Earlier this month, I attended the funeral of my wife’s grandmother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She died at the age of 84 and certainly had a long, full life — as the minister said at her service, "She was blessed to not only see the birth of her children’s children, but some of her children’s children’s children as well."
I have attended a fair amount of funerals in my time — three of my grandparents, some friends’ family members, and unfortunately, some friends who died way too young — and I think that some of the most compelling evidence of the existence of an afterlife comes from looking at the body of a loved one in an open-casket funeral. I knew my wife’s grandmother for her last six years, and at the funeral I only saw an empty vessel. It amazed me how the body lying there didn’t really look like the person I knew, and I think the reason for that is simple — the body in the casket really wasn’t the person I knew.
I believe that when we die, life-force, personality, and energy leave when the flesh and bones can no longer support it. I don’t believe that life-force is something that can be destroyed.
Seeing our deceased off to the afterlife is a character trait that runs through every civilized culture throughout history. In fact, Encyclopedia Britannica defines the beginning of civilization itself when we started burying the dead. "It is the definition of the anthropologist that, in the evolution from ape-like kindred species, civilized man began to exist when he first buried his dead. This is the definition of homo sapiens — wise man — rational man — thinking man."
Three common threads of the funeral are: a ceremonial act, a special place to put the dead, and some kind of memorial. Funeral customs began out of fear — fear of the dead, fear that the deceased’s spirit may come back if the physical body isn’t disposed of in a respectful manor, and fear of appeasing the higher power that oversees daily lives.
The Neanderthals were the first to hold funeral services. We know from some of the burial sites that have been uncovered that they had very specific ways of burying their dead. For example, many were laid in an east/west direction to correspond with the rise and fall of the sun, others were laid in a fetal position — the same position as in the womb, and in many burial sites there was an unusually high amount of pollen — probably from being laid on or around flowers. The tradition of the funeral may be as old as 50,000 – 90,000 years.
From around 3000 B.C.E. until 1650 B.C.E., the ancient Egyptians were so pre-occupied with funerals and death that some of the great rulers spent their entire lives in preparation for their burial. The pyramids are, after all, giant tombs commemorating the lives of Egyptian pharaohs and noblemen. The ancient Egyptians held incredibly strong beliefs in an afterlife, so much so that the mummification process of a body could take up to 70 days to complete. When the mummification was complete, the body would be wrapped in fine linen before being placed in a sarcophagus.
At the actual burial, if the deceased was important enough, the family and servants of the deceased were expected to ingest poison and be buried near their master so they could continue their servitude in the afterlife. Buried with the dead would be treasure, food offerings, and everyday items such as grooming tools, bowls, cups, and furniture — all to make the journey and the afterlife more comfortable.
If we fast-forward a few thousand years to the Viking era (789-1066 C.E.), we see that many ideas from ancient Egypt carried through to Viking burials. Vikings were Pagans who had a wide array of gods and spirits to call on for specific needs. Like the ancient Egyptians, a Viking warrior would be buried with his belongings, but he would also be buried with his weapons: sword, spear, battleaxe, and shield. Even the warrior’s animals, such as his dog and horse, could be buried with him to help him on his way to Valhalla. Food and drink would also be supplied to satiate the deceased on their final journey. Some Viking graves were marked by a series of stones lined up in the shape of a boat over the grave. Some of the more wealthy and prestigious burials also included a funeral pyre set on top of a ship. The pyre would be lit and the blazing ship set off to sea — a sight that must have been a dramatic and spectacular site to behold.
After the Viking era, the Catholic Church continued the trend of further simplifying the funeral and burial. Around 1440 C.E., the wake was introduced. Originally, the wake was an all-night vigil of prayer and meditation. This tradition has some Celtic roots — loved ones of the deceased would hover over the corpse to ensure evil sprits and monsters would not take the body before the deceased’s spirit had a chance to move on. The wakes of Henry VI’s day soon took a more lively turn and began to evolve into drunken parties, and the fallout was seen as scandalous.
Native Americans of the Great Plains felt the Earth was sacred and that placing a corpse into the Earth would not be proper. So the dead were dressed in their best garments, then placed into a fork of a tree, where the birds of prey could pick the bones clean. Once the flesh was gone, the bones would be gathered and then could be committed to the Earth.
Today, we still hold onto many of the same funeral practices as our ancestors did. We dress our recently deceased in their finest linen, we embalm the body to prevent rapid decay, we adorn the body with fresh flowers, we hold ceremonies to commemorate their lives, and we place them in cemeteries under a monument of some kind.
When you consider the last 50,000 years-plus, our funeral practices haven’t changed or evolved that much. I believe this is because our understanding about death and the afterlife hasn’t evolved either. We may no longer have the god of thunder, the god of rain, or the sun god anymore — because science has explained to us what these natural events are — but so far, no one has been able to really tell us what happens when we die. Our various religions all have an opinion on the matter, but most of us still have a skeptical corner in us that says, "I’m just not sure."