the Garden of Eden. May the
Lord of Mercy bring him/her under the cover of His wings forever and may his/her soul
be bound up in the bond of eternal life. May the Lord be his/her possession and may
he/she rest in peace. Amen. (Knobel, 1987, p. 396)
During the interment service the body is lowered into the grave and covered with earth.
The interment service consists of an acclamation of God’s justice, a memorial prayer, and
the recitation of Qaddish—a doxology reaffirming the mourner’s faith in God despite the
fact of death. After the burial service, the people in attendance form two lines between
which the primary mourners pass. Those present comfort the mourners as they pass, saying,
“May God comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” (Knobel,
1987, p. 397).
After the shiva, mourners continue to avoid social gatherings for 30 days after the death.
When one is mourning the death of a parent, the restrictions are observed for one year.
After one year, all ritual expressions of grief cease with the exception of the Yahrzeit—the
yearly commemoration of the person’s death. Yahrzeit is observed by lighting a memorial
light, performing memorial acts of charity, and attending religious services to recite the
Qaddish prayer (Carse, 1981; Knobel, 1987). A contemporary description of Jewish
bereavement by M. Bukiet (2005) provides empirical evidence for the saliency of these
issues even though the article was writte…
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