The Origin and Purpose of Funerals

And the Origin of the Word

Mourners standing over grave
While commonly confused, a funeral and burial are not the same thing. DreamPictures/Blend Images/Getty Images

A funeral comprises the rites, rituals, ceremonies and/or other meaningful observances that human beings conduct in order to honor or memorialize a person who died, whether held with or without the physical presence of the deceased's remains.

Funeral vs. Disposition

While most people fail to make the distinction, particularly in the United States, a funeral is not the same thing as burial. The latter is purely a common form of final body disposition that addresses the need of what to do with the physical remains after death occurs in a practical, respectful manner.

There are several available forms of final body disposition in addition to burial below ground in a cemetery, such as cremation, body donation, burial above ground (i.e., in a mausoleum), or alkaline hydrolysis. In other words, the chosen method of final disposition only addresses "the needs of the dead."

On the other hand, the purpose of a funeral is to address "the needs of the living." A funeral or memorial service helps survivors:

• Confront and accept the reality that a death has occurred

• Honors and remembers someone significant in their lives

• Reinforces the fact that all human beings will eventually die (regardless of whether mourners want to accept this or not)

• Offers a socially acceptable opportunity to publicly express their grief and receive support

• Helps those grieving begin adjusting to life after the loss

Funeral Form vs. Function

Typically held soon after death -- often within one to seven days -- the form of a funeral can vary greatly based upon the personal and religious preferences of the individual and/or his or her survivors, cultural or societal norms, and the circumstances surrounding the death, if necessary.

As noted above, however, the function of a funeral is essentially universal regardless of its appearance and the rites, rituals, and ceremonies it includes.

Generally, funeral ceremonies in Western cultures include/incorporate:

• Contemporary and/or religious music, such as hymns, chants, favorite musical pieces, etc.

• Readings from relevant texts, such as the deceased's favorite literary works, poetry or personal writings; or the recitation of sacred/religious writings, such as passages from the Bible, the Quran, the Torah or Tanach, etc.

• Remarks by surviving loved ones, celebrants, religious officiants, etc., to honor, remember and reflect upon the life of the deceased and the ways he or she touched the lives of surviving loved ones.

• Physical mementos representing important moments in the life of the deceased and/or his or her hobbies/interests, such as photographs; diplomas, medals and other honors received; objects evocative of his or her passions, such as golf clubs, a guitar, or a set of downhill skis, for example; etc.

Funerals in Western cultures might also incorporate:

• The ritual washing/dressing of the deceased

• A vigil over the deceased until final interment occurs

• A private viewing of the deceased by immediate surviving family members and friends, before the formal funeral ceremony itself

• A formal procession from the site of the funeral to the place of final body disposition

• Witnessing the physical burial or cremation of the body

While a funeral usually occurs in conjunction with the presence of the deceased's physical remains, such as during a casketed funeral service, this is not required.

Families often arrange and conduct a meaningful memorial service to honor and remember the deceased long after burying or cremating the individual privately. A funeral service and a memorial service serve the same function or purpose, but services conducted without the physical presence of the deceased are typically referred to as a memorial service.

Origin of the Word

The term funeral derives from the Latin word funus, meaning "funeral, funeral procession, burial rites" or "death, corpse." The word initially referred specifically to the burial of the dead until the early 1500s, when its meaning broadened through usage to refer to the ceremony surrounding burying someone who died.

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