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A step back in time

Many of us assume that the ‘traditional’ funeral we see today goes back many years. In fact, much of the ‘traditions’ we see now come from the Victorian era. It was during this time that ‘chapels of rest’ emerged, as an alternative to keeping a body at home before a funeral. And it was Queen Victoria’s prolonged mourning for Prince Albert which saw black become firmly established as the colour for mourning for the majority of people.

It was back in Tudor times though that black first became the chosen colour for those in mourning but it was initially just worn by the more wealthy in society. Poorer people would be unlikely to be able to afford a coffin or a gravestone – with loved ones being wrapped in a shroud and buried in with just a wooden cross or in an unmarked grave.

Richer people had the funds to splash out on funerals and it could become quite showy. Not only could they afford coffins and grand memorials, but they could set themselves apart with their extravagant black clothing, pins and ribbons and even mourning rings.

Mourning rings date back to at least the 14th century and, in Victorian times, might feature skulls or crosses. Others might bear the name and date of death of the person and, if stones were included, they would usually be black – with jet as the preferred option. If the deceased was a child, then white enamel might be used. In some cases, the ring would include a lock of hair of the deceased person. During Victorian times, this became quite popular for a while, with hair used in other ornaments too. 

There is evidence in the UK of funeral rites dating back to prehistoric times with evidence of a ceremonial burial having taken place on the Gower Peninsula 35,000 years ago. Marking burial sites has certainly been happening since Neolithic times, while funeral processions began in Roman times – with bigger ones for the more wealthy in society.

It was in the Middle Ages that the word ‘funeral’ first entered our English language, with the writer Geoffrey Chaucer mentioning it in The Knight’s Tale (one of his Canterbury Tales) around 1386. In the story, Chaucer writes of the death of Knight Arcite: “Putte in the fyr of funeral servyse;” and mentioned the word several more times in the story.

The word had come from the Old French word funerailles but, like many French words, draws its roots from Latin, with the words ‘funer’ and ‘funus’ meaning death rites. 

Modern funerals bring with them many traditions from the past and, in turn, are creating their own traditions. While many of the funerals we arrange are still quite formal in their style, there is also a move towards services to be more a celebration of life and intended to reflect the individual’s own particular style. In all cases, we support the family to create the service they want.

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