When you really think about it, a lot of the somber pomp and circumstance surrounding funerals is a little strange. For most funerals, a dead body is pumped full of toxic chemicals to preserve it, paraded in front of loved ones, piled into one of the strangest-looking cars in existence and then laid to rest in a hole in the ground in a large field of dead people. Not only that, but the whole affair usually costs the relatives around $5000 dollars. Well it turns out that pretty much all of the minutia of funeral rites has a long and storied history about it… and plenty of businesses willing to charge exorbitant amounts of money to send loved ones to the afterlife in style.
Also known as the creepiest part of any funeral, the wake occurs shortly after death. The recently deceased is placed on display, often with the casket open. Loved ones are given one last chance to say their goodbyes, kneeling by the pasty, makeup-caked face of the dead. In the past, wakes were conducted inside the house of the deceased, often as an informal ceremony before burial. Nowadays they take place in funeral homes, with prices tags ranging from a hundred to a couple thousand dollars.
The tradition of the wake dates back quite far, at least to medieval times, and shows up in many cultures. The idea is that loved ones keep watch over the body shortly after death in the hope that the person would wake up, presumably because fear of being buried alive is one of the most widespread phobias in the world. Contrary to what you might have heard, the name “wake” doesn’t refer to the dead person “waking” up, but is actually an archaic usage of the word that means “to watch”, referring to the loved ones guarding of the body after death.
Sending flowers to those grieving a loved one has become so ubiquitous that many funeral announcements have an “In lieu of flowers” section, instructing mourners to give donations to a charity, for example, rather than bring flowers. They are likewise on ubiquitous display during the funeral, draping the coffin in amounts that greatly exceed the size of the body contained therein. Between mourners and those planning the proceedings, funerals have to finish second only to weddings in amount spent on flowers in a single day. Many wakes have a room filled to the ceiling with flowers.
Yet another tradition that dates back millennia, flowers have been found in burial pits from pre-history. So why were they there? To ward off evil spirits? To remind us all of the impermanence of life, wilting as it does like a flower? Well actually, the answer’s a lot more practical than all that: corpses stink to high hell. After only a few days, any dead body will start to reek with utter putrescence, so it quickly became commonplace to drape the body in as many flowers as possible to cover the stench. Thanks to modern embalming techniques, the flowers are now purely for show. It gives new meaning to the tradition of a procession of loved ones each placing a flower on the casket — instead of a fond farewell, they’re actually saying “dude, you reek.”
In case you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing a dead body in person, or you didn’t have a bitter, overly-verbose Vietnam vet for an uncle: they kind of stink. A lot. Much like that casserole you left sitting out all night, people have been putting corpses in the tightest, most air-tight boxes they could find. The idea is that a body exposed to the elements doesn’t really stand up to display for long, nor does anyone want to be anywhere near it to say the eulogy. Really important people usually get a royal treatment for their casket, but for your average commoner it was just whatever was lying around that would keep your corpse palatable until they threw you in the ground.
Modern caskets, not so much. They’re often made of many layers of steel and could probably survive a nuclear holocaust. While the desire to prevent zombies from clawing their way out of the ground is noble, what’s not so great is these behemoths often cost upwards of a cool grand and are easily the most expensive part of any funeral. Overall, they’re just for show. The body will rot regardless and a wooden casket is just as effective as a bejeweled one.
There are few things more iconic about modern burial rituals than the tombstone. Walking the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery is quite humbling, to say the least. But, believe it or not, throughout history, tombstones weren’t actually that commonplace. It was the rites leading up to the burial that were important, and unless you were wealthy enough to afford a mausoleum, you likely ended up with a few rocks on your burial site and not much more.
Still, there’s a long, proud history of putting rocks on graves. Back in the day they were called “Cairns”, and they’re the precursor to modern headstones (though cairns, meaning basically a big pile of rocks, have been used for many other purposes, such as trail markers). The reasons behind these piles of stones were twofold: First, people were often buried with some form of valuables, even if it was just a few pieces of jewelry. A big pile of stones, or one big stone, was often enough to keep grave robbers from digging up the corpse. Second, animals have an annoying habit of digging up fresh corpses that aren’t buried deep enough; the stones helped prevent the body from being disturbed by man or beast.
Modern headstones seem to mostly be a reminder of where the grave is to grandchildren that will never visit as well as exercises in vanity. And they can be an expensive one at that. Like caskets, even a modest one will set you back a few hundred dollars, with virtually no limit on how much they can cost—depending on how much you want to remind future generations of how obnoxiously large your ego was.
Funeral clothes aren’t really as big of an issue now as they were in the past, owing to the fact that grieving processes are much shorter in the 21st century. As recently as mid-century, mourners—especially immediate family—were expected to don a whole set of specific clothing to indicate that they were in mourning. Even today though, how many of us would have to rent or borrow something formal and black to wear to a funeral? But according to experts, funerals a generation or two ago and going back to antiquity required a whole new, expensive wardrobe upgrade.
While it makes sense that you don’t show up to a funeral wearing a rainbow wig and sweatpants, it seems a little strange that you will get the meanest old lady glares in your entire life just by wearing navy blue instead of black. To put it simply, ancient peoples were terrified of dead bodies and death in general. Wearing a specific dress was meant to conceal mourners from the evil spirits that had taken the deceased’s life. So sort of like Halloween but with more drinking.