Funerals through the ages: then and now

Posted in: Finance Last updated: 05 Mar 2014

The traditional funeral is something many of us are familiar with. But, how different are the rituals we perform in Britain today to those of the past? It seems that some things have changed completely while others have remained comfortingly the same.

We might feel at home at a Victorian ceremony, for example, as they were similar to some of ours. But their mourning clothes were very different. Wrapping someone in a shroud to bury them may now seem strange to us, but was common in the middle ages.

Here are some examples of how things have changed over the centuries when it comes to funerals. It makes interesting reading. You might be surprised at some of the things they viewed as completely normal back then!

Laying out and sitting up

Today we usually bury or cremate someone within a few days. But back in the 1500s people were typically ‘laid out’ in the house for weeks and sometimes months after they died. This was due to the fear of being buried alive – something that did quite frequently happen. Thankfully, today we have medical ways to check someone is actually dead and not just in a coma or shock.

Sitting up overnight with the body was also common right up to recent times. Family members would stay up for the first few nights, and people dropped in to pay their respects.

What not to wear

To us wearing something black at a funeral is all that’s expected. But, for Victorians, mourning clothes were far more complicated than that. Women had to wear widows ‘weeds’ that consisted of cloaks, dresses and full, heavy veils, sometimes for up to two years. Servants and children all had to be in mourning black for the specified length of time. It was Queen Victoria who set the trend for lengthy mourning – she wore black for the rest of her life after her husband Prince Albert died.

Confusingly, white was the mourning colour for European queens in the middle ages.

You get what you pay for

Making sure your funeral is paid for has been a pretty universal idea over the centuries. There seems to have always been an idea that it’s a matter of pride to make sure that the burden of paying isn’t left for the family.

The Romans used to form burial clubs to pool the risk associated with the death of members and their families. When a covered person died, the group members provided a combination of cash, labour and goods towards the funeral. The earliest record of what was effectively the first funeral plan is when Solon the Athenian statesman passed a law regulating funeral association activity in the seventh century BC. 1

In the 19th century it was common for working people to join together in funeral clubs similar to the Roman ones. Club members got the cost of their funeral covered, no matter how much they’d paid in. The nearest equivalent today are modern funeral plans. The popularity of these clubs was driven by fear of a ‘pauper’s grave’, possible subsequent dissection (as was legal at the time) and the crippling debt that a funeral could throw a family into.

Afterlife or nothing after?

Before modern times there seems to have always been a belief in a life after this one. People in Neolithic times were buried with grave goods, like pots and weapons, to help them when they got to the next life. In Medieval times, belief in heaven was almost universal and prayers were said for years after someone died to help them get there. These days, however, only about half of British people believe in heaven. 2

Shrouds and embalming

In Medieval times, everyone had to be buried wrapped up in a cloth or shroud. For the rich this was often something ornate and expensive. For the poor it was often just an old piece of simple cloth.

Until the Reformation in England rich people were also often embalmed, their internal organs removed and their bodies preserved with alcohol and oil. The idea being that their bodies would be ready for the physical resurrection, when the time came.

It seems that beliefs and practices may have changed over the years, but there are some things about funerals that remain the same. The belief in marking the passing of someone with respect and dignity is, it appears, universal. Right up to the modern day, and most likely into the future, making sure you have a good funeral is likely to still remain important to most people.

1 American death and burial custom derivation from medieval European cultures, Dr J Mack Welford, Roanoke College, Virginia, 2013
2 Neither private nor privileged: the role of Christianity in Britain today, Theos, 2008

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