European Funerary Traditions Across Time and History

European Funerary Traditions Across Time and History


Every society has its own unique methods of celebrating the life of the recently deceased and disposing of the body of the departed. In particular, in Europe, and the cradle of Civilization in the Levant and the Middle East, the manner in which bodies have been dispensed with following the death of individuals has altered greatly over time. The following examines a number of major societies and cultures within Europe and its hinterland, in order to better understand European funerary traditions, such as embalming, the use of ossuaries or bone-yards, catacombs, mass graves and crypts, and the burial rights which have been attendant on each of these burial and interment practices.

The Egyptians – The Dominance of Mummification

The Egyptians are well-known for mummifying the dead, whereby the body of the deceased was preserved by means of exposing the body to certain chemicals or unctions and bandaging it and interring it in a sarcophagus or tomb, often one which is temperature regulated. Generally spells were cast over the dead when they were interred, while the deceased was also often buried with a range of goods for their use in the afterlife. These could be something as simple as clothing or food, or could be much more elaborate, such as the enormously value treasure found in the tombs of the Egyptians rulers, the Pharaohs. A good example of the latter is the Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, a fourteenth century BC Pharaoh whose tomb was discovered in tact in 1922 by the British archaeologist and Egyptologist, Howard Carter.

The Romans – Mixed Traditions and the Age of the Catacombs

The funerary traditions of the Egyptians, however, became outdated in the course of the first millennium BC, particularly as the Roman Empire gradually spread across the entire Mediterranean region and much of Europe between the third century BC and the first century AD. The Romans had various funerary practices which in many ways mirror our modern range of funerary rites. They practiced both inhumation, the interring of a corpse in a grave, and cremation, the burning of the deceased and associated retention of the ashes as the focus of the deceased’s physical remains. The Romans, as one of the first European societies to live in major cities of hundreds of thousands of people, also had to develop methods of burying the dead in a sanitary fashion. As such, they were one of the first society’s to begin interring the dead in graveyards and catacombs on the edges of their cities or entirely beyond the city boundaries. The most famous of these mass interment sites are the Roman Catacombs, which are located in many locations around the city of Rome itself, some being underground and others at surface level.

The Middle Ages and the First Christian Kings – The Rise of Burial as the Dominant Funerary Rite in Europe

As Christianity began to predominate in the Roman Empire the course of the second, third and fourth centuries AD funerary practices in Europe underwent a significant shift. The Christians were opposed to cremation and preferred inhumation of bodies in graves and tombs in line with how Jesus himself had been buried. As a result, inhumation, and the burying of bodies, became the dominant method of burial everywhere that Christianity took root. This is not to suggest that burial became a monopolistic funerary practice in Medieval Europe. For instance, in some parts of the continent such as northern Poland and the Baltic states region around modern-day Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, it took until the tenth, eleventh or even twelfth centuries before the people here fully adopted Christianity and with it the regular recourse to inhumation. Prior to the conversion of these peoples to Roman Catholicism many tribes here maintained their Paganism, and with it a preference for cremation. This approach, though, had become increasingly marginalized by the end of the Middle Ages, roughly understood as having ended in Europe during the fifteenth century. Yet there was also a via-media developing in the Late Medieval Period between full inhumation of the body of the deceased and partial retention of the remains of the dead. This involved the preservation of some bones of the deceased in a chest or box known as an ossuary, which was then kept in a church or crypt. Such ossuaries, sometimes called bone-yards, became particularly common in the New World or the Americas where the Spanish exported the tradition to Peru, Mexico and other regions after the discovery of the Americas during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Early Modern Europe

The early modern period in Europe, typically understood as lying chronologically between 1500 and 1800, witnessed several religious and cultural changes on the continent which eventually changed the attitudes of Europeans over time to funerary rites. In particular, the advent of the Protestant Reformation in Germany from the late 1510s onwards began to change perceptions about how bodies should be buried and the rituals which surround the deceased. Protestantism took hold in parts of Europe such as Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), Scandinavia, England and Scotland. This did not lead to an immediate change in funerary practices, but in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these societies also became more urbanized and economically advanced, a product of what the great German sociologist, Max Weber, called the Protestant Work Ethic. As these societies became more urbanized and population levels exploded in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it became less and less practical to bury everybody from a given community in a graveyard at the edge of the town or village, as had been the norm in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. Accordingly, cremation, a funerary practice which had been common place in ancient times, but which had largely been vilified and rejected in the Christian Medieval Period, suddenly started to re-enter widespread usage during the nineteenth century, particularly in Protestant countries such as England, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Germany.

Twentieth & Twenty-First Centuries – A Drift Towards Cremation

The shift in Europe towards a re-appreciation of the values of cremation as a funerary practice or ritual during the nineteenth century was just the beginning of the re-imagining of the rituals which are conducted on the continent around the deceased in modern times. While many individuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries grew up with the idea that there is just one commonly accepted funerary tradition within their society in a given European country (i.e. burial in traditionally Roman Catholic countries, cremation in many others), today this is no longer the case. Many societies have begun to embrace the idea that there is no accepted norm for how a family, or one’s extended friendship circle, should carry out a funeral rite. The general trend is towards a preference for cremation, not least owing to the cost of grave plots. For instance, in the United Kingdom approximately 35% of individuals were cremated in 1960. Today that figure is over 77%. In the Netherlands, cremation was not recognized officially by the state until 1914. Today over 60% of those who die in the country are officially cremated. Even the most staunchly conservative and Christian of Europe’s countries such as Ireland have seen a rise in the last forty years from cremation being almost entirely unheard of to a situation where it accounts for 20% to 40% of all funerary practices, depending on geographical location. In conclusion, modern funerary practices are increasingly following economic and scientific realisations, which generally stress, a) the cost of burial plots if a body is buried, and b) the increasing difficultly, from a public heath standpoint, of having large cemeteries dotted around expanding urban centres.

1 Wolfram Grajetski, Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor (London, 2003).

2 Carl Nicholas Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb and the Royal Treasure (London, 1990).

3 Jocelyn Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Baltimore, 1996).

4 James Stevenson, The Catacombs: Life and Death in Early Christianity (London, 1985).

5 Edward James, ‘Burial and Status in the Early Medieval West’, in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 39 (1989), pp. 23–40.

6 N. B. Jopson, ‘Early Slavonic Funeral Ceremonies’, in The Slavonic Review, Vol. 6, No. 16 (June, 1927), pp. 59–67.

7 Dennis C. Curry, ‘Ossuary Burials in Middle Atlantic Landscapes’, in Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 43 (2015), pp. 1–22.

8 Lorraine C. Attreed, ‘Preparation for Death in Sixteenth-Century Northern England’, in The Sixteenth-Century Journal, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 37–66; Sarah Tarlow (ed.), The Archaeology of Death in Post-Medieval Europe (Berlin, 2015).

9 Frank Parkin, Max Weber (London, 1983); Gianfranco Poggi, Calvinism and the Capitalist Spirit: Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic (Boston, 1983).

10 Ken Warpole, ‘Living with the Dead: Burial, Cremation and Memory’, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 98, No. 392 (Winter, 2009), pp. 447–456.

11 Dominic Akyel, ‘From Detraditionalization to Price-Consciousness: The Economization of Funeral Consumption in Germany’, in Uwe Schimank and Ute Volkmann (eds.), The Marketization of Society: Economizing the Non-Traditional (Bremen, 2012), pp. 105–124.

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