Whatever their beliefs or traditions, most cultures have a concept of something beyond death. Grave offerings and temples to the dead bear witness to this. We use expressions like: “passed away”, or “left us” to resurrect or continue existence in some shape or form.
Rites mark the passage between different stages in the human life cycle. They can be ceremonies to mark occasions such as birth, baptism, entry to adulthood, education, marriage — and not least, death.
Traces remain of rites through the ages: Neanderthal graves with meadow flowers and animal bones; Stone Age graves with red ochre on the corpses, tools, weapons, food and pets; Bronze Age burial mounds marking status and property. Iron Age funerals by immolation implied a more abstract concept of an Underworld. Christianity’s earthen graves show mankind as an indivisible unity of body and soul.
Burial and Social Progress
After the first world war burial traditions were altered by economic recession, the progress of democratic society with its welfare and equality, and visions of modernity.
Technology, medicine and hygiene meant that death no longer had to be so physically intimate. Dying was now often in a hospital or nursing home. Funeral homes relieved families of arrangements for the dead.
Sweden’s law from 1951 on freedom of religion allowed for non-religious burials, prompting debate over the dechristianisation of society. In 2000, after 464 years, church and state separated in Sweden. Today, public burial fees (paid to the Swedish Church) guarantee a dignified funeral for every citizen regardless of faith.
Funerals used to be our most public ritual but have become more private over the last hundred years. They are smaller and quicker, and mourners less often include acquaintances such as workmates and friends.
Funeral black has given way to lighter colours for coffins, decorations and attire. Obvious references to death in homes and in dress are less common. Globalisation has brought increased cultural diversity and variation.
Today we travel more, making it more difficult to schedule visits or take care of graves. Remembrance gardens have often replaced individual sites and we place flowers and light candles in other places than graves.Remembrance gardens can even be digital — websites and social media, or even holograms?
In different ways, death has become more indistinct. At the same time, much tradition remains: ceremonies with flowers, speeches and music or catered receptions, but perhaps most of all, the respect and dignity shown to the departed.