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Funeral Traditions from the Past and What They Mean

Since the beginning of time, society has had traditions surrounding death. Though they have changed through the years, they all serve the same purpose: to honor and memorialize the dead. Below, we will touch on traditions from the past and what they meant.

Death Masks

In Ancient Egypt, the preparation and mummification process of the dead was a sacred ritual. Their belief was that the soul needed a place to stay or return to after death and it was important that the soul be able to recognize the body. This is where death masks came to be. These masks were fashioned in the likeness of the deceased in hopes that their soul would recognize their body. Early masks were fashioned from two pieces of wood and connected by pegs. For those in the lower class, linen soaked in plaster was molded on a wooden mold. One of the most famous examples, King Tutankhamen, showcases a death mask of royalty- cast in precious metal and adorned with gold and gems.

King Tut's Funeral Mask, Gold and Blue
King Tut's Funeral Mask, made to his likeness.

Memorial Jewelry

While still common today, memorial jewelry first became popular in the Victorian era. Most notably, jewelry containing the hair of the deceased. Hair was often artfully arranged in a braided fashion inside of a locket to be worn after the period of deep mourning. This practice was made especially popular by royalty, most notably Queen Victoria, who had multiple pieces of jewelry made containing Prince Albert’s hair. Hair was also used in other ways, filling shadow boxes, wreaths and corsages. Today, memorial jewelry still holds a significance, with cremated remains and fingerprints replacing the hair.

Braided hair in locket, mourning jewelry
Braided hair displayed in a locket, meant to serve as a keepsake of the deceased.

Memento Mori- Postmortem Photography

In the Victorian era, it was not uncommon to have depictions of the deceased created as a keepsake for the surviving family. As far back as the 16th century, clergy and members of the upper class were often painted immediately following their deaths. Sometimes in a bed, sitting up or lying down, sometimes in life-like posing with a symbol included in indicate death. With the invention of cameras, more posed elaborate set ups came into play. Early photographs were often close-ups of the deceased’s face or full body, but rarely included a coffin. Instead, the deceased were posed in a sitting or laying down position, sometime with other family members surrounding them. Though the practice has since faded in popularity, these historical mementos were important at the time as a personal keepsake for a grieving family.

Postmortem Photography, family postmortem photography
A mother and father pose with thier deceased daughter for a postmortem photo. This would likely be one of the only photos they had of their daughter.

Victorian Mourning Cards

The precursor to what we today call prayer cards, mass cards, memorial folders and many other monikers, Victorian Mourning Cards were beautiful pieces of intricate stationary meant to be kept in honor of the person who had died. Mourning cards were often used to by the upper class to show their status, as the fine paper and intricate styles were only affordable to those with money. Mourning cards were often embossed with gold, cut into detailed and elegant shapes, and later included the deceased’s photo on the back. Unlike today’s prayer cards, mourning cards served as a ticket of sorts, especially to a high-profile funeral. To be in possession of a card meant you were invited and knew the family well. Today, prayer cards, mass cards and the like are given to all friends and family who come to pay their respects.

Gold embossed Victorian Mourning Card.
Gold embossed Victorian Mourning Card.

Many funeral traditions we have today evolved from their historic counterparts. From memorial jewelry and prayer cards these traditions all had one thing in common, they were meant to honor and remember the deceased. What traditions do you know of that we didn’t touch on? What historic funeral traditions should we bring into our modern culture? Let us know what you think in the comments below.



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