Have you ever stopped to think about the habits and traditions that shape how we celebrate the important moments in our lives? Whether it’s birthdays, weddings or funerals, we all have an instinctive idea of what they should look and feel like, even if we’ve never had to organise one ourselves.
Although funeral services come with different moods, colours and themes these days, even the most non-traditional funeral will likely contain elements that our ancestors would recognise. And while some traditions have evolved into something more modern, it is interesting to see just how little some things have changed even after hundreds of years.
One of the most difficult first steps that we must take as the loved ones of those who have passed is to let others know of their death. For centuries, this was usually done in the form of an obituary: a short news article (usually a sentence or two) that reports the passing of a person within the local community.
In a time when newspapers were the only form of media that could reach everyone in the local community, printed notices such as these were an intrinsic part of the funeral arranging process for families.
Up until the 20th century, it was not uncommon for most people to die within 20 miles or so of where they were born, and so an obituary was the perfect way to announce the passing of a loved one to local friends and family, and share the basic details of the funeral such as the date, time and location. Obituaries also became a way to honour members of the local community that had passed, even if they were not close friends or family members.
These days, the number of print newspapers is decreasing, and with it their influence. While some families do still choose to publish obituary notices, the cost of doing so sometimes outweighs the benefits when fewer and fewer people are being reached by them.
Online obituaries, however, are a popular alternative, with social media networks often being seen as the modern-day equivalent of a traditional obituary. Many websites also offer the option of a named person taking over a social media account after someone’s death, in order to inform friends, acquaintances and colleagues of their passing.
The technology may have advanced past the local paper, but announcing someone’s passing to their community (even if that community is halfway across the world) is still as important as it was years ago.
Funeral processions are still an incredibly important aspect of a funeral service for many people. Whether the person is escorted by a large group of fans and admirers or an intimate group of family and friends, the funeral procession allows mourners or even passers by to pay their sincere respects.
The journey from the person’s house to their final place of rest is seen by many as symbolic of their spiritual journey, and family and friends often find accompanying them to be a meaningful part of the grieving process. In the past, mourners would even walk beside the moving hearse on foot in order to be as close to their loved one as possible.
These days, especially in larger towns and cities, processions usually take place with a vehicle moving at regular speed in order to prevent traffic disruptions. While this approach does slightly diminish the community aspect to the funeral procession that characterised this tradition throughout history, many family members still choose to accompany their loved ones along the way.
Even if families cannot physically be at their loved one’s side on foot, travelling with other family members as a group in a funeral procession can foster a sense of solidarity and support, helping them to get through the rest of the funeral proceedings.
Historically, flowers often served a practical purpose at any important event or occasion. Before we had air fresheners, flowers were one of the only ways to create a more pleasant or bearable smell. In fact, the tradition of carrying a bouquet of flowers down the aisle on your wedding day was born from the attempt to mask the bad odours from the bridal party, who could not always afford to bathe on a regular basis!
While flowers were used primarily to mask unpleasant smells in life, they were equally as important in death. Before we had adequate mortuary care, flowers and candles were the main way in which the naturally unpleasant smells during a wake could be managed.
However, over time, our preferences for funeral floristry have moved away from the practical and more towards the symbolic. Certain types of flowers and plants have developed deeper meanings that provide a sense of comfort for family members during a funeral service. Lilies, for example, are an extremely popular choice for funeral floristry stemming from their symbolism of the innocence of the soul.
For some, flowers aid in remembering loved ones in a positive light or as they were in life, rather than focusing on the sadness of their death. Perhaps this aspect of the funeral service is a slightly more modern approach, but by surrounding a loved that has passed with flowers and greenery, the very symbols of life itself, we’re reminded us not only of the cycle of life, but also of the fact that our loved ones are still alive in our memories.
The way in which we mourn and say goodbye to our loved ones can say a lot about the way in which we not only view death, but the lives that people have lived. Although our lives are different (and certainly longer) today, seeing so many traditions live on and alter through so many generations is telling. Ultimately, it should remind us that no matter how much time passes, the human experience and the way in which we experience loss has not changed all that much.
We are a family-led business offering funeral services in Essex since 1958.