When you think about it, there is nothing really logical or necessary about people gathering together after a death, to talk about the deceased, witness the mourning, or even peer at the unnaturally preserved body. Our usual rationalization for this behavior is that the bereaved find it a “comfort.”
This may be, but if so, it is a culturally learned response not grounded in nature. The original reasons for funerary custom were quite different. We must ask, what did the most primitive humans do about their dead, perhaps a million years ago?
From the beginning, people have believed everything that happens is caused by invisible spirits with human-like intellect and purpose. Many people still believe this, despite all evidence to the contrary. They still pray to a god to produce benefits or avert disasters; they entreat, flatter, cajole and thank their deity accordingly. In the view of such people, nothing in the universe occurs at random. The spirit or the god always has a reason, even for the tiniest happening.
A corollary to this primitive worldview is that in death, the animating spirit of a human being deserts the body and becomes one of these invisible entities, even acquiring some extrahuman power to make things happen. At this point the dead are made into ghosts, wandering souls that, like gods, can communicate with the living, listen to entreaties, or affect events for good or ill, according to their personal inclinations.
Here it becomes necessary for formal appeasement of the ghosts of those who might harbor resentments, or of those who were especially powerful when alive. Ceremonies of homage, praise, and propitiation of the dead become common. The ghost must be made to feel kindly toward the living so as not to punish them for real or imagined slights.
Funerary ceremonies vary, but the basic idea of pleasing and eulogizing the dead is universal. Sacrifices may be offered. Adulatory speeches may be given. Exaggerated mourning behaviors are staged to convince the ghost that he/she is sorely missed.
Professional mourners or “keeners” are still employed in some areas, just as they were in ancient Egypt. This oddly illogical custom seems to assume that the dead person forgets all about any professional mourning seen during his/her lifetime and comes to believe in the sincerity of all the paid-for wailing, hair-pulling, garment-rending and otherwise carrying on.
Another requirement may be that the ghost should be flattered by maximum attendance at the solemnities. Huge funerary processions can be staged by rich and powerful families to flaunt vast numbers of mourners — certainly not all of whom find “comfort” in such ceremonies but rather feel coerced into attending.
One is reminded of the lavish funerals of Mafia dons, rejoicing in hundreds of attendees, most of whom actually hated the deceased, including the clergy who are paid to give the routine guarantee of his “sure and certain” admission to paradise. Inevitably, this guarantee is given no matter how many or how heinous the crimes committed by the deceased; God’s forgiveness is almost always for sale to those who can pay.
Propitiation of especially revered ancestors can become a recurrent event, celebrated on each anniversary, like a saint’s day. In some cultures, the ancestor thus morphs over time into a god or goddess, able to hear and answer the prayers of his/her descendants. The origin of our Halloween or All Hallows (All Saints’ Eve) was just such an anniversary, annually honoring the spirits of all ancestral ghosts at once, at the time of the harvest.
In Europe, the priestesses who officiated at such pagan funerary solemnities were later denounced by the new rival religion of the church as witches, and the ancestral ghosts they invoked were called demons. Then Halloween took on the trappings of make-believe “evil” that we now know.
The church soon discovered that ceremonies for the dead were highly lucrative. The clergy came to insist that only official clerical sanctions would guarantee the soul’s entrance into heaven. Payment then became a duty of the survivors. Medieval Catholicism even increased revenues by the direct sale of “indulgences,” meaning special rituals guaranteed to shorten the deceased’s term in purgatory.
So it has ever been: Money opens all gates, even pearly ones.
The four elements
For thousands of years previous to the intrusion of the church, however, people had developed many ideas about the spirits of the dead, and had incorporated these ideas into many different funerary customs. Methods of disposing of the body gave rise to the very notion of the four elements — fire, air, water and earth — embraced by Greek and Roman thinkers and all their European descendants up to the 18th century when discovery of the real elements began.
The classic four represented the only possible ways to dispose of a corpse, short of cannibalism: cremation by fire, dispersal into the air, burial at sea or in other water and entombment in the womb of Mother Earth, anticipating a future rebirth.
Cremation was thought to send the soul skyward along with the flames, perhaps to become a permanent spark among the stars, which were often perceived as angelic beings or immortal souls. Sun worshipers especially favored the use of fire, which was employed also to send sacrifices to various divinities of heavenly light.
The Old Testament says sacrifices to Yahweh were often burned on the altar to send their essence skyward. Souls arising from the flames gave rise to the myth of the phoenix, always arising reborn from the ashes of sacrifice.
Air dispersal was favored especially by the Persians, who left their dead in the topless “Towers of Silence” to be consumed by vultures and other birds. Some Native American tribes had the same idea, placing their dead on platforms in trees. The ancient Egyptian Goddess of the dead, Nekhbet, was depicted as a vulture. Romans also believed that souls could enter the bodies of birds, which accounted for their taking of ancestral spirits’ omens from bird behavior.
Other people believed that any flying creature could contain the soul of a deceased person. The Greek word for soul, psyche, also means butterfly. The name of the (biblically vilified) Philistine god of the dead, Beelzebub, means “Lord of the Flies” because it was thought that flies could carry souls. Some of the virgin mothers in Irish mythology conceived their children by swallowing a fly.
Air was often considered the substance of spirit, since “breath” was the very thing that a dead body lacked. Hindus believed that a father gave a soul to a newborn child by breathing into its face. Ancient Israelites had the same idea; in Genesis, God gives Adam a soul made of “breath” or air, because being male, God couldn’t make life out of the vital essence of blood, as the earlier goddesses did.
Water burial was also quite popular, as we know from the famous Viking funeral and several Oriental customs of relegating the dead to rivers. The Vikings regarded the sea as the Great Mother of their race, and their word for death meant “a return to the womb.” The name of a burial ship was ludr, which applied equally to a boat, a coffin and a cradle.
In Egypt, the dead were said to enter the sun boat of Ra and sink with him into the western ocean. Greek philosophers said water was the Arche, the primary element, the womb of all life. In this they were not too far wrong, since we now know that life can exist only on a planet that has liquid water, and liquid water is the greatest proportion of the very substance of our bodies.
The sea was a common symbol of the goddess who gave birth to all things. The fact that blood still tastes like sea water was not lost on the ancients, who also identified four “humors” of the body with the elements.
Perhaps the most common method of burial in our culture was entombment in the earth. Romans often consigned the dead to Terra Mater. They wrote on tombstones, “Mater genuit, Mater recepit” (the Mother bore me, the Mother took me back).
Noting the apparent resurrection of dead plants from their seeds, the ancients likened this to rebirth from the magical earth element, which was also symbolic of living flesh. Savior gods, such as Osiris, Dionysus and Attis, were sacrificed at the spring equinox and represented the rebirth of the crops each year.
Some people described flesh as “clay.” The original Hindu “Adam” was named Arya, “man of clay,” the ancestor of all Aryan tribes. The biblical God made Adam out of clay, recalling the ancient conception charm of Babylonian and Sumerian women: Construct a baby image out of clay and anoint it with menstrual blood to bring it to life. Adam’s creator, of course, used air instead of blood.
Medieval Christians also believed that burial in an earthly tomb was one way to achieve resurrection. The church taught that the body would be restored intact, no matter how much decay it had undergone. Saints’ bodies were alleged to be fresh and undamaged even after centuries, which proved their holiness, but somehow the empirical evidence for this claim always seemed to be lacking.
Ancient Egyptians similarly believed in resurrection of the flesh, so they did their best to preserve the flesh by mummification, which we now call embalming. The techniques may be different, but the purpose is the same: preserve the body as long as possible to ensure sufficient material for resurrection. Alas, neither technique really achieves the purpose; neither mummies nor embalmed corpses present a very reassuring spectacle after a long period in the earth.
Then of course, there were those malevolent spirits supposedly resurrected without their souls, such as zombies and vampires, thirsting for the blood of life that they lacked. The idea was a very old one. In Greek myth, Odysseus summoned spirits of the dead out of Hades by offering them a trench filled with sacrificial blood, which magnetically attracted the blood-hungry shades who could give oracles.
Christian authorities were quite willing to support belief in vampires, another form of the demons that they postulated to give common people the perpetual feeling of menace from the forces of darkness. Fathers of the church wrote treatises on all the various revenants and evil spirits that were supposed to threaten the living.
The common fear of a ghost with a bad attitude represents the same primitive fear of the dead that instituted funerary customs in the first place. Even deceased loved ones could be regarded as threatening, for no one knew what changes their personalities might have undergone in the afterworld.
Corpses were obviously not the same as living bodies, so the personality might radically change also. Guilt feelings about possible quarrels or abuses, endured by the deceased during life, might surface and make the ghost even more of a threat. Those who had been one’s enemies were naturally to be feared when they became invisible spirits.
Why then sorrow?
The phenomenon of death is one that has concerned and puzzled human beings from the beginning of our species. People have obviously spent a great deal of time and effort trying to figure it out and avert it, and failing that, to deal with it in ways that could give them an illusion of understanding. We now understand it pretty well, but religious attitudes toward death are still contradictory and illogical.
The general feeling, when someone dies, is regret or sorrow, even if the person is a stranger. It seems to be an occasion calling for sympathy. Yet our religions often insist that death is a ticket to a much happier place, a land of eternal bliss. Why then sorrow?
Why is it that suicide is very uncommon, even among people who believe in a postmortem paradise? The clergyperson can say, “He has gone to a better place,” but does the grieving widow really know that in her heart? All she knows for sure is that he is gone, never to return.
Grieving relatives may indeed be comforted by funeral ceremonies, or they may simply regard them as costly intrusions on their grief, having to listen to trite expressions of sympathy from casual acquaintances or even strangers who really don’t share any deep feeling.
The custom has been perpetuated by those who profit by it, just as the priests and mummy-makers of ancient Egypt profited by their craft. It might even be said that there is something not quite savory about profiting from other people’s sadness; yet funeral ceremonies have come to be considered “only decent,” or essential to maintaining social approbation, or even to securing immortality. Whether this latter effect is ever actually achieved, or ever has been, is of course something that we will never know.
For many centuries now, people of the Western world have been convinced by their religious authorities that the deceased can be assured of a comfortable afterlife only if the proper clerically sanctioned words are spoken over the corpse. Therefore, it would be a crime to omit them.
Churches are notoriously prone to criminalize, whenever possible, almost anything that might reduce their income. The idea that any afterlife at all may be nothing but a cultural illusion is an idea abhorrent to the church. Yet it may be, after all, the simple truth.
Jesse Bering in his book, “The Belief Instinct,” has this to say:
“It’s only through intellectual labor, and after countless millennia of thinking intuitively otherwise, that today we can arrive at the most obvious of all possible syllogisms: the mind is what the brain does; the brain stops working at death; therefore, the subjective feeling that the mind survives death is a psychological illusion operating in the brains of the living. Can the answer to the question of what happens to us after death, such a profound mystery, really be that simple?”
For most of us, when we look at the deaths of other species, it is that simple. The idea that our species is unique, possessing some essential inner quality found in no other mammal, is a vainglorious myth that has led us to exploit and unfairly abuse many other living creatures. Perhaps what we really need are funeral services marking the final abandonment of the myth. The rest of the world would thank us if it could.
Let us indeed have rituals that please and comfort us. But let us understand that the ritual exists for its own sake, and not for a magical purpose, to make something happen that would not otherwise happen.
Let us not allow money-making institutions to convince us differently. Humans have been enslaved by this kind of superstition for too many centuries already.
Barbara G. Walker is the author of Man Made God (available at ffrf.org/shop), The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets and The Skeptical Feminist. Go to ffrf.org/outreach/secular-funerals to read FFRF’s “Secular Memorials and Funerals Without God.”