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A funeral is a ceremony marking a person's death.

Funerary customs comprise the complex of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember the dead, from the funeral itself, to various monuments, prayers, and rituals undertaken in their honour. These customs vary widely between cultures, and between religious affiliations within cultures. In some cultures the dead are worshipped; this is commonly called ancestor worship. The word comes from the Latin funus, which had a variety of meanings, including the corpse and the funerary rites themselves.

Funeral rites are as old as the human race itself. In the Shanidar cave in Iraq, Neandertal skeletons have been discovered with a characteristic layer of pollen, which suggests that Neandertals buried the dead with gifts of flowers; it has been interpreted as suggesting that Neandertals believed in an afterlife, and in any case were aware of their own mortality and were capable of mourning.

Table of contents
1 Funerals in the contemporary United States
2 Funerals in ancient Rome
3 Final disposition of the dead
4 Control by the decedent of the details of the funeral
5 Anatomical gifts
6 External links:

Funerals in the contemporary United States

Within the United States of America, in most cultural groups and regions, the funeral rituals have been divided into three principal parts:

Note that this part of the mourning process is part of Christian tradition, but foreign to Judaism. Jewish funerals are held soon after death, and the corpse is never displayed.

Generally speaking, the number of people who are considered obliged to attend each of these three rituals by etiquette decreases at each step.  Distant relatives and acquaintances may be called upon to attend the viewing; the decedent's closer relatives and local friends attend the memorial service; if the burial is on a day other than the funeral, only the decedent's closest relatives attend the burial service, if one is conducted.  

Funerals in ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, the eldest surviving male of the household, the pater familias, was summoned to the death-bed, where he attempted to catch and inhale the last breath of the decedent.

Funerals of the socially prominent were usually undertaken by professional undertakers called libitinarii. No direct description has been passed down of Roman funeral rites. These rites usually included a public procession to the tomb or pyre where the body was to be cremated. The most noteworthy thing about this procession was that the survivors bore masks bearing the images of the family's deceased ancestors. The right to carry the masks in public was eventually restricted to families prominent enough to have held curule magistracies. Mimes, dancers, and musicians hired by the undertakers, as well as professional mourners, took part in these processions. Less well to do Romans could join benevolent funerary societies (collegia funeraticia) who undertook these rites on their behalf.

Nine days after the disposal of the body, by burial or cremation, a feast was given (cena novendialis) and a libation poured over the grave or the ashes. Since most Romans were cremated, the ashes were typically collected in an urn and placed in a niche in a collective tomb called a columbarium (literally, "dovecote"). During this nine days period, the house was considered to be tainted, funesta, and was hung with yew or cypress branches to warn bypassers. At the end of the period, the house was swept in an attempt to purge it of the dead person's ghost.

Several Roman holidays commemmorated a family's dead ancestors, including the Parentalia, held February 13 through 21, to honour the family's ancestors; and the Lemuria, held on May 9, 11, and 13, in which ghosts (larvæ) were feared to be active, and the pater familias sought to appease them with offerings of beans.

Final disposition of the dead

Various cultures have devised different ways of finally disposing of the bodies of the dead. Some place the dead in tombs of various sorts, either individually, or in specially designated tracts of land that house tombs. Burial in a graveyard is one common form of tomb. In some places, such as New Orleans, Louisiana, burials are impractical because the ground water is too high; there tombs are placed above ground. Elsewhere, a separate building for a tomb is usually reserved for the socially prominent and wealthy. Especially grand aboveground tombs are called mausoleums. Other buildings used as tombs include the crypts in churches; burial in these places is again usually a privilege given to the socially prominent dead.

Burial was not always permanent. In some areas, burial grounds needed to be re-used because of limited space. In these areas, once the dead have decomposed to skeletons, the bones are removed; after their removal they can be placed in an ossuary.

"Burial at sea" is a somewhat misleading phrase that identifies the deliberate disposal of a corpse into the ocean, wrapped and tied with weights to make sure it sinks. It is a common practice in navies and sea-faring nations; in the Church of England, special forms of funeral service were added to the Book of Common Prayer to cover it.

Cremation, also, is an old custom; it was the usual mode of disposing of a corpse in ancient Rome. Vikings were occasionally cremated in their longships, and afterwards the location of the site was marked with standing stones. In recent years, despite the objections of some religious groups, cremation has become more and more widely used. Orthodox Judaism and the Eastern Orthodox Church forbid cremation, as do most Muslims; Roman Catholicism allows it, but does not encourage it. Most varieties of Protestantism are indifferent to it.

Rarer forms of disposal of the dead include exposure, where the corpse is exposed to the elements. This was done by some groups of Native Americans; it is still practiced by Zoroastrianss in Bombay, where the Towers of Silence allow vultures and other carrion eating birds to dispose of the corpses.

Cannibalism is also practiced post-mortem in some countries. The practice has been linked to the spread of a prion disease called kuru.

Control by the decedent of the details of the funeral

In law in the United States, the deceased have surprisingly little say in the manner in which their funerals can be conducted. The law generally holds that the funeral rituals are for the benefit of the survivors, rather than to express the personal whims and tastes of the decedent.

The decedent may, in most U.S. jurisdictions, provide instructions as to his funeral by means of a Last Will and Testament. These instructions can be given some legal effect if bequests are made contingent on the heirs carrying them out, with alternative gifts if they are not followed. This assumes, of course, that the decedent has enough of an estate to make the heirs pause before doing something that will invoke the alternate bequest. To be effective, also, the will must be easily available, and some notion of what it provides must be known to the decedent's survivors.

Some people dislike the clutter and display of flowers at funerals, and feel that there is an unseemly competition in the number and size of the floral arrangements sent. Many newspapers refuse to print an obituary that requests that flowers not be sent; to do so would be to offend the florists' industry. Many obituaries, however, contain notices regarding "memorial gifts" to a charity. It is usually understood in these situations that a gift to the charity made in memory of the decedent relieves the donor of the social duty of sending flowers.

Anatomical gifts

Another way of avoiding some of the rituals and costs of a traditional funeral is for the decedent to donate some or all of her or his body to a medical school or similar institution for the purpose of instruction in anatomy, or for similar purposes. Students of medicine and osteopathy frequently study anatomy from donated cadavers; they are also useful in forensic research.

Making an anatomical gift is a separate transaction from being an organ donor, in which any useful organs are removed from the unembalmed cadaver for medical transplant. Under a Uniform Act in force in most jurisdictions of the United States, being an organ donor is a simple process that can often be accomplished when you have your driver's license renewed.

Making an anatomical gift requires a procedure that varies from one jurisdiction to the next in the United States. For advice in doing so, it is best that you contact the institution you wish to make the gift to; they usually have staff that processes these requests, and who can send you any needed paperwork and a donor card to carry. It is also prudent to tell your physician and your close relatives of your intention to make such a gift; your cadaver will require special treatment after your death to be useful. There are some medical conditions, such as amputations, or various surgeries, that can make your cadaver unsuitable for these purposes. Conversely, the bodies of people who had certain medical conditions are useful for research into those conditions. All US medical schools rely on the generosity of "anatomical donors" for the teaching of anatomy. Typically the remains are cremated once the students have completed their anatomy classes, and many medical schools now hold a memorial service at that time as well.

See also: mourning; shiv'ah; requiem

External links:

List of anatomical gift contacts from Albany Medical School

Information about making an anatomical gift at Georgetown University School of Medicine

Article about post-mortem cannibalism