Funeral Rituals Throughout History and How They've Changed

The act of memorializing the deceased is one of the hallmarks of civilization - it's something that marks the beginning of society as we know it.

Over the years, funerals and memorial customs have changed according to spiritual beliefs, cultural values, and a myriad of other factors. Today, in the U.S., memorial services vary but follow the same pattern, by and large: Families prepare the remains, loved ones gather to mourn, a designated person offers a blessing or words of remembrance, and individuals continue to memorialize their loved ones as they see fit.

Some of what is practiced now hasn't always been that way, but others are as old as mankind itself. How have past traditions differed from current ones, and how did ancient funeral ceremonies influence what we do today?

Ancient funeral customs

From as far back as 60,000 B.C., there is evidence early humans and Neanderthals decorated their deceased with flowers, antlers, and other items from the natural world. It's impossible to know the exact impulse that led to that practice but may be related to spirituality and a belief in the afterlife.

Some of the world's most famous and impressive ancient landmarks were built, at least in some part, as tombs or as vehicles for memorial. The pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the terra cotta warriors of China, the mausoleum, and the Roman catacombs were all ways to honor and enshrine the dead.

Rituals change over time

Nowadays, you don't see kings erecting massive tombs to enshrine the dead - the Taj Mahal, built in the 1630s, was probably the last major project built as a tomb or mausoleum. Instead, today's funerals borrow some elements from the past and move on from others.

Early religions often held that the spirits of the dead carried objects with them on their travel to the afterlife, so people would entomb their loved ones with items that could accompany their journey. Today, that tradition is still alive: Family and friends routinely bury or inter the deceased with treasured possessions from life. Similarly, that practice established at least 60,000 years ago - leaving flowers with those who have passed - is certainly prevalent today.

In the U.S., religion plays a role in many funeral traditions, but certainly not all. By and large, families are free to decide how to hold a funeral and inter their loved ones as they deem appropriate.

The Taj Mahal was once used as a mausoleum.

The preferred method for disposition

While some consider burial to be the most prevalent funeral practice, the ancient Greeks chose cremation more frequently. In 1000 B.C. people began using clay urns to contain cremated remains, and by 800 B.C. the method was popular with the Greeks.

Nearly 1,000 years later in 100 A.D., the Romans, heirs to Greek culture, established columbaria as a way to enshrine multiple urns and other personal belongings. The columbarium is still commonly used today as a way of interring cremated remains; in fact, Neptune Society has one of its own.

The modern world has changed drastically since ancient times, particularly in how frequently and how far people travel. For that reason, many people today also prefer cremation over burial, according to USA Today - it allows them to carry their loved one's remains with them when they move or travel, it makes it easier to plan for end-of-life, and it even provides more flexibility and creativity in terms of interment or memorialization.

It's easier than ever to plan for end-of-life, given the number of resources available. If you'd like to learn more about cremation as an ideal option for you or a loved one, consult with the experts at Neptune Society.

The Neptune Society is the nation's oldest and largest provider of affordable cremation services. Whether you have an immediate need or want to plan cremation services in advance, we are always available to assist you and your family.

Call 1-800-NEPTUNE (800-637-8863) today or contact us online to learn more.

Everything You Need to Know About Preplanning Your Final Arrangements - guide cover

Download Everything You Need to Know To Find a Trustworthy Cremation Provider

With our guide, learn how to:

  • Gain Understanding Regarding Pricing for End-of-Life Services
  • Learn How to Look for “Red Flags” When Researching Providers
  • Understand What Questions to Ask a Potential Provider