The Contemporary New England Witch

The Contemporary New England Witch
Ms Faith

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Ancient Pagan Funerary Practices, Some That Are Still with us Today



Good Morning,

Recently I found myself going to a wake of a woman who had reached the remarkable age of 102. She was the mother of an acquaintance and though I did not know her, I went out of respect. Many times when we are at a wake or funeral we are grieving and emotional. As I went out of respect and had not known this woman I was able to appreciate the elements that go into a funeral nowadays and started thinking about where they had come from. The origins of the funerary traditions, if you will.

I have studied much about paleolithic man over the years as I am always looking for the origins of the first spiritual/religious worship. We find elements of this in the practices of dealing with the dead during the prehistoric era, with the first humans. There is evidence that the very first humans were prepared for burial by painting their naked bodies with a 'paint' made from red ochre a type of hematite stone also known as iron oxide, that is powered, and they were buried in caves rather than buried in the ground.

 The Upper Paleolithic Cave site known as Arene Candide has the body of a young man buried over 23,000 years ago, and he was painted with the red mixture.  Another body found in Paviland Cave in the UK, from approximately the same era, found a body called "the Red Lady" due to the large quantities of red ochre used in the burial. There are many other examples found around the world during this prehistoric era. There is a belief among Archaeologists that the bodies were so prepared, painting them with the 'blood' of the Mother earth, reminiscent of the blood that covers the body of the infant when it is born. Then the body of the deceased was interred back into the 'womb' of the Great Mother Earth.

When mankind evolved and became more populous it soon became more common to burn, or cremate bodies on funeral pyres. It is thought that this practice evolved out of the desire to stop disease and of course eliminate the odors and unpleasantness of decomposing bodies. The cremation process became very common throughout the Bronze and Iron ages, replacing inhumation (burial). Of course in Ancient Egypt, mummification was the preferred way of preparing the body after death.

Many of the funerary rituals developed out of the desire to prevent the deceased from becoming a ghost and wandering the earth. Many cultures developed their death preparations and funerary rituals to help the deceased to move on and to live in the afterlife in peace. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, huge mausoleums and tombs were built for the deceased. In Rome, some of these tombs were as large as a house with several rooms. The deceased would be placed within and the family and friends would continue to come and visit and hold elaborate feasts in the house like tomb, to honor the deceased.

The Romans would then bring large arrangements of flowers and plantings of flower, shrubs, trees and flowering bushes to be planted outside of the tomb, to make it look appealing and more like a home for the living than the dead. There is a belief that this may be the very first use of "funerary flowers" and the long held thought that flowers were used to ward off the smell of the decomposing body is less likely to be true, as throughout the ages, the Greeks and Romans (who really were the rulers of the civilized world at the time) were heavy users of incense in temples and in tombs to ward off the smells of decomposition from animal sacrifices and for the deceased humans. For truly,, flowers simply do not have the strength of aroma to hide the smell of death and incense smoke would be far more effective. It is thought the flowers were given as beautiful offerings to the deceased, in memory and love.

Again during later Roman times burial of the body became popular for a time, with the body buried in tombs and in crypts, while those considered holy were often interred under the floor of a church or temple. After a time, cremation again became popular, but the Romans, when practicing cremation would often take a severed finger joint off of the body before cremation and bury that as a symbolic burial. In time, when the Catholic church had unified Europe, cremation was frowned upon and considered a Pagan practice and inhumation, burial of the body wrapped in a shroud, emulating Jesus's entombment.  The Christian belief of the legend that Jesus rested in his tomb for three days before being resurrected, has led to the still common practice that after death, the wake and or funeral is held on the third day afterwards.

 Both the Greeks and the Romans believed that feasting, gathering to remember the deceased, especially on the day of their death would allow the loved one to rest in peace. Many times entire families, even to this day, will go to the cemeteries and set up tables, chairs, candles, flowers and host a party to honor the deceased. This is still common in Italy.

We still today, after holding the wake, then the funeral, often go to someone's home or back to the dining hall of the church to gather, to share memories, eat and drink food brought pot luck by mourners, and celebrate the one who has passed. The funeral "feast" has been practiced for well over a thousand years.

Funeral Wreaths

The history of the wreath goes back as far as the Etruscans, who were in Italy before the Romans, and the wearing of wreaths on the head, made out of precious metals, were worn as jewelry, Eventually, the form of the wreath was created out of evergreens, as evergreens symbolizes ever lasting life. When funeral wreaths were first used in unknown, but there are Roman documents dating to 450 B.C.E. which mentions that funeral wreaths were a long standing tradition, even back then.

Today we still have cemeteries for inhumation burials, cremation remains very popular, crypts and mausoleums are not as common today except for the very rich. We still hold funeral feasts and huge flower arrangements and flower wreaths are a very common and expected site at a wake and funeral today.

The wearing of black goes back to ancient Roman times, and depending on your culture, religion and the era, widows could wear black for a year, two years, four years or for the rest of their lives. Some cultures, though out the years, have worn all white for mourning, and red is never worn as it is considered very bad luck.  Today, black is a choice and is normally worn by those closest to the deceased, but it is no longer frowned upon if family members do not choose to wear black.  Today, mourning and grieving has in many ways,become a very personal event, rather than a cultural one.

Many have heard of and seen pall bearers carrying the coffin of the deceased, but many haven't heard that in days past there were also flower ladies, who would walk down the funeral procession carrying the arrangements of flowers brought for the deceased. At the cemetery the flower ladies would arrange the flower around the grave or tomb, and for a number of years this was a coveted, honored job for those women closest to the deceased.


Truly, if one does the research, you will find that just about all rites and rituals surrounding the preparation and disposal of the dead, all goes back to Pagan times. We have kept those aspects that still appeal to us and have set aside those that no longer do so.  This topic could easily fill up an entire book and then some. The history of funerals goes back to the very first humans and is still evolving and changing today.


Peace and Happiness



© 2010-2016 Faith M. McCann. Portions of this blog posting may include materials from my book “Enchantments School for the Magickal Arts First Year Magickal Studies.” For more information, see www.enchantmentsschool.com or go to the title of tonight's discussion and click, it will link you to my school's website. Please note that the copying and/or further distribution of this work without express written permission is prohibited. 

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