Funeral traditions – where did they come from and where are they going?

Categories: Education.

This article is republished from the Part of Life website with permission

The funeral procession

The first funeral processions in Britain were an import from Italy; the Romans around 2000 years ago to be exact. They were also responsible for introducing black mourning clothes.

However, it wouldn’t have resembled a modern funeral beyond that; family members wore masks of deceased ancestors and hired professional mourners who would wail and tear their hair. While black would long continue to be a colour associated with grief, it would be Queen Victoria’s 40 years of mourning for her husband, Prince Albert that would cement the idea and create Victorian societal rules around mourning dress.


The origins of this tradition may seem a little creepy to modern sensibilities. Before modern medicine and technology, it could be difficult to know for certain if someone was, in fact, dead.

Wakes would consist of a vigil of friends and family watching over the body of the dead to see if they woke up. As the wake would take place over at least one night, food and beer would be served for those holding the vigil. Over time, and with concerns over sanitation, bodies became the business of the undertaker, and as such, wakes often take place after the funeral, as a celebration of life.


Another surprising fact; they might seem like a beautiful tribute to the departed, but the original reason for the profusion of flowers at a wake or funeral was actually to hide any unpleasant odours that might come from the body. Methods of preservation have come some way in recent times though, so flowers have dwindled a little in popularity.

Aside from this purpose, flowers are infused with symbolism:

  • White roses are said to symbolise humility and innocence

  • Red roses can convey love

  • Yellow roses, a valued friendship

  • Rosemary signifies remembrance

  • Myrtle is an ancient symbol of happy marriage.

Traditions that we have said goodbye to

The Victorians may have created many of the traditions associated with modern funerals, but there are a few oddities that have been ditched in recent times:

  • Stopping the clocks at the moment of death

  • Turning over photos of the dead

  • Covering household mirrors

  • Taking post-mortem photos as keepsakes

  • Pennies placed on the eyes of the dead to pay the ferryman – a pagan ritual

The rise of ‘green goodbyes’

While the majority of funerals continue with the traditions created over hundreds of years, nothing is permanent, and trends are now moving in a very different direction.

Woodland burial

With more and more people becoming conscious of their carbon footprint and the effects of climate change on the planet, many are now opting for ‘greener’ burials. One eco-friendly option is a woodland funeral; where the body is placed in a bio-degradable coffin or casket and no embalming chemicals are used to preserve it. This means no toxic residue will seep into the ground, avoiding contaminating it with chemicals. Unlike a traditional burial, there is no headstone to mark the exact spot where the body is placed. The idea is that the whole woodland acts as a memorial place for family and friends. To find a woodland burial site, you can see a full list here. How to find Woodland Burial Sites in the UK.

Burial at sea

You might think that sea burials are only legal for sailors or the navy, but actually anyone can find their final resting place in the waves. However, for it to be legal you do need to apply for a licence and meet the official requirements, and sea burials can only take place at these locations:

  • Off The Needles, Isle of Wight

  • Off Tynemouth, North Tyneside

  • Between Hastings and Newhaven

There are a few other requirements:

  • The body must not be embalmed

  • It must be wearing biodegradable clothing

  • It must have a special coffin

An easier way to honour a love one who died and who had a strong connection with the sea is to scatter their ashes, as there are no legal requirements to meet.

Burial at home

If it looks like a property won’t be leaving the family line in the future, home burials are an option. If you hold the freehold to the property and follow government guidelines, there are very few restrictions and it means being able to keep loved ones close by. However, if the property does eventually leave the family, selling it on could be tricky as any home burial must be registered on the deeds.

Ashes to ashes, dust to…earrings?

The cremation rate in the UK has been steadily increasing over the years, currently standing at 75%. But what to do with the ashes of a loved one? There’s the obvious scattering at a special location, or keeping on the mantelpiece in an urn, but there are a couple more options that may spark the imagination.

Memorial jewellery

Fancy some new bling with a sentimental touch? There are jewellers who now offer a whole range of pendants, rings, bracelets and cufflinks with a special coloured resin that contains the ashes or hair of deceased loved ones. They can even add diamond dust to the ashes to create a special sparkle. Just take a look at Always With Me Memorial Jewellery to get an idea of what’s available.

Space burial

A space burial involves sending a portion of cremated remains into space. They can orbit around the Earth, or even be sent to the Moon. The cheaper of these options is called a sub-orbital flight. Another service launches the ashes into space, then they burn up on re-entry in the atmosphere. It can even include a memorial video that captures every moment of the journey. You can find out more about what options are out there by visiting Aura Flights website.

Burials and technology

While many burial traditions continue into the 21st century, things are slowly moving in a very different direction. Inevitably, technology has infiltrated even the business of death, with a flourishing afterlife industry influencing burials and bereavement practice and rituals.

QR codes have been available since 2010, but now you can have one on your very own gravestone. Just scan with your phone to find out more information about the dead. It will take you to photos, an obituary, or maybe even a video of the funeral.

It is even becoming possible to ‘speak’ to the dead using technology. Text bots based on an open-source, machine-learning algorithm are trained on text messages collected from the deceased’s family and friends. The bots then learn to be that person, based on their own words.  Another AI-powered chatbot called HereAfter preserves the ‘life story’ of its customers so that after their death their relatives can reconnect with them. Family members can query the ‘avatar’ of the deceased through the app, and hear the responses in that person’s voice.

Even physical representations of the dead are alive and kicking. Tupac Shakur was brought back to life for a performance at this year’s Coachella festival alongside living artists, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. A hologram of Tupac appeared to thousands of fans, where he sang and ‘spoke’ recorded words. More recently, using AI technologies, The Beatles (or the remaining two) have released their final new song, Now and Then. Being able to isolate John Lennon’s voice allowed them to complete the track, using vocals from an old demo.

The future of burials

It may be that in the not so distant future, burials themselves become less important, as the digital afterlife industry allows for continued interaction and relationships with the dead.

Would you like a QR code on your tombstone? A hologram of yourself for the bereaved to talk to? Or would you rather rest in peace? Find out more about the potential of digital afterlife technologies and how to curate your digital legacy here.

You can also find out more about what happens to your digital legacy after you die by listening to our podcast with James Norris, founder of the Digital Legacy Association and MyWishes.

Anna McGrail

Anna has an Ancient History BA (Hons) from Cardiff University and Ancient History MA from Leiden University.


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