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Funeral Etiquette Part I


Funeral Customs

There is no more eloquent commentary on the vanity of human wishes than the pomp and ceremony which, since the first syllable of recorded time have attended funeral services. Kings and emperors have erected splendid mausoleums in which they and their families might be buried, Pharaohs have kept slaves at work for twenty years on a pyramid beneath whose stones their bones might rest, savages in lonely forests have built great mounds under which their chiefs may wait for the time to go to the Happy Hunting grounds. Slave and emperor, prince and pauper__it is all the same. Last week in New York a woman died in the ward where they treat patients free of charge, yet for more than fifteen years she had been paying premiums on an insurance policy which would permit her to have a funeral "as good as anybody's funeral." Three weeks ago a boy in a small town in Iowa spent nearly all he had in defraying the expenses of the funeral of his mother. In this case, and indeed in many another, a simple ceremony would have been far more appropriate, for even in paying the last tributes of respect to the dead there must be the saving grace of common sense. it is like salt__everything is the better for a pinch of it.

Recently a a candidate for the Doctor's degree at one of the largest universities in the country chose for the subject of his thesis "Funeral Customs throughout the Ages." it is too large a subject for us to enter into here, and it would profit us little, for the day of hired mourners and splendid pageantry together with obtrusive music and gorgeous flowers is past. Simplicity characterizes the entire service among well-bred people everywhere. The music is soft and the flowers in many cases are sent to the hospitals where they may gladden the sufferers there instead of being allowed to wilt neglected on the grave. More often than not, nowadays, there is added to the notice of the funeral which is inserted in the newspapers the sentence, "Please omit flowers."

Even in the most primitive times it was felt that the dead were going forth on a long, long journey from which they would never return, and their friends wanted to do whatever they could to speed them along the way. It was in this manner that the custom of offering gifts to the dead came about. These gifts range all the way from food and household utensils to clothing, weapons and money. The money was sometimes gold, sometimes silver and sometimes paper, but in most instances it was to serve as a tip to the ferryman who was to row them across the river that separates this life from the next.

The Funeral of Today

Not long ago a New York newspaper devoted a full page in its magazine section to an article called "A King's Mother Buried." The purpose of the article was to reveal forcibly the mockery of some of our elaborate funerals of today, and show how they are proportionately no more civilized than those barbarous rituals of the early days. The story is worthy of repetition here.

A certain savage queen was murdered by her son. To convince the people that she had died a natural death, the son made her burial especially elaborate and impressive. First a huge hole was dug in the ground, in which the dead queen was placed in an upright position. Beside her was placed a large jug of water. And into this great hole were placed also ten young girls, who were to be buried alive to accompany the dead queen upon her journey. The hole was then covered with earth, and above it thousands of men were set to fighting each other until the ground was soaked with blood. This was not only to honor the dead queen, but to keep ill-luck away from the king.

You are horrified when you read about this savage burial. You wonder at the superstitious ignorance that allows ten girls to be buried alive, and thousands of young men to be slaughtered, merely in honor of a murdered queen and her brutal son. But considering the knowledge of those savages and our knowledge to-day, their education and our education, we find that we are entitled to no excessive praise. The funerals to-day are often comparatively as ridiculous and uncivilized, through the tendency is certainly toward better things.

To give one specific instance, there is the widow who spends every dollar left her by a departed husband to pay for an elaborate funeral for him. In the eyes of the world, he must be buried "right"; and though it leave her in debt, she makes an impressive funeral service. Would it not have been more sensible to bury him simply and unostentatiously, preserving a little of the money left her for the necessities of life? it is one of the ironies of life that often more attention and honor are paid to the dead than they ever receive in life.

If we study present day funerals carefully we will find that they have much in common with those savage burials of other days. it is because we do things merely because others did the same things before us. We have certain beliefs because tradition says they are true, and therefore, no matter how absurd they are, they are right, and we must hold to them with the same fervor of conviction that makes the savage cling to his.

When Death Enters the Family

Aside from its psychological aspects those entailing fear, superstition and the belief in religious and traditional customs, death brings with it heartache and sorrow. To lose a beloved one in death is to be conscious of the intangible something that binds the world together, and upon which all civilization is based. We call it love; and we know that it is the deepest tie of affection, indeed, the deepest emotion of which human nature is capable.

And so, death brings with it sorrow and misery. Those of us who are most directly concerned can think of no rules of etiquette, no customs of good society, when we are suffering a deep bereavement. We think only of our great loss, and of our great sorrow. That is why it is necessary for us all to know the rules of correct conduct, so that when death does enter our household we will instinctively do what is correct. it is a test like this that shows innate good breeding.

One great rule to remember, for those who come in contact with people who have lost a beloved member of the family, is that sorrow is sacred, and that it is one of the most unforgivable breaches of good behavior to intrude upon it. A note of condolence, or a brief visit is a necessary social duty; but constant intrusion upon grief is as unkind and inconsiderate as it is ill-bred.

(To be continued: Part II)


Website: The History
Article Name: Funeral Etiquette Part I
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


 BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my collection of books " Book of Etiquette" by Lillian Eichler Volume I, Nelson Doubleday, Inc. 1921
Time & Date Stamp:  


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