Candles and Death
Shells on Gravestones
Black for Mourning
Altar, Urn, Shroud and Altar Cloth
The Wake
Origins of the Hearse
Feet First
Urns on Tombstones
Iron Grilles

Candles and Death

Ingeniously, and in every possible way, man has tried to defeat his last and greatest enemy - death. With that aim, Egyptians first built their majestic pyramids, learned to mummify bodies, and composed the " Book of the Dead," which has been called "Everyman's Guide to Immortality."

Jews and Christians alike believe that burial in consecrated ground helps to ensure resurrection. The washing of the corpses was not entirely a reflection of cleanliness: hygiene even after death. It was based on the superstition that demons and witches had an aversion to water. Therefore, by its application to the bodies of the deceased, they were kept at bay.

The vocabulary associated with death has its own story to tell. A sarcophagus originally consisted of a type of stone, which, the Greeks believed, consumed the flesh and bones of the dead, with the exception of the teeth, within 40 days. Thus they called the coffins made of stone by the Greek word meaning "flesh-eaters."

A cenotaph now is a monument, erected to honor the dead fallen in battle. Its name, too, is derived from the Greek and signifies an "empty tomb." However, originally, a cenotaph was any monument that did not contain actual human remains or marked their final resting-place. It was built in memory of any person whose bones had been lost, or had been buried elsewhere, or who had drowned at sea.

Different people and faiths have chosen their own terminology to describe the special site where they buried the dead. The original Greek cemetery described man's "dormitory" or "sleeping place." Germans call it Friedhof - a "courtyard of peace." Among Hebrews, the cemetery is known as "the house of eternity."

The undertaker is of recent date. He owes his existence to modern man's dislike of the unpleasant. It was in search of an innocuous title that those concerned with the removal of bodies assumed the name. As it was their task to undertake funerals, they chose "undertaker" as their so dignified-sounding description, ignoring the fact that many other and much more pleasant things may be "undertaken." However, today even undertaker has lost its original value as a term of dignity and is being replaced by funeral director and, among Americans, grief therapist.

The burning of candles or lights has been linked with death and the dead from primitive times. They are still used to light a bier and give special expression to grief.

Catholics light votive candles on All Souls' Day in memory of the faithful departed. Jews burn a lamp for 24 hours every year on the actual anniversary of the death of a loved one. Japanese celebrate the Feast of Lanterns.

A perpetual light burns on Christ's tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem. When, in the 16th century, the tomb of Tullia, Cicero's daughter, was discovered in the Via Appia outside Rome, it was said that a light had been burning inside it for nearly 1,500 years. This was not necessarily an incredible, miraculous tale, but could have been accounted for by a supply of natural gas or oil.

The word funeral itself has been derived from the Latin funus, meaning "torch." It was believed that torches and lights at a funeral could guide the departed soul to its eternal abode. Lamps, it was considered, aided the dead to find their way through the darkness.

Later times rationalized the flickering light of a candle as a simile of human life and saw in its steady glow a symbol of the soul, itself a spark from the never-dying flame of the divine.

Originally, however, candles, torches and lights near a corpse or grave served a completely different purpose.

Above all, they were a relic from the days when fires were lit around the dead to frighten away supernatural evil beings anxious to reanimate the corpse and take possession of it. Their domain was darkness and they were afraid of light.

The same considerations accounted for the rite of demon-repulsion, practiced at the birth of a child. The ancient Romans lit tapers to keep evil spirits away from a woman in labor. For the same reason, Parsees and Hindus burned fires in the room where a child was born.

As with a newborn child, so too with the departing spirit, the powers of evil were ready to take their toll. But as they could operate only under cover of darkness, a simple light rendered them harmless.

The ghost of the departed itself was believed to be afraid of light and thus, by the burning of candles, was prevented from returning to haunt the survivors.

Another early source of illumination at funerals was the wish of primitive man to provide the dead with the very comforts they had enjoyed in life. Among these was light.

Fear of the dead themselves also was responsible for the use of tapers. The burning flame was to show the deceased that he was well remembered by members of his family and therefore he had no reason to attack them for any forgetfulness. On the contrary, the light, kindled in his honor, should remind him to guard them in reward for their loyalty.

Also it was thought that the dead loved to re-visit their old haunts, especially on certain days, not least the anniversary of their passing. To guide them home and light their way, candles were lit.

Funeral customs are special ceremonies performed after a person dies. Throughout history, humankind has developed such customs to express grief, comfort the living, and honour the dead.

Nearly all religions include the belief that human beings survive death in some form. For many people, a funeral symbolizes a passage from one life to another, rather than the end of a person's existence. Such a ceremony, which is associated with the completion of one phase of life and the beginning of another, is called a rite of passage. Other rites of passage include baptism, initiation into adulthood, and marriage.

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Shells on Gravestones

Shells on GravestonesTo place shells on graves or to use them as a motif on a headstone is a worldwide custom. In pagan myth, the shell was regarded as a source of life. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and fertility - later to become the Roman Venus - was born from sea foam. She then sailed in a shell to the shore.

Likewise, mourners hope, and express by the symbolism of the shell, that the dead buried in the grave, after a safe journey to the unknown shore of life beyond, will embark on a new and everlasting existence.

In its shape, the shell closely resembles the pudendum, the female genitals, which are the gateway of life. A shell thus symbolized the source and basis of all existence, fertility, and reproduction.

Looked at superficially and merely from the outside, a shell is hard and lifeless. However, on the inside, it is soft and vibrantly alive. The frozen features of the dead, equally, are like a shell. On the other side of death, in the beyond - eternal life awaits them. Shells on a grave, therefore, in whichever form, point to death as being merely a gateway to renewal and to a higher level of consciousness.

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Black for Mourning

To wear black for mourning in Western countries is a custom that dates back to pagan days. Its origin had nothing to do with piety or a wish to show grief. On the contrary, it expressed fear. It arose not out of respect for but dread of the dead.

People put on black as a disguise, so that the ghost of the deceased might not recognize and then start haunting them. The same purpose, it is thought, applied to the mark of Cain, which was put on him after his brother's death, lest he be recognized by his victim's spirit.

The wearing of black, and sometimes even the veiling of one's face, was also believed to act as a protection against one's own death, since it was designed to confuse any demon still hovering around and bent on snatching more lives. Among some races, the painting of the face white or black was supposed to trick the dead into the belief that the mourners themselves were ghosts and not living creatures to be envied.

Indeed, there is no real difference in intention between the wearing of black and the even more primitive custom of gashing the flesh and tearing the clothes.

The modern explanation of the use of black for mourning is a superb example of man's way to spiritualize and rationalize ancient superstitions. Black is symbolic of the night, and the absence of color seemed best suited to express a person's abandonment to grief. The color of mourning also served as a constant reminder of the loss one had suffered. To the people one met, it indicated one's state of mind, making them in turn considerate, and reminding them to refrain from saying anything that might hurt or offend. The dark color itself not only reflected the sorrow of the bereaved but created inward tranquility and serenity.

Black has never been the universal color of mourning. Henry VIII wore white when "mourning" Anne Boleyn, just as many Chinese do. Burmese chose yellow and Turks violet. Ethiopians preferred a greyish-brown and the South Sea Islanders a combination of white and black stripes perhaps to symbolize how joy and grief, darkness and light, are always intermingled in life.

In some parts of China, however, the traditional mourning color was purple. This influenced American trade in a most unexpected way. When one U.S. manufacturer of chewing gum changed its wrappers from green to purple, its export sales to China dropped alarmingly. It was subsequently discovered that the Chinese believed that the gum was meant to be chewed at funerals only!

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AltarAltar, Urn, Shroud, and Altar Cloth

A combination of four symbols on a tombstone, one reinforcing the other, shows a cloth-draped urn standing on an altar, which is covered with the traditional altar cloth.

The altar, the most sacred part of a church until the days of the Reformation, was mostly made of stone and to add to its sanctity the body of a saint was sometimes buried under it. Its intense holiness came to denote the very presence of Christ.

Even the cloth covering the altar had a deeply religious meaning, also associated with death. Of pure linen and often richly ornamented, it was not, as many assume, a mere embellishment of the holy table to which the faithful proceeded during the Holy Communion service. Actually, the altar cloth is meant to represent the shroud that once covered the body of crucified Christ.

The urn is emblematic of the dust into which the dead body will change, whilst the spirit of the departed eternally rests with God.

The cloth draping the urn symbolically guarded the ashes. It also served as an expression of grief and, as the replica of a shroud, as a reminder of death.

Funeral customs vary from society to society, but many of the same practices are found throughout the world. These practices include public announcement of the death; preparation of the body; religious ceremonies or other services; a procession; a burial or other form of disposal; and mourning.

Preparation of the body varies among peoples. Typically, however, the corpse is laid out and washed. Sometimes it is painted or anointed with oils. It is then dressed in new or special garments or wrapped in a cloth called a shroud. In most societies, the body is put in a coffin, also called a casket, or other container.

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The Wake

Many peoples hold an all-night watch called a wake beside the corpse. They may do so in the belief that the wake comforts the spirit of the dead or protects the body from evil spirits. In the past, another reason for a wake was to watch for signs of life. Before modern tests were developed, an unconscious person might be mistaken for dead.

In some countries, funeral directors can preserve bodies by a process called embalming. An embalmer removes the blood and injects a chemical solution into the veins to retard decay. In most western countries, refrigeration is used as an alternative method of preservation.

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Origins of the Hearse

The body of the dead person is taken to the funeral in a vehicle called a hearse. (Fr."Corbillard")

Originally the hearse was not a vehicle to transport the dead to his last resting place but an agricultural implement. 'Hearse' is a French word signifying a harrow. That is exactly what it was in the very beginning. It consisted of an iron, triangular frame, to which spikes were attached. Roman peasants were the first to use it. The French adopted it from them.

Its earliest "harrowing" use (not to be confused with the grievous connotation of the word) is reflected in the modern theatrical term, rehearsal. Like a farmer, the actor harrowed the field of his memory over and over again, until the part he had to play was so deeply ingrained in his mind that he would not stumble over his words.

In the 13th century, ingenious peasants discovered that their harrow, when not used to rake the fields, could serve another purpose. Turned over, it became a multiple candlestick. The rake's spikes were just right to impale the tapers. Thus, the hearse took on the additional function of an inverted chandelier, decorating and illuminating the farmer's house. Soon it was found especially useful on religious occasions, particularly at funerals. That is how eventually the hearse was transferred from the home to the church.

With the passing of time, the original, small harrow grew ever larger. Its height extended to six feet and it evolved into a magnificent, elaborate construction. Indeed, such was the rake's progress that it became a masterpiece of fine workmanship, worthy of adorning and lighting the burial service of the most noble.

Its development did not stop there. From each of the hearse's three corners, supports were erected. These were joined at the top, thus forming a framework. This was draped with black cloth on which mourners and their friends pinned tickets with poems and epitaphs on them, in honor of the departed.

Numerous ornaments were added and the number of candles impaled became so large that the flickering lights were compared to the stars. Then the inevitable happened. The very width and height of the hearse suggested that the coffin be put on its summit. The whole structure was next surrounded by a rail.

The hearse was still stationary. It remained in the church, even after the body had been removed from it to be carried to the grave. It served as a shrine to honor the dead. The bereaved continued to light votive candles on it in memory of their beloved, long after his remains had been laid to rest.

Later, the hearse itself, with the dead still reposing on it, was carried to the grave. Soon wheels were added and the mourner pulled the "harrow" like a cart. The hearse had become a death wagon.

In modern times, horses pulled the deceased on his movable bier to his final destination. Then, with the invention of the internal combustion engine, came the motorized hearse, in which nevertheless are still entombed many remnants and traces of its thousand-years' growth. The hearse has certainly traveled an exceedingly long way since the Ancient Roman days when it was but a crude rake.

Friends and relatives, as mourners, follow the hearse in procession and bouquets or wreaths of flowers decorate the coffin. In Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom the body of the dead person is usually enclosed in the coffin during the whole ceremony. But in some countries, such as the Soviet Union, the coffin is open and the dead person can be seen. If the body is buried, a final brief ceremony is held at the grave side. If the body is cremated, the ashes are usually scattered at a later date, or placed in a memorial wall or garden. After many funerals, the mourners return with the bereaved family to their house and share food. Later, a tombstone or other monument is erected to record the dead person's life and mark the place of burial.

Burial is the most common method of disposal in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim countries. Human burial developed from the belief that the dead rise again. Like a seed, according to this belief, a body is planted in the earth to await rebirth.

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In cremation the body is reduced to ashes in specially constructed furnaces; the ashes are then preserved in an urn, and are either buried in the urn, or are scattered (often in accordance with the wishes of the deceased, for instance, at sea, or over sacred ground).

Evidence of cremation dates from antiquity. Pottery vessels from the Neolithic Period, filled with the ashes of several individuals, have been found throughout Europe. Between 1400 BC and AD 200, cremation was the preferred burial custom, especially among Roman aristocrats; the Caesar family was one of many to choose this mode. Between the 3rd and 19th centuries, Christianity became widely accepted. Its doctrines forbade cremation because of the belief that the body could not be resurrected if it were destroyed. Early Jews also prohibited cremation, believing it was the desecration of a work of God. Orthodox Jews, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches, and Muslims are still forbidden to cremate their dead. Other groups of people, especially in India, continued to practise cremation and still do today. At present, cremation is practised by some Jews and Christians, and by Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus. Cremation is customary in Buddhist and Hindu nations and is increasing in most western countries.

Economic and sanitary considerations are the principal reasons for the increased number of cremations in recent years. Expanding populations have created land shortages, causing a space for burial to become scarce and expensive. In addition, burial can sometimes contaminate water supplies for entire communities. This is especially serious when a highly contagious disease has caused death.

At the Vienna Exposition in 1873, a Professor Brunetti of Italy demonstrated a cremation chamber, called a retort, which did the job with the minimum of fuss. One of the visitors to the Exposition was Sir Henry Thompson, Queen Victoria's physician. He was impressed with Brunetti's cremation chamber, and returned to Britain a convert to the cause of cremation. He showed that, by heating human remains to a temperature of some 870C, the processes of dehydration and thermal decomposition reduce the body to small particles, which are ground to ash.

His main reason for supporting cremation was that it was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied'.

This was not the only point in cremation's favour, he maintained. The possibility of being buried alive (a particular Victorian paranoia) was also averted by cremation - small comfort to the victim, admittedly.

The legal status of cremation remained unclear, so in 1874 Sir Henry formed the Cremation Society Of England,' which counted among its founder members not only medics and scientists but the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais and the writer Anthony Trollope.

The Queen was not persuaded by her physician; Victoria remained resolutely opposed to cremation all through her life. The first attempt to build a crematorium in England - on land given to the society in a cemetery in North London -failed because the Bishop of Rochester, within whose jurisdiction the cemetery lay, prohibited the establishment of a crematorium on public land.

The Society then gained a site at Woking in Surrey. A team of Italian engineers was invited to supervise the construction of Europe's first crematorium and, on March 17, 1879, a horse was cremated there in less than two hours. But local opinion was against the cremators. The Vicar of Woking led a deputation to the Home Secretary, Sir Richard Cross, who was persuaded cremation could be used to prevent the detection of death following violence or poison. He refused to countenance the practice until an Act of Parliament was passed.

There were no more experiments until 1882, when Captain Hanham, a Dorset man, requested that two deceased members of his family were cremated. The Society - fearing legal injunctions - refused to oversee the cremations, but Hanham performed them anyway, on his own estate. The police took no action.

But in 1883, the eccentric Doctor William Price, an 83 yearold Welsh Druid high priest, cremated his five month old son who had been christened Jesus Christ in accordance with what he believed was Druid practice.

The police viewed cremation as an illegal activity and Price was arrested and hauled before the South Glamorgan Assizes in Cardiff. But Mr. Justice Stephen ruled that cremation was legal provided that `no nuisance' was caused to others and the case went in favour of Dr Price.

It was the Druid high priest's victory in Cardiff that saw the turning point. Once Dr Price escaped censure after burning the body of his young son, The Cremation Society saw no bar to proceeding and it prepared to carry out the first `official' crema˝tion in Britain since Viking times.

In 1885, a Mrs Pickersgill became the first person to be cremated at Woking. From then on, cremation grew steadily in popularity. In 1902, an Act of Parliament was passed to regulate cremations in England and Wales. By the middle of the 20th century, crematoriums had sprung up all over Britain, the U.S. (the first American crematorium had opened in 1876) and Europe, and in 1963 the Pope sanctioned the practice for Roman Catholics.

In the year 2000, 437,600 cremations took place in Britain. The practice is still opposed by some - notably the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, Moslems and Orthodox (but not liberal) Jews - but its popularity among the secular, Catholic and Protestant communities continues to grow.

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Feet First

That a corpse should be carried feet first out of the house was the result of thoughtful considerations. In homes with two storeys, the bedroom was on the upper floor. Hence the body had to be carried down the stairs.

Whether this was done on a bier or in a coffin, unless its feet came first this would have meant for the deceased to stand on his or her head, which certainly would have been utterly tasteless and showing disrespect. Furthermore, carried feet first the weight of the body is better distributed and less heavy for whoever is at the foot end of the coffin.

Eventually, the reason for the custom was forgotten and superstition took hold, regarding it as unlucky not to carry a dead body out of the house feet first. It might keep the disembodied spirit within the house to haunt it. Once again - like a contagious disease - the superstition spread to the living who now imagined to sleep with one's feet towards the door would invite death. Bullfighters, particularly, will never occupy a bed pointing that way. Should a hotel offer them such accommodation, they will either move the bed or, should this prove impossible, move out.

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The positioning of a headstone on the grave enhances its sculptural quality. Engraved or chiselled upon the headstone is an inscription that gives the details of those persons who are interred. Over the years fashion has often dictated what design of memorial is selected. Wood in the form of a simple cross is one example - because of decay, which soon destroys wood - the trend is for the headstone to be of some type of stone, be it granite, sandstone or marble. The inscriptions on headstone are a valuable source of genealogical information, and are often collected by members of families who have left the ancestral home of their forbears. A feature that is lacking with the rise of cremation as a way of disposing of the dead. Of course, there are plaques and books of condolence kept at crematoria. However, the location of the grave is a tangible thing that can be visited and cared for by the surviving relatives.

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Urns on Tombstones

Urns on TombstoneCremation was an early form of committing the dead. In some periods, such as in classical times, it was more common than burial. The ancient Romans used to put the remains of the burnt body into a simple box or a precious jar, often made of marble, which they placed atop a sarcophagus or a pillar. No matter what substance the container was, they called it an "urn," a word derived from the Latin uro, for "to burn," and therefore actually referring to its contents of ashes, all that was left of the burnt dead.

When the Romans adopted Christianity, their new religion, because of its belief in bodily resurrection, no longer allowed people to destroy the body and for this reason prohibited cremation. This made burial the only possible way to dispose of the dead.

However, by that time the urn had become so closely associated with death that it was retained, though it served a different purpose. No longer able to fulfill its original, practical function, it was now used as a symbol of death. As such it continues to appear on graves. It also came to express the sense of loss felt the bereaved and thus symbolized their mourning.

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Iron Grilles

Iron grilles and rails around tombs may well have been introduced as deterrents to grave robbers. Areas like St. Pancreas in London were notorious for this, and some people were buried in iron coffins to try not to be robbed. In addition they emphasised the privacy of the plot itself. As cemeteries became over-crowded (especially before the introduction of cremation) thousands of old graves had been dug over and the bones removed (if they were lucky to charnel houses) to make room for more burials. 

In ordinary cemeteries during Victorian times, cast iron surrounds were introduced to establish some privacy round the graves. 

In this tiny graveyard in Llansamlet, Wales there are over 60 graves, often with several generations buried in each plot.

Inscription The inscription on this headstone is in Welsh and reads: " In memory of John R. Williams, of this Parish, who slept August 6 1953 aged 75 years. Also his dear wife Ann who slept March 8 1956, aged 75 years. Also their son Brinley Rees, dear husband of Margaret who slept February 23 1972 aged 66 years.
(also) Margaret Ann, who slept November 3 1993, aged 69 years.

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