A funeral is a ceremony for celebrating, respecting, sanctifying or remembering the life of a person who has died. Funerary customs comprise the complex of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember the dead, from interment itself, to various monuments, prayers and rituals undertaken in their honor. Customs vary widely between cultures and between religious affiliations within cultures.
A memorial service, often called a funeral, is often officiated by clergy from the decedent's, or bereaved's, church or religion. A funeral may take place at either a funeral home, church, crematorium or cemetery chapel. A funeral is held according to the family's choosing, which may be a few days after the time of death, allowing family members to attend the service.
The word funeral comes from the Latin funus, which had a variety of meanings, including the corpse and the funerary rites themselves. Funeral rites are as old as the human culture itself, predating modern Homo sapiens, to at least 300,000 years ago. For example, in the Shanidar cave in Iraq, in Pontnewydd Cave in Wales and other sites across Europe and the Near East, Neanderthal skeletons have been discovered with a characteristic layer of flower pollen. This has been interpreted as suggesting that Neanderthals believed in an afterlife.
The most simple and natural kind of funeral monuments, and therefore the most ancient and universal, consist in a mound of earth, or a heap of stones, raised over the body or ashes of the departed. Ancient Jews had burial-places upon the highways, in gardens and upon mountains. The primitive Greeks were buried in established burial grounds in desert islands and outside the walls of towns. Tibetan Buddhists practice ritual dissection or Sky Burials — the tradition of cutting up the dead into small pieces and giving the remains to animals, particularly birds.
Within the United States and Canada, in most cultural groups and regions, the funeral rituals can be divided into three parts: visitation, funeral and the burial service.
At the visitation (also called a viewing, wake or calling hours), in Christian or secular Western custom, the body of the deceased person is placed on display in the casket (also called a coffin or body container). The viewing often takes place on one or two evenings before the funeral. In the past, it was common practice to place the casket in the decedent’s home or that of a relative for viewing. This practice continues in many areas of Ireland and Scotland. The body is traditionally dressed in the decedent's best clothes or a shroud.
A burial service, conducted at the side of the grave, tomb, mausoleum or cremation, at which the body of the decedent is buried or cremated at the conclusion. Sometimes, the burial service will immediately follow the funeral, in which case a funeral procession travels from the site of the memorial service to the burial site. In some other cases, the burial service is the funeral, in which case the procession might travel from the cemetery office to the gravesite. Other times, the burial service takes place at a later time, when the final resting place is ready, if the death occurred in the middle of winter.
It was common to leave gifts with the deceased in many cultures. Both men and women received grave goods, even if the corpse was to be burnt on a pyre. A Norseman could also be buried with a loved one or house thrall, who were buried alive with the person or in a funeral pyre. The amount and the value of the goods depended on which social group the dead person came from. It was important to bury the dead in the right way so that he could join the afterlife with the same social standing that he had had in life and to avoid becoming a homeless soul that wandered eternally.
Pagan funerals or crossings are not singularly definable. The beliefs from one pagan to another can differ greatly. Death, like life, is as varied and multi-faceted as any human experience and each funeral service should be tailored to the specific requirements of the situation. This means a pagan funeral only has guidelines and suggested rituals, but that the wishes of the deceased are always respected.
Step one, may be find out what pagan tradition the person followed in life. They may or may not have been 'out of the broom closet', so tread with caution. If there is a conflict with using a local coven or grove, a Unitarian Universalist minister may be available to perform the rites. If they were US military, the chaplain handbook has guidelines already laid out.
Preparation of the body begins with a washing. The body can be washed with regular water, a few drops of salt water or water taken from a special place. While washing, a special blessing is usually said. Then, the body is smudged with an appropriate incense for the cleansing, such as sage, cedar or other incenses. After the washing, the body may be wrapped in cloth or clothed with simple clothing.
Pagans do hold both funerals and memorial services, which often combine prayers for healing, meditation, offerings to nature and ancestors along with many other traditions. Most pagan funerals are conducted outside. The deceased may have had a special place that felt very spiritual to him or her, like a forest or a seashore and you may want to hold the funeral at that location.
Purple is commonly used for a pagan funeral to symbolize Spirit and the soul. Rosemary is sometimes used as it is viewed as a herb of purity and protection. Photos, candles and other items related to the person's life may also be added to the service altar.
Funeral services commonly include prayers, readings from a sacred text, hymns and words of comfort by the clergy. Frequently, a relative or close friend will be asked to give a eulogy, which details happy memories and accomplishments. Funeral services are for the living as much as they are for the dead.
Many of the different sects of the Wiccan religion have a core belief that focuses on the Earth and its elements. Call the corners at the beginning of the ceremony to assist. The first corner is the east air, the second is the south fire, the third is the west water and the fourth is the north earth. Pay some kind of tribute to the spiritual being that the person honored in life. Mourners may also share stories of the deceased as a away to aid in the healing process. Music played by those in attendance is usually incorporated, with drum use being very common.
Tradition dictates the body is laid directly into the Earth. Pagans can be either buried or cremated, although if a pagan is cremated the ashes are usually spread and not buried. At the burial or scattering of ashes, more prayers and rituals are performed that vary from person to person.
Cremation is an old custom; it was the usual mode of disposing of a corpse in ancient Rome. Many Wiccans will request cremation so that their bodies can be returned to the earth without being confined by a casket. Many Norse funerals took place on land with the deceased being cremated on a pyre, a structure usually made of wood, in a boat shape and piles of stone and soil being lain on top of the burnt remains. Vikings were occasionally cremated in their longships and afterwards the location of the site was marked with standing stones.
Those with concerns about the effects on the environment of traditional burial or cremation may choose to be buried in a fashion more suited to their beliefs, a green burial. The decomposing body is believed to provide nutrients to the soil promoting future growth. They may choose to be buried in an all natural bio-degradable green burial shroud, sometimes a simple coffin made of cardboard or other easily biodegradable material. Further, they may choose their final resting place to be in a park or woodland, known as an eco-cemetery and may have a tree planted over their grave as a contribution to the environment and a remembrance.
The grave is often described as an abode for the dead and it was also the location of ancestor reverence. The tradition of putting out food and mead on the grave has survived into modern times, in some parts of Scandinavia. This tradition is a remainder of the ancestor worship that was common during early Norse culture. If the dead were taken care of, they would in return protect the homestead and its people and provide for its fertility.
Because there is so much emphasis on living a good life, there is little fear of death. Most are not that interested in their bodies once they die, as their spirit has left the vessel it was using. So some do not mind if non Pagan family and friends instead use a Catholic funeral rite. Many times Wiccan customs may not be honored by other family members or by state laws.
People should be encouraged to make their wills long before death specifying the style of their burial. It is extremely important for people whose families do not approve of their religious choice that they specify in detail these matters and appoint a lawyer as executor of the will.
Death happens to us all. If you don't care what happens, let others know. If you do care what happens, let others know. We do not fear death. Death is natural and the one guarantee we all have.
O Great Spirit, Mother and Father of us all, we ask for your Blessings on this our Ceremony of thanksgiving, and honoring and blessing of (name). We stand at a Gateway now.
A Gateway that each of us must step through at some time in our lives. (Name) has stepped through this gateway already.
(His/Her) soul is immersed in the shining light of the Unity that is the Mother and Father of us all.
The sadness and pain that we feel now is in our knowledge and our experience of the fact that we ourselves cannot yet cross that threshold to be with (name) until our time has come. Blessed Be!