History of Funerals

The History Behind Pallbearers

By History of Funerals

More than likely, we’ve had pallbearers since mankind started having funerals. In other words, from the beginning of time. Certainly, they have not always been called “pallbearers,” but the function of carrying the mortal body of a person who has died to their final resting place? That duty has existed for all time. But just for curiosity’s sake, let’s talk about our modern word “pallbearer” and how it came to be.

Today’s Definition of “Pallbearer”

Today, a “pallbearer” is a person who carries the casket during a funeral service. Depending on the family’s choices and religious background, this could mean:

  • Carrying in and out of the church
  • Taking out of the church only (to the funeral car)
  • Carrying to the graveside
  • A combination of the above

Most often, there are between six and eight pallbearers. Depending on tradition or preference, the casket is either carried at the waist or hoisted to the shoulder. Both men and women can perform this meaningful responsibility as they accompany a person to their final resting place.

The Term is a Portmanteau

“Pallbearer” is actually a portmanteau. In other words, it’s the combination of two words into one. In this case, “casket bearer” and “pall” were merged into one to create “pallbearer.” The earliest use of the word in print was around 1710. But what is a pall, you may ask?

What is a Pall?

While you may not be familiar with the term “pall,” you’ve most likely seen one, whether in person or in a movie or TV show. The pall is a heavy, usually white, and sometimes ornate cloth that is draped over the casket. The use of palls still occurs today, usually with specific ethnic, religious, or fraternal backgrounds, but anyone can decide to use one. In fact, the American flag acts as a pall when it is draped over the casket of a deceased veteran or service member.

The word “pall” likely comes from the Roman word “pallium,” which referred to a person’s cape or cloak, often used in relation to a soldier. When the person died, they were covered with the cloak. Around the Middle Ages, the word “pallium” was shorted to “pall” and began to refer to a heavy cloth (rather than a cloak).

And Where Do Casket Bearers Come In?

It used to be that two sets of people participated in carrying the casket. First, there were those who carried the casket itself (casket bearers). Second, there were those who carried the pall (if there was one) and placed it over the casket. Today, because both duties have generally merged into one (the pall and the casket are carried by the same people), we now use the term “pallbearer.” Interestingly, the term has become so common that even if there is no pall, the term “pallbearer” is still used.

So, there you have it! Our modern term finds its roots in a long-held tradition of carrying a loved one to their final resting place. In some religious and family traditions, the pall is still carried separately from the casket, but for many, the two duties have been merged into one under the name “pallbearer.”

Explore the 4 Building Blocks of Ancient Egyptian Funeral Customs

By History of Funerals

Egypt has a long and well-documented history. If you’re like many people, Ancient Egypt brings to mind sandy deserts,  grand pyramids, powerful pharaohs, creepy mummies, and priceless antiquitiesAs you envision the Great Pyramids of Giza, it’s impossible to forget a well-publicized and intriguing Ancient Egyptian funeral custom – mummification. While we don’t practice mummification anymore, it still holds a certain fascination for us.  

It’s often the Old KingdomMiddle Kingdom, and New Kingdom periods that we most closely associate with Egyptian history. These Kingdom periods include:

  • the height of mummification practices
  • the creation of the Valley of the Kings
  • the rule of pharaohs like Tutankhamun
  • the expansion of Egypt’s territories and wealth

Let’s take a walk through history and learn about a few Ancient Egyptian funeral customs that dominated their long history. Let’s go! 

The Role of the Afterlife 

Every aspect of Ancient Egyptian funeral customs revolved around the afterlife. They believed that carrying out funeral practices specifically and fully was necessary to ensuring immortality after death. For them, the afterlife was a place called The Field of Reedsand you could only enter this place if you were deemed worthy in the Hall of Truth. Essentially, a person’s heart was weighed against the goddess Ma’at’s white feather, and if the heart was lighter than her feather, the soul would continue to The Field of Reeds.  

However, there was a caveat. If a person’s body had not been properly buried and all the funerary rites followed, then that person would be unable to reach paradise. This is why Ancient Egyptians placed such a high regard on completing each aspect of their complex funeral customs. While funeral practices started out simple with shallow graves and minimal (if any) mummification in the early days, the practices became more complex over time. By the time of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, funeral practices had become quite elaborate and widespread. 

The 4 Building Blocks of Ancient Egyptian Funeral Customs 

Mummifying the Body 

While mummification has ceased as a practice in most countries of the world, we do regularly practice other forms of preservation, like embalming. In Ancient Egypt, mummification was the way to go. Because the preservation of the body was essential to the afterlife, they did not practice any form of cremation.  

The full mummification process took 70 days and was very intricate. For a detailed account of mummification, click hereWhile mummification was most common amongst the wealthy – like kings, priests, and nobility – a simplified form was available to the poor. Where the wealthy would use linen bandages to wrap the body and place it in a stone sarcophagus, the poor would use their own old clothes to wrap the body and place it in the simplest of graves.  

Also, interestingly, archeologists have recently discovered evidence that funeral homes (of a sort) existed in Ancient Egypt. They focused on mummification and burial. You can learn more about this new discovery by clicking here

Including Spiritual Elements and Remembrance Service  

After mummification was complete, a great procession was gathered to escort the body to the tomb. Today, we still take part in the practice of accompanying the body to its final resting place. However, back then, it was a more elaborate event and often included professional mourners called the Kites of NephthysPerhaps the most important part of the graveside service was the Opening of the Mouth CeremonyvUsing spells and incantations from the Book of the Dead, a priest would ceremonially touch different areas of the body. Without this ritual, the person would be unable to breathe, eat, drink, talk, or move freely in the afterlife. 

Following the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, priests recited a few more prayers and sealed the tomb. At this time, the mourners took time to celebrate the life of the departed with a feast, often held right beside the grave. Even the poorest Egyptian was given some kind of ceremony because it was believed that an improperly buried person would return as a ghost to haunt the living. Gives you shivers, doesn’t it? They certainly took things very seriously!  

It’s also worth noting that Ancient Egyptians understood the importance of remembrance activities. They would regularly visit the family tomb, write letters to loved ones and leave them at the tomb, or keep busts of loved ones in the home to encourage their spirits to visit. 

Providing Grave Goods  

In preparation for the afterlife, people were buried with grave goods. Besides your body and the ability to eat, drink, breathe, talk, and move, what else do you need to set up a home in the afterlife? Household goods and treasures, of course! This meant including pots, combs, stone vessels, figurines, beads, amulets, and much more in the tombOne of the most famous finds was King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Sadly, most tombs were looted by grave robbers long before any modern-day archeologists could explore them, but despite that, we’ve still learned a great deal about Ancient Egyptian funeral practices. The grave goods included were dependent on the wealth of the person who died.  

Preparing a Final Resting Place 

 Ancient Egypt gave humanity some of the most spectacular and memorable final resting places, like the Great Pyramids and the Valley of the KingsFilled with grave goods, hieroglyphics, and even mummies sometimes, Egyptian tombs have long been an archeologist’s dream and have given us a glimpse in what life was like in Ancient Egypt. While the tombs did not remain undisturbed for long due to grave robbers, the tombs do provide a long-lasting memorial. After all, thousands of years later, we are still talking about Tutankhamun, Ramses, and Nefertiti, amongst others 

Cemeteries provide the same function for us today, though thankfully, we don’t have to worry about grave robbing anymore. Instead, a cemetery provides a quiet, tranquil place to remember the person we love and feel close to them once more. To learn more about the benefits of a permanent memorial, click here. 

As you can see, for millennia, humanity has felt the need to mourn and remember loved ones while also participating in healing rituals. We definitely do things differently now – definitely no more spells or secret incantations – but the purpose of the funeral remains the same. We want to honor those we love. Remember their lives. Celebrate them. And look forward to seeing them again someday. 

8 Intriguing Funeral Customs from the Victorian Era

By History of Funerals

Have you ever found yourself wondering where some of our funeral traditions come from? The Victorian Era (1837-1901) introduced some of our current funeral traditions as well as a few customs that have fallen out of memory and practice. Some of the following customs will feel familiar while others will surprise you. Let’s take a look at a few funeral traditions from the past.

A Shift in Funeral Customs

The Victorian Era directly aligns with the reign of Queen Victoria of England. Crowned on June 20, 1837, Victoria reigned until her death on January 22, 1901. While she is the second-longest reigning monarch in England’s history, she is also notably known for her deep love for her husband, Prince Albert, and her 40 years of mourning following his death in 1861.

In response to her husband’s death, Queen Victoria went into mourning, and her very public practices influenced many nations, creating a shift in funeral customs and how grief and mourning were expressed.

8 Intriguing Funeral Customs from the Victorian Era

1. Mourning Clothes Were a Must

Following Albert’s death, Victoria dressed in full mourning for the first three years. To her death, it was unusual to see her in anything but black. Her example led to the population copying her style of dress, and certain expectations were set in place.

Mourning clothes were considered an outward expression of a person’s inner feelings. Societal rules were especially specific for women. In “deep mourning,” women’s clothing was deep black and non-reflective, often trimmed in black crepe, and worn with minimal or no jewelry. Additionally, widows were expected to wear a black silk “weeping veil” or “widow’s cap.” After a specified time, a woman moved into “half mourning” where colors like gray and lavender were permitted with minimal ornamentation.

For men, fashion was much easier – they simply wore dark suits with black gloves, hatbands, and cravats. Children were not expected to wear mourning clothes, and for those who were wealthy, servants even wore mourning clothes. Thankfully for the Victorians, if you were ever in doubt as to what to wear, you could consult Cassell’s Household Guide.

2. There Was a Set Mourning Period

In the Victorian era, society observed a specified “mourning period.” The length of time depended on the type of loss: spouse, sibling, parent, child, cousin, etc. For example, widows were expected to wear mourning clothes for two years (one year in full mourning, one year in half mourning). In addition to wearing only black during deep mourning, a widow could not go out in society except to attend church.

Societal rules for men who lost a wife were less rigorous, mainly because men were expected to remarry relatively quickly. For children mourning parents (or vice versa), the mourning period was one year; for grandparents and siblings, six months; mourning aunts and uncles, two months; for great uncles and aunts, six weeks; for first cousins, four weeks. Again, if you were ever in doubt, you could consult Cassell’s for guidance.

While there were set rules on how long you must outwardly mourn, there was no set end date. Queen Victoria is an excellent example – she mourned Prince Albert for the remainder of her days. In the Victorian era, there was no hurry to end a period of grief. People took the time they needed, and those around them respected the necessity of mourning.

3. Superstitions Were Prevalent

During this time, humanity was still learning a lot about the natural world. People were spiritual and believed in the supernatural. Because of this viewpoint, there were a number of superstitions surrounding death:

  • Victorians carried the deceased out of the home feet first so they couldn’t look back and call someone else to follow them.
  • Curtains were closed and mirrors covered until after the funeral so that the deceased’s image wouldn’t get trapped in a looking glass.
  • It was thought that you might be next if you saw yourself in a mirror at a house where someone had recently died.
  • To prevent bad luck, all clocks were stopped at the time of death.
  • And somewhat creepily, Victorians turned family photographs face-down to protect family and friends from possession by a spirit of the dead.

4. They Feared Final Rest Disturbances

The Victorian period was a time of medical advances, but in many ways, its people were still in the dark. In fact, they really did have reason to fear that their final rest might not be as peaceful. At the time, it was difficult for medical professionals to procure bodies for study, so grave robbers became a concern for everyone. Additionally, because medical conditions weren’t as well understood, a doctor might mistakenly declare someone dead. In these cases, the person was often in a coma.

To combat grave robbers and premature burial due to lack of medical understanding, the Victorians put a few safeguards into place. Some families buried a loved one with a rope in their hand, attached to a bell outside the grave. If the person in the grave awoke, they could ring the bell, signaling their need for help. Other burial options included bricking over a grave, covering it with a protective gate, or purchasing a coffin with a series of tubes and mirrors to allow the gravediggers to peer inside for movement.

5. Victorians Contributed to the Rise of Photography

With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, some people began to take family photos. However, the cost was prohibitive for the average family. Many only took photographs at big life events, like the death of a loved one. Thus, the custom of taking a photograph with a loved one after death became a popular trend. The photograph gave the family a lasting visual reminder of their loved one.

Often called “death photography,” this practice continued throughout the Victorian era. It was especially common to photograph children since they had the highest mortality rates. Though the practice has died out, we do still take postmortem photographs. Now it’s more often in the context of forensics and pathology.

6. Personal Mementos Were Common

In addition to a photograph, some families also created mementos using a loved one’s hair. They artfully arranged their loved one’s hair in shadow boxes, wreaths, fabrics, corsages, and particularly in jewelry. Though a woman was not allowed to wear jewelry (other than jet black gemstones) during deep mourning, they often wore a jewelry memento afterward. Queen Victoria was known to wear a locket that contained a picture of Prince Albert and a lock of his hair.

This may seem like an unusual practice, but actually, we do something quite similar – memorial or cremation jewelry. Instead of hair, we place a portion of a loved one’s ashes in jewelry and wear it in their memory. Although the method of memorialization has changed over time, the basic idea is the same.

7. Stately Monuments Came into Prominence

Before the Victorian era, burial plots near home and churchyards were most common. With the advent of public cemeteries, the desire to memorialize and grandly mark a grave came into fashion. While grave markers had been more simplistic, during the Victorian era, they became much more elaborate. While some markers were still simple, others could be large – almost like a private mausoleum – and might include urns, wreaths, columns, or carved figures. Today, we still see large cemetery monuments, though we have toned down the opulence in exchange for something simple and personal.

8. Families Planned Ahead

The Victorians had no illusions about death. Mortality rates for children were high, and even if you survived childhood, many adults didn’t live past 50 years. In this era, death was so certain and people prized an elaborate funeral service. Because of this, many families saved for years to pay for a funeral service. In fact, women frequently made their own shrouds and included them in their wedding trousseau.

Today, we shy away from talking or even thinking about death. In reality, we could learn something from the Victorians: it’s okay to talk about and plan for death. The Victorians didn’t focus on death, but they accepted it as a reality and planned for it. While their methods seem strange to us today, the Victorians did understand the value of celebrating a loved one’s life and honoring their memory. We could greatly benefit from more openness, less fear, and a willingness to have these important conversations with our families.

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