Funeral Customs

Preparation of the Deceased

Bodies may be prepared in various ways, depending on culture, religion, the type of ceremony desired, the decedent’s wishes, and the presence of infectious disease. In the United States, if a traditional funeral service is desired the body is typically embalmed. Embalming is not required by law, but may be necessary under certain circumstances, such as transport across state lines and for certain types of ceremonies. If a direct burial or cremation is desired, the family may decide against embalming. Read more about preparing the deceased.

What is Embalming?

Put simply, embalming is a method of artificially preserving a dead body. According to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, modern embalming is defined as “the chemical treatment of the dead human body to reduce the presence and growth of microorganisms, to temporarily inhibit organic decomposition, and to restore the dead human body to an acceptable physical appearance.” 

A Brief History of Preservation

The preservation of the dead was a prevalent custom in many ancient cultures. In Egypt, the deceased were preserved through mummification, a process that involved removing the internal organs, drying the body with natron, and wrapping the deceased in linen. (Read more about the Egyptian mummification process.) The ancient Babylonians, Persians, and Syrians preserved their dead by immersing them in honey or wax. Ethiopians eviscerated the deceased and then attempted to restore the body’s contours and lifelike appearance by applying plaster and paint to the corpse. The Guanches (inhabitants of the Canary Islands) preserved their dead by removing and washing the intestines, anointing the body with butter and other substances, and exposing it to the sun. 

The modern method of embalming by arterial injection was developed in Europe in the 17th century, but the practice would not become widespread in the United States until the Civil War. During the war “embalming surgeons” embalmed the dead in order to return them to their families. President Lincoln was also be embalmed following his assassination at the end of the war. As the American public became more familiar with embalming, their acceptance of the practice grew.

Source: Mayer, R. G. (2012). Embalming: History, theory, & practice (5th ed.). New York: Mcgraw-Hill Medical.

Types of Disposition

Disposition refers to the placement of remains in their final resting place.

Ground Burial (interment)

Bodies can be buried lawfully on any property that is dedicated as a public or private cemetery, and in some rural areas families can have loved one’s buried on private property. However, families may need to dedicate the area/property as a family cemetery. Learn about green/eco-friendly burials.

Entombment (above-ground burial)

Instead of in-ground burial, families may decide to have their loved one entombed, either in a mausoleum or crypt. Entombment is most common in areas where it is difficult to dig into the ground, such as swampy locations.

Cremation (with or without embalming and viewing)

Cremated remains are placed in an urn or other container and may be kept at home, buried, placed in a niche, or scattered where permissible by law. There are many types of keepsakes available for loved ones to retain a small portion of cremated remains.

Burial at Sea

Burial at sea may be allowed in the ocean at a distance of at least three nautical miles from the shoreline, and in some areas there may be requirements for the depth of the water. The deceased’s body must be properly weighted to insure that the remains will sink to the bottom quickly and permanently. All burials at sea must be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Medical Science Body Donation

There are anatomical donation programs across the United States for those wishing to give this selfless gift to medical research. Donation should be addressed during life, rather than after a loved one’s death, as many programs require preregistration. View donation programs by state.

Alkaline hydrolysis

Alkaline hydrolysis has been legalized in seven states as of 2011. This method of disposition entails placing the body of the deceased in a cylinder that is filled with water and alkaline chemicals, and by adding heat and pressure the tissues of the body become hydrolyzed. One of the results of alkaline hydrolysis includes calcified bone, which can be placed in an urn and given to families much like cremated remains.

Types of Ceremonies

Funeral services and ceremonies differ with respect to geographic region, culture, and religion. Funeral directors are well versed in all types of funeral rites and are typically focused on providing what the surviving next of kin seek and what the deceased desired.

Buddhist ceremonies

Christian ceremonies

Hindu ceremonies

Home funerals

Jewish ceremonies

Military ceremonies

Muslim ceremonies

Nonreligious ceremonies

Read more about different types of religious, ethnic, and cultural ceremonies. Learn about funeral etiquette, including offering condolences, sending flowers, and making a memorial contribution.