Ancient Traditions Around Death: Lessons We Can Learn

Modern medicine and contemporary funeral practices have made many of us far removed from death. Things tend to be much more sanitized than they were in the ancient world, and death typically happens out of sight, with the body handled by professionals and whisked away from view.  

There’s also a push to “get it over with” and rush past death, which means that some people choose to skip the funeral in order to move on to the next phase of life. 

Ancient people may have understood a few things that we don’t.  

  • Rituals help demystify death and make it less frightening. Until fairly recently, most post-death care was handled at home. The body was prepared for the funeral, there was a wake, and sometimes the funeral even took place at home. Elaborate deathbed rituals were often organized ahead of time by the person who was dying. People sat vigil and were there when the person died. But when medical professionals took over caring for the dying and the dead, death became less familiar and more frightening. Along the way, it’s quite possible we’ve lost something important. 
  • Traditions bind us as a community. In the Middle Ages, Europeans treated death like a public ritual. There were very specific customs involving food and drink, music, games, and the presence of family, friends and neighbors. Grief was public, ceremonial and expressed in a way that was cathartic.  
  • There were rituals of weepingThese include the death wail of the ancient Celts and the Irish and Scottish “keening,” a loud wail for the dead. This public, vocal expression of mourning still exists among indigenous peoples in Africa, South America, Asia and Australia. Not too long ago, it was even common to hire people to mourn loudly during a funeral procession.  
  • Some celebratory rituals still existThe Irish “merry wake” and the African-American jazz funeral are two examples of carnival-like revelry to mark the passage of the soul into the afterlife. In ancient Greece and Rome, funerals involved lavish feasts and games.  
  • Communal mourning and public grief rituals make death more familiar and help us to heal. We need each other, and when we participate together in the rituals surrounding death, we help each other find the path toward healing.  

You can plan your own funeral to incorporate any traditions you’d like. You can decide whether it’s to be a quiet, traditional funeral or a lively celebration of life. The music, readings and participants are all yours to choose as well. There are no right or wrong answers when you’re planning your final send-off. 

At Greenwood Memorial Park, we understand the importance of honoring a loved one’s life and marking the passage of that life with rituals and traditions. Our compassionate and professional staff members are happy to help you preplan your funeral or plan a funeral for an immediate need. We also provide a free preplanning guide to make it easier. Call us at (619) 450-1479 to learn more about all we have to offer.

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