Funeral Customs

Funeral customs are traditional acts of observation passed down from generation to generation. They are expectations placed upon those organising a funeral. All religions and cultures have guidelines to follow and for those who do not want a traditional or religious funeral, these guidelines are still suggested. Why in these times are we following funeral customs set out during Christian Victorian times and following funeral superstitions?

Examples of Death and Funeral Superstitions

There are many death and funeral customs passed down in families, and some of these are carried out straight after somebody has died. These include:
Stopping clocks
Covering mirrors in the house if somebody has died at home
Opening windows

All the above customs are in relation to belief the person’s soul will be trapped in the place of death and not move on. Many of these customs are still observed today.

Funeral Customs

Removing rings from the person who has died, apologising to them as this is done

A practical act as the person’s hands will expand and an historical custom to pass rings on to the next of kin. Apologising as a mark of respect when removing them. Many people no longer do this and choose to leave wedding rings in place.

The person’s eyes should be closed, and coins placed on their closed eyes.

Another practical act to carry out but the placing of coins has two purposes. One purpose is so the eyes of the person remain closed, the other is a belief the coins are for ‘The Ferryman’. In Greek mythology Charon was The Ferryman who ferried the souls of those who died across the river Styx into the underworld. No payment meant no passage and souls were trapped and denied entering the underworld.

Funeral superstitions include:
Wearing anything new to a funeral, especially wearing new shoes which thought to bring bad luck.
You shouldn’t attend a funeral if you are pregnant as superstitious belief includes the soul of the person who had died could possess the unborn child.
It is considered bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on. If a procession is approaching, turn around to avoid seeing it pass. If you can’t, hold on to a button until the procession passes you.
Rain during a funeral means the person who has died will go to heaven.
Funeral directors and coffin bearers should wear gloves to prevent the spirit of the person who has died from entering their bodies.

The Victorians were very superstitious people and thankfully we have moved on although traditional funeral directors who dress in variations of Victorian outfits still wear gloves. Pregnant women do attend funerals, and rain is attached to the weather for that day, not a sign of a person’s soul entering a higher realm. Some families may still hear these superstitions from older members.

Things Said When Somebody Dies

When somebody dies we generally do not know what to say. Commonly heard phrases include:
I’m sorry
Sorry for your loss
My condolences
You’re in my thoughts and prayers

Why do we say ‘I’m sorry, and what are we saying we are sorry about? Saying generic things through habit with little or empty meaning aren’t of comfort to those grieving. ‘I am sorry to hear (name) has died’ is a more personal address. If you do not know what to say, being honest is better. ‘I am sorry I do not know what to say to you’.

Stating somebody is in prayers may sound considerate, but not if the person who has died or their family aren’t religious or do not have a belief in anything religious.

Things Not to Say When Somebody Dies

They had a good innings
They aren’t suffering anymore
They have gone to a better place
How are you?
You must be heartbroken
I know how you are feeling

Death is a physical act which happens to all who are born and everything that lives. Stating ‘they had a good innings’ could be perceived to mean ‘well they were old and lived long so it is their time’.

While it is factual a person who had a terminal or long drawn out illness or condition, or was in pain is free from this, it isn’t of comfort to a person grieving for somebody they love.

Belief of going to a better place is personal and is there a better place than being in a loving relationship or in a family sharing laughter and good times? Belief in descending to a higher realm or going to Heaven is personal and not shared by all.

As for asking a bereaved person how they are or stating how they are feeling, this is completely unacceptable and inconsiderate. Telling bereaved people you are there for them, even if they do not want to talk is more meaningful.

‘I know how you are feeling’ is something that shouldn’t be said or heard in any situation, let alone when a death has occurred. Nobody knows how another person feels just because their situation seems like one others have experienced. Talking about ourselves isn’t displaying empathy or concern, nor is it comforting to a bereaved person.

Outdated Wording Used in Funerals

As many of the funeral customs were first put in place in Christian Victorian times, words used then are still used in these modern times. One example is the use of the word ‘wake’. Now we refer to the gathering of people who attended a funeral going to the family home or a pub for food and drinks as ‘going back to the wake’. Originally the wake was a vigil held next to the person who had died to prevent premature burial. Somehow the meaning has changed yet we still use this outdated word. Reception is a better description.

As most funerals or celebrations of life are now created and led by celebrants over religious leaders, why is the ceremony still called ‘the service’?  Celebrants do provide a service but not in the same context as a religious service. Why is it a funeral service but a wedding ceremony? Celebrants need to encourage fellow funeral industry people to use the word ceremony rather than service as not all funeral ceremonies contain religious or spiritual content.

Training Funeral Celebrants of the Future

As a celebrant training company who provides funeral celebrant training, funeral customs are part of a student funeral celebrant’s learning because we train celebrants who are the future of celebrancy and not stuck in the past. Funeral celebrants and student funeral celebrants need to know much more than how to insert names into a template of a funeral ceremony or service given to them to follow.

The role of a funeral celebrant is multi-faceted, and we are given the honour of creating personalised celebrations of life to celebrate a person’s life and to help their people say goodbye to them. Sometimes the person who has died may not be a loved person, but what they never are in our teaching as Celebrant Trainers here at Choice Celebrant Training, is to be referred to as the ‘deceased’.  They were a person not now a devoid of life object.

Why Funeral Customs are Important

Funerals are highly emotional occasions; an acknowledgement a death has taken place and for many, life won’t be the same again. Following cultural funeral customs can bring comfort and is a connection to those gone before us. Starting new ones is a way of being involved and not feeling you must do something you do not have any connection to. Having a say in what happens when somebody dies, and how their life is celebrated, and their death is recognised are things everyone can do.

Funeral customs shouldn’t be expected actions, rituals or words, they should be personal actions, rituals or words relevant to those involved.

If you are considering training to be a funeral celebrant and require further information, please contact us

Blog by Choice Celebrant Training