Why do we have funerals?
The Ancient Egyptians observed elaborate burial customs to ensure immortality after death. They believed that after the soul had gone through various ordeals and tribulations, it was important for the soul to be united with its body before being presented to the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris, hence the preservation of the body through mummification. If the body was not preserved, the soul could not take part in the pleasures of the afterlife.
In Ancient Greece people generally believed that the only distinction as to what happened to you in the afterlife, were the burial rites you received. Not receiving burial rites was not only an insult to the body but it also damned your soul to eternal restless wandering of the river Styx. Mourning the dead was an important part of the rites and one left exclusively to women. In fact mourning the dead was so important that Sophocles used the denial of a sister’s right to mourn her brother as a basis for one of his most famous tragedies, Antigone.
In Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of Persia, the body is ritually cleaned but as the belief is that decomposition is the work of a demon, the corrupting influence of the process of decay is seen as contagious and believed to be spiritually dangerous. It is for this reason that the body is neither buried nor cremated as placing a corpse in the ground would desecrate the earth and burning it would corrupt the fire. Instead, as part of the final rites, the body is taken to the Dakhma or the Tower of Silence (always during the day) where it is placed on a raised platform exposed to the open sky thus allowing vultures to consume the flesh within a couple of hours. The bones are then placed into a pit at the bottom of the Dakhma. In accordance with Zoroastrian philosophy of not polluting nature, this probably makes the Zoroastrian funeral rites one of the first ever green funerals.
Throughout time and all over the world, funeral rites have been an important part of societies. They are influenced by religious beliefs, personal convictions as well as the practical need of disposing of a body. Some may seem shocking to us of the western world while our rites may seem outrageous to others but ultimately, to every culture, the funeral rites observed are a sign of respect and remembrance of the deceased.
From a different point of view, in answering the question as to why we have funerals, I’ll leave you with a quote from Ann Marie MacDonald’s book, “Fall on Your Knees”, ‘It is important to attend funerals. It is important to view the body, they say, and to see it committed to earth or fire because unless you do that, the loved one dies for you again and again.