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Why do we have funeral rituals?

Pallbearers carrying a coffin to the hearse

Rituals take many forms. From singing happy birthday and making a wish before blowing out the candles, to gathering with your friends and wearing your team’s colours to watch an important football match – life is made up of many rituals, big and small, that help us make sense of the world.

“In societies across the world and right down through history as far as we know, we have ceremonies, ritual practices, and formal behaviour surrounding death. In this sense we are ritual animals,” says Professor Douglas Davies, who is fascinated by those rituals we have around death and to remember people who have died.

“Sometimes in life, our emotions are stirred and the world doesn’t make sense to us. One moment, we’re in the everyday world, and then we get a telephone call saying someone has died,” he says.

“Even if we’ve been expecting the death, if one of our loved ones has been ill, that moment is still a shock. At that moment, the world doesn’t make sense.

“At that moment, we need other people to help us, to take us in hand and to support us until things come to make sense again. And that’s what ritual is. It’s formal behaviour that is supportive, surrounding and shared by others.”

With a background in anthropology and theology, Professor Davies has spent his academic life exploring the ways in which humans deal with death – and why that is so important. In his role as head of the Durham University Centre for Death and Life Studies, he is part of a community of scholars from all different academic backgrounds, from architecture to English studies, all with the subject of death in their sights.

Egyptian wall carving showing mourners carrying a coffin, with heiroglyphs Wall carving in the Tomb of Merymery showing an Egyptian funeral procession; just one example of the many funeral rituals of this ancient civilization.

Why are academics thinking about death? For starters, it’s the one thing all humans have in common, and funeral rituals and death rites are an enduring feature of human behaviour. The real question is why humans have these rituals.

“Two things come together here,” explains Professor Davies. “One has to do with making sense of things, and the other has to do with behaviour.

“As humans we always want to make meaning out of stuff. We don’t like chaos, we don’t like things we don’t understand. When it comes to death, that’s a big issue to make sense of. What does it mean? How can we understand it? Can we understand it? The many different religious traditions of the world have come up with their own solutions.

“The other side of it is behaviour. We are human animals – we don’t just live in the world of thought. When we come together in a formal way, we engage in behaviour that we have come to call ritual. It’s an activity where we all, by and large, know what we’re doing and we can feel a little bit more at home in what we’re doing.”

Mourners follow a hearse, carrying colourful umbrellas The funeral procession is a common ritual behaviour. Here, a procession in the Philippines follows the hearse. Photo by moyerphotos via Wikimedia.

“That’s why funeral directors are really interesting as a group of people – because they represent that world around us that knows what it’s doing,” says Professor Davies.

“The very meeting with the funeral director is, in a way, it’s own kind of ritual, though we wouldn’t think of it in those terms.

“It’s a very formal world in which your own chaos, your thoughts, your doubts, are brought into a picture that you can understand.”

Humans are social animals and we have an inherent need to make sense of our surroundings. When someone we love dies, we can find it difficult to put the meaning of anything into context anymore. Funerals and the ways in which we memorialise our loved ones, from flowers and music to gravestones and memory books, are an important part of the way we carry on with life and make sense of a confusing and disordered world.

Cover of Mors Britannica by Douglas J. Davies

The third edition of Professor Davies’ book Death, Belief and Ritual is due to be published in Autumn 2017. First released in 1997, it explores different death rituals from a wide range of cultures and religions, as well as theories on coping with grief and how death rituals work.

“Twenty years ago, ‘death studies’ wasn’t really a phrase,” said Professor Davies. “There have been many developments since then.”

Mors Britannica: Lifestyle and Death-Style in Britain Today by Douglas Davies is available now, published by Oxford University Press.

Find out more about the Durham University Centre for Death and Life Studies, or like them on Facebook for news and updates.