Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/October 1894/Funeral Customs of the World

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1224940Popular Science Monthly Volume 45 October 1894 — Funeral Customs of the World1894J. H. Long


By J. H. LONG.

A WRITER on the subject of the disposal of the bodies of the dead has said, "As there is almost nothing else so deeply interesting to the living as the disposal of those whom they have loved and lost, so there is perhaps nothing else so distinctive of the condition and character of a people as the method in which they treat their dead." It may be premised, then, that no custom stamps the standing of a people more clearly in the scale of civilization than does the care of the bodies of the departed. "People of a low and barbarous type carelessly permit the remains of the dead to lie in the way of the living, and there are a few instances in which the object of artificial arrangements has been to preserve a decorated portion of the body—as, for example, a gilded skull—among the survivors." The general tendency of mankind, however, has been to bury the dead out of the sight of the living; and various as the methods of accomplishing this end have been, they have resolved themselves into three great divisions: (1) The simple closing np of the body in earth or stone; (2) the burning of the body and the entombing of the cinders; (3) the embalming of the body.

The first of these, i. e., the simple inclosing of the body in earth or stone, is not only the most widely diffused of the three, but also the earliest of which we have any record. It is referred to again and again in Scripture, although the other methods also are mentioned. A beautiful description of one of the most ancient of Bible burials is found in the twenty-third chapter of Genesis. It was considered by the Hebrews one of the greatest calamities and deepest marks of dishonor to be deprived of burial. So we read in the prophecy of Jeremiah against Jehoiakim, "He shall be buried with the burial of an ass, drawn and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem." Evidently, next to the simple exposure of the body, which savored too much of cruel neglect, burial was the first means that would suggest itself to the human race for the disposal of the remains of the dead. In the beginning the rite was no doubt simple and unostentatious; but, as civilization advanced, it became more and more ornate, reaching in some lands and ages a pitch of ceremonial magnificence which seems incredible to us now, but relics of which are still seen in our modern funeral displays. There can be nothing more magnificent than the obsequies of a high dignitary of the Greek or the Roman Church. But still, to those outside these churches all such ceremonies appear just a little tawdry and garish. It is doubtful whether there is, or can be, any funeral ceremony so truly solemn as that which is held in Westminster Abbey. In such a burial there is everything calculated to evoke the most reverential, the most solemn thoughts—the dim religious light stealing through the painted windows far up against the sky; the long vista of arch and pillar and tomb; the silence, broken only by the solemn service for the dead, the deep roll of the organ, and the voices of the singers like the singing of angels far away; more than all else, the thought that everywhere about us lies the dust of those who once filled the world with their fame, from the days of St. Edward the founder, yes, from the days of Sebert the Saxon king. A burial at Westminster marks the highest point ever reached by this form of sepulture. It stands at one end of the series. At the other end stand those hideous rites which have been practiced in many a heathen land; in Ashantee, in Dahomey, in ancient Mexico, in certain of the south sea islands, and (formerly) in India. Let me epitomize two or three extracts bearing on this: "Herodotus tells us that when a king died in ancient Scythia, those who attended him cut off one ear, shaved their heads, wounded themselves on the arm, forehead, and nose, and pierced the left hand with, an arrow. Furthermore, the undertakers or managers of the royal funeral had to furnish a woman, a cup-bearer, a cook, a waiter, a messenger, and a certain number of horses; all to be killed. In fact, in the particular king's funeral which the great Greek historian is describing they took the king's ministers, fifty in number, and strangled them. Then, having killed fifty of the chief horses of the king, they prepared them and set them in a circle, upon each one a strangled rider, that they might serve as a royal guard to the dead hero." "The chiefs of the Fiji Islands have from fifty to one hundred wives, according to their rank. At the interment of a principal chief the body is laid in state upon a spacious lawn in the presence of an immense concourse of spectators. The principal wife, after the utmost ingenuity of the natives has been exercised in adorning her person, then walks out and takes her seat near the body of her husband. A rope is passed round her neck, which eight or ten powerful men pull, until she is strangled and dies. Her body is then laid by that of the chief. In this manner four wives are sacrificed, and all of them are interred in a common grave, one above, one below, and one on either side of the husband. This is done that the spirit of the chief be not lonely in its passage to the invisible world, and that, by such an offering, its happiness may be at once secured." It may be added to this that, in certain lauds, the custom is to inter alive the attendants of the dead chieftain; it being believed that this precaution adds to the solemnity of the occasion and to the future happiness of the departed. In ancient Mexico this practice of sacrificing upon the occasion of a funeral was carried on with great pomp and lavish effusion of blood, in some cases a hundred persons being slain to act as guides and servitors to the deceased chief in his journey to the other world. In India, owing to the kindly offices of the British Government, the terrible suttee has entirely disappeared. This, it is needless to say, was the custom of self-sacrifice by the wife of the dead husband. It is impossible not to admire the heroic spirit of those Hindoo widows who deemed it a high honor to cast themselves upon the funeral pyre of their spouse. "Indeed, when the female slaves find their mistress is greatly afflicted at the loss of her husband, they promise her, in case she is resolved not to survive him, to burn themselves along with her, and are always as good as their word. They dance near the funeral pyre, and throw themselves into it, one after another."

The two other modes of sepulture are, as has been said, embalming and cremation. Embalming was not unknown among the ancient Hebrews: there is frequent allusion in the later Scriptures, and especially in the New Testament, to the embalming of the body in antiseptics and fragrant substances. But the land which was distinctively the land of embalming was Egypt. This subject is so vast that it is possible to refer to but two or three points. One is the peculiar custom of judging the dead, before a monument might be erected or other honor paid to their memory. A writer on this subject says: "The judges who were to examine into the merits of the deceased met on the opposite sides of a lake. . . . When the judges met, all those who had anything to object against the deceased person were heard; and, if it appeared that he had been a wicked person, then his name was condemned to perpetual infamy, nor could hi-s dearest relatives erect any monument to perpetuate his memory. This made a lasting impression upon the minds of the people, for nothing operates more strongly than the fear of shame and the consideration of our deceased relatives being consigned to infamy hereafter. Kings themselves were not exempted from this inquiry; all their actions were canvassed at large by the judges, and the same impartial decision took place as if it had been upon the meanest of the subjects." This trial, which is described in the Book of the Dead, was a foreshadowing of the trial of the soul by Osiris and his brother judges, before it might be received into the Elysian Fields or the Pools of Perfect Peace. The requirements for passing this latter ordeal were very much the same as those set forth in the Sermon on the Mount: to care for the fatherless and the widow; to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, oil to the wounded, and burial to the dead; to be faithful to the king, and loving to wife and child.

Another point deserving of notice was the strange custom of placing the mummy in the seat of honor in the banquet hall. This had a twofold office: (1) To warn the living of the fate in store for them, like the memento mori of the Romans; (2) to show honor to ancestors. So it came to pass that of all lands in the world, Egypt—so rich in obelisk and pyramid and needle; Egypt, whose air does not destroy, but preserves—is also the richest in these mute memorials of the once-living dead. What a marvelous thing it is that we may to-day gaze upon the very face and form of the Pharaoh who would not let Israel go, of him who built the treasure cities of the plain!

The third method of disposing of the dead is by burning—cremation, as it is now called. Many nations have practiced burning, the best instances being the Greeks and the Romans. Among the Greeks both methods were employed burning and burying; but gradually burning came to be the popular mode, the reason being that fire was supposed to purify the celestial part of man by separating it from the defilements of the body, and thus enabling it to wing its flight to purer realms. More than the Greeks the Romans were devoted to the process of cremation, although in early ages they buried their dead. Cremation became general at the end of the republic, i. e., shortly before the birth of Christ. Under the emperors it was almost universal, but it gradually disappeared as Christianity gained sway. The Roman burial rites were very rigorous and voluminous. The ceremonial of a modern funeral is as nothing compared with the Roman ceremonial. There were the musicians, the players, the imitator (who personated the dead), the images of the deceased, the train of slaves and freedmen, the relatives tearing their garments and covering themselves with dust, the funeral oration, and the final obsequies at the pyre. This pyre was built in the form of an altar of four sides. On it was placed the corpse upon a couch. The eyes of the deceased were opened, the near relatives kissed the body with tears; and then, turning away their faces, they applied the torch, while upon the burning mass were cast perfumes of myrrh and cassia, the clothes and ornaments of the dead, and offerings of various kinds. At an officer's funeral the soldiers made a circuit three times round the pyre, the ensigns reversed, the trumpets braying, and the weapons clashing. If he had been very popular, the soldiers cast their weapons upon the burning mass as loving offerings to their dead commander. The ashes were then gathered and put into an urn. Thus preserved, they were deposited in one of those tombs which still adorn the stately roads of Rome. Often lamps were kept perpetually burning in the tomb, while flowers and chaplets were brought thither, that the dead might be reminded of the loving memory of the living.

This mention of the burning of the body in ancient times leads naturally to the question of cremation, which is attracting attention to-day, not so much in lands of sparse population as in lands such as England, Belgium, and Italy, where the population is dense and the available space small. In the large cities of such lands, cities which have been populous for hundreds of years, it is not a matter of mere sentiment; it is a matter of almost life and death to the inhabitants. And few persons will, I think, deny that cremation will be eventually adopted in place of earth-burial. This on grounds which will suggest themselves to all. It was, in fact, Christianity that caused the reintroduction of earth-burial, for Christianity taught the resurrection of the body. This is the reason why the Churches have always opposed cremation. But it is seen now, apart from any theological argument, that there can not be a bodily resurrection, as the same particles of matter form, in the course of time, parts of various bodies, decaying nature ever springing up to blooming life.

The objects of interest lying about the funeral pyres and burial mounds of the human race in its long, long march are so many and so full of interest that one knows not where or when to stop. There is the burial at sea—the most solemn of all—when upon the mighty ocean the little group gathers round the captain, and he commits the body to the waters until that day when "the sea shall give up her dead." There are the rare forms of funeral ceremonies; for, although the chief are those I have mentioned—earth-burial, burning, and embalming—yet these are not all. Some races merely expose the body without any protection, as some others actually put to death the aged and infirm. Strangest of all, the Parsees of India expose their dead to the fowls of the air on the Towers of Silence at Bombay, holding that earth, or air, or water may not be desecrated by contact with the lifeless body.

There are the great funerals of the world: of Alaric the Goth, the conqueror of Rome, who was inclosed in a golden coffin and buried in the bed of a river, which had been turned aside for the purpose and then turned back, those who knew the spot being put to death. Of Alexander the Great, from Babylon to Egypt, the grandest funeral the world has ever seen. Of Napoleon, the modern Alexander, when

"Cold and brilliant streamed the sunlight
On the wintry banks of Seine;
Gloriously the imperial city
Reared its pride of tower and fane;
Solemnly with deep voice sounded,
Notre Dame, thine ancient chime,
And the minute-guns re-echoed
In the same deep, measured time;
While, above the cadenced cortége,
Like a dream of glory flits,
Tattered flag of Jena, Friedland, Areola, and Austerlitz."

Of the good Queen Eleanor, wife of Edward the Confessor, that wife "whom living he had loved, and dead he had never ceased to love," and whose body the great king followed on foot from end to end of England, setting at each stopping place a cross, until he came to Charing Cross, in the very heart of London to-day, whence the body was borne to its final rest in England's mighty abbey. Of Israel's great leader on

"Nebo's rocky mountain height, on this side Jordan's wave,
Where, in the land of Moab, there lies a lonely grave;
And no man knows that sepulchre, and no man saw it e'er.
For the angel of God upturned the sod, and laid the dead man there."

Of Him who was laid in the rock-hewn tomb of Calvary, "the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." Time does not permit us to dwell upon these, or upon the literature of the tomb—Longfellow's God's Acre, Gray's Elegy, Milton's Lycidas, and scores of others. There is Just one thought in conclusion. It is that the funeral customs of the world, although not a conclusive, are yet a very strong argument in favor of the belief in the immortality of the soul. For the impelling motive in all these customs has been that death does not end all, that there is a life beyond the grave. This it is which has prompted the savage to lay offerings on the grave, that the spirit may return and accept them. This it is which prompted the Egyptians to embalm their dead, that the earthly form might one day be reclaimed by its former possessor. This it is which has prompted the preservation of the body by secure burial, that it may not be consumed by wasting time. This it is which has inspired the burning of the body, that the soul may be free from its earthly fetters. Now, how are we to account for this worldwide belief? I mean, unless there underlies it a basis of fact. To have implanted this belief—unless it has a fact as a basis—would seem to be but mockery on the part of an all-wise, an all-good God.