Behind the [Burial] Traditions (Part 1)

Ever wonder why certain things, that seemingly make no sense, are done?? Sometimes, theses rituals just need historical context. The funeral profession is one that is so mired in (mostly religious) tradition that there are a lot of neat little vestiges from days of yore we still practice today.

Placing Flowers on the Casket: The little tradition of placing a single flower on top of the casket has more practical roots than simply saying a final farewell. In pre-industrial England, mourners would be given sprigs of rosemary during the graveside service to place on the lid of the coffin. The idea was the scent of the fragrant herb could cover any unpleasant odors from the unembalmed body during the service.

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Sending Flowers to a Wake: This tradition dovetails nicely with the previous topic: why do people send flowers to a wake or viewing? Archeologists have uncovered ancient burial pits dating back thousands of years that showed early man surrounded their dead with flowers. It has been theorized there was a twofold reason for this: first to help mask any odors, and second to beautify the decedent. Regardless of the true purpose, this tradition has continued through the ages and is such a “given” in modern funerals that some families state in the obituary to make donations in the deceased’s memory to a charity instead of sending the flowers.

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Money/Pennies on the Eyes: In Greek mythology Charon is the name of the ferryman who ferries the dead from the land of the living across the River Styx to the Underworld. Like all transportation authorities, Charon needs to be paid. Enter the pennies. Prior to modern embalming practices in Europe and America, people would be laid out with pennies on their eyes to pay Charon for their crossing. The pennies had the more practical purpose of weighing the eyelids down and keeping them closed during the wake. It was such a prevalent practice that the Beatles even mention it in one of their songs, Taxman, “…declare the pennies on your eyes…”

In modern times it is not uncommon for families to tuck the two pennies into a coat pocket (one with the year of birth and one with the year of death), or another twist (specifically an ironic Christian twist) on the tradition is to slip 33 cents into someone’s hand or pocket to pay Charon, the age Christ was when he was crucified.

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The Pall: A pall is a cloth used to drape the casket in certain liturgical churches. Therefore, a pallbearer is literally someone who bears the pall draped casket. Pallbearer is interchangeable with casketbearer. The tradition of draping the casket with a pall dates back to Roman times. Pall is short for the Roman word pallium which means cloak. Roman military officials and dignitaries would have their bodies draped with their cloaks for the procession to the mausoleum. The people that carried the body became known as “pallbearers” and the church picked up on the practice and began using it to drape coffins/caskets for services. This practice renders everyone equal in the eyes of God no matter how simple or elegant your casket is.

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Embalming – The Myths Dispelled


It seems these days a disproportionate amount of folks have some misconceptions about what embalming really is. I get it. I watch TV too. Cable dramas (especially of the criminal and courtroom ilk) love to depict graphic autopsy scenes. I’m guessing the formula is gore=ratings. But that’s just what those scenes are: autopsies.

Embalming is process designed to disinfect, preserve and restore. In that order. It is defined by Robert G. Mayer in his seminal work Embalming: History, Theory & Practice as, “[the] process of chemically treating the dead human body to reduce the presence and growth of microorganisms, to temporarily inhibit organic decomposition, and to restore an acceptable physical appearance.” In what we in the profession call a “straight” case—or textbook case—the entire process can be achieved by a one inch incision in the neck area, near where the collar of your shirt sits. Using the body’s plumbing system (i.e., arteries and veins) formalin—an aqueous form of formaldehyde—is exchanged for blood. The entire process is as minimally invasive as possible.

The question that typically arises, especially with families living at great geographical distances today, is, “how long will an embalmed body last?” (By “last” most people mean how long will they be “viewable”) Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast answer to that. Embalming is meant to be temporary (see the above definition), but temporary is relative in each case.  Individual physiology and way in which a person died will play a big part in how long a person will remain viewable after embalming. It could range from a number of days to a number of weeks.

Rest assured, however, that if you do choose embalming, the person taking care of your loved one will use all their skills to give you the most satisfactory viewing experience possible.

Cremation – Why the Price Disparity?

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Just like any other good or service in a given geographic region the consumer will see a continuum of pricing for cremation services. My dad, who ran his own business (nothing related funerals mind you) for many years has an adage I’ve heard many, many times, “Quality pays. It doesn’t cost.” Those are words to remember if you’re buying something as cheap as a pack of gum, or as expensive as a car, or somewhere in between like, say, a….cremation.

A lot of consumers get bogged down in the idea of why one firm is more expensive than another. When in reality, I think the consumer should be asking, why is one firm so much cheaper? What makes them less expensive? Are shortcuts being taken? Maybe, and maybe not, but it seems that when this profession lands itself in the media it usually seems to have something to do with cremation…and it’s usually not the firms that are doing things by the book. Just look at what happened in Georgia with Tri State Crematory. In 2002 it was discovered that over 300 bodies that had been consigned for cremation were languishing on the property. Three hundred!

Questions you may want to ask when arranging for a cremation are:

  • Who will be doing the cremation and are they certified?
  • Are you a member of the Cremation Association of North America and/or the National Funeral Directors Association?
  • May I inspect the cremation facilities? Or better yet, show up unannounced, and request a tour
  • What steps are being taken to ensure the cremated remains returned to me are that of my loved one?
  • Are your facility and professional licenses up to date?


The price disparity with cremation can also have to do with what the consumer is getting. A low priced offering when all the “extras” are added in can be just as much as the “more expensive” firm down the street. I believe in marketing terms this is called the “bait and switch.” When cremation shopping, make sure when you are comparing price you are also comparing the services (and sometimes goods) attached to those prices.

Like any other purchase, do your research before you commit.