7 outdated funeral and mourning traditions (and superstitions)
You might be surprised how funerals, burials, and more have evolved over time
By Karla Walsh
Funeral customs have been commemorated for nearly 300,000 years, historians believe, and they have evolved a lot along the way into traditions you know today.
“There are so many ways to plan to have a funeral that really speaks to who you are and have the final party you really want,” says Genevieve Keeney, president and CEO of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, Texas. “When your family is distracted by grief, nine times out of 10 it will be traditional.”
How do you want to be remembered? Do you believe these past funeral customs and mourning traditions are outdated, or are they something you would consider for your ideal prearranged funeral service?
1. Mourning badges and extended mourning periods
During the Victorian era, families would stop all clocks in the home at the time of death and cover mirrors with fabric to prevent the spirit from getting trapped in or escaping through the glass. To notify outsiders of a passing, a wreath (generally made with laurel leaf and black ribbon) would be hung on the front door.
“For the traditional burial, the body was taken care of in the home, and the wake and paying of respects happened in the home. You’d hang a mourning badge on the door of the deceased’s home,” Keeney said.
The concept of a wake as a mourning tradition originally meant watching the body until the burial to guarantee it was dead — not just in a coma. This process generally lasted about four days, which also allowed time for family from further away to travel to the location of the funeral.
2. All-black apparel
Families or widows would often wear black for an entire year to signify being in mourning, Keeney explains.
“We still wear black at funerals, but the style has varied drastically. People wear more pops of color rather than all black,” she added.
3. Urns for cremated ashes
The actual cremation process is basically the same as it was a century or two ago, Keeney says, which involves subjecting the human body to a flame that reduces to bone and ash.
“What has changed as part of the mourning tradition is what we do with the ashes. People used to take them home and keep them on a shelf or bury them. Today, some families scatter ashes in unique places, turn them into a diamond, or even send them into outer space. There are so many new trends that are being developed on what we can do with cremated remains,” she adds.
4. Impersonal memorials
Thanks in part to advance funeral planning, “people are becoming more open to having personalized funerals rather than purely traditional and religious. Now we see celebrations of life that are more of a celebratory gathering telling life stories, slideshows with pictures, and storyboards or items from their past,” Keeney says.
5. Basic headstones and death notifications
One of the main mourning traditions used to be delivering a death notification in person. A black-bordered piece of paper (or white for the death of a child) that listed the service details would be given to all who might want to attend. Now, it’s more common to receive service particulars in an email from the family, read obituaries online, or post social media remembrances.
The headstone funeral custom previously only involved listing a person’s name, birthdate, date of death, and perhaps a memorial message. Today, however, mourning traditions have advanced in technology and may include screens that display photo montages, holograms, or life story videos.
6. Purely in-person funerals
Spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and related safety precautions, live-streamed funerals are joining in-person services in a way our ancestors never would have imagined.
“Many families are using FaceTime, Zoom, or a variety of other online platforms to virtually stream funerals,” Keeney says, so more people can safely and affordably “attend.”
7. Death-related superstitions
Prior generations had a lot of superstitions related to death and funerals. At some point in history, a solid portion of the population believed:
- It was bad luck to wear anything new to the funeral, especially shoes.
- If rain falls during a funeral procession or if there is thunder during a burial, it’s a sign the deceased is destined for heaven.
- If you hear three knocks on a door and no one is there, it’s a sign that death is at your door.
- It’s important to cover your mouth during a yawn so good spirits don’t exit or the devil doesn’t enter your system.
- Rain in the form of large drops mean that a death has recently occurred.
A timeless tradition
As you can see, certain funeral customs come and go, but one that remains important is advance funeral planning. While no one wants to think about their own death or planning a funeral, creating an advance funeral plan may bring peace of mind to you and your family. You can outline every detail in advance, so your loved ones won’t need to wonder what kind of service you want or whether you desire a burial or cremation. You can also alleviate the financial burden on your family by setting up a Preneed Funeral insurance plan.
Also referred to as “burial insurance,” Preneed insurance covers all the pre-determined expenses of your cremation and service. This option will require you to enter a contract with a funeral home. The Preneed plan typically holds the funeral expenses at present-day costs, regardless of inflation by the time of death, and the total can be paid up front in one payment or in installments over time.
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