The History of Funerals

Funerals have always been a special way to honour a loved one after their passing. If you’re interested in the history of funerals in the UK, read our post.

When a loved one dies, it’s an extremely traumatic time. And, it’s more than likely that a funeral will be arranged in order to honour their memory. Funeral traditions and proceedings have stood the test of time, and some date back 1000s of years. We’ve spoken to S. Stibbards & Sons, funeral directors in Leigh on Sea, about the history of funerals in the UK. They’ve been around since 1867, planning funerals and services for over 150 years, so many of their funeral traditions have been passed down.

In this post, as we’ve said, we’re looking into the history of funerals in the UK. From ancient traditions, flowers, funeral musicand more. The history of the celebration of life is fascinating, and you’ll find loads of interesting information in this post.


For many years, it’s been part of UK culture and tradition to announce the death of a loved one through an obituary. These are usually published in the local paper, as a message to the community. The obituary of the deceased usually contains personal information, as well as details of the funeral.

As for the history of obituaries, the announcement of death in print dates back as far as the 17thcentury – although, it became increasingly popular in the 18thand the 19thcentury. In the earlier days of the obituary, the publication was for people of social importance. However, during the earlier part of the 20thcentury, it became commonplace for everyone who wished to submit an obituary to their local paper. Nowadays, whilst obituaries have moved out of common social practices, there are alternative ways to publish obituaries in the digital age. Through social media sites and obituary websites, they can be published on the internet. Messages of condolences and support for families and friends can be sent via Facebook. Whilst printed obituaries are not forgotten, but not common, they are published on the web.


Whilst most funeral proceedings come from Roman tradition, they still have a place in our modern funerals. It’s thought that the first mention of the word ‘funeral’, in English Literature, came from Chaucer in the 14thcentury. Included in the famed Canterbury Tales works, many traditions of the Roman funeral were brought into the funerals of early Britain and British funerals. However, not all were. Roman funerals used to have professional mourners attend – those who were paid to mourn the deceased.


Although many opt for cremation in the modern era, burials in cemeteries are still fairly common. The tradition of burial, where the deceased are buried facing West to East, dates back to Pagan times, when the sun was worshipped. Christians took on this tradition in later years. Ancient Celts used to burn the deceased as opposed to burying. All of these traditions have made their way into modern burials.


The tradition of holding a wake, after the funeral, is still part of modern-day funerals. However, the wakes of the past were very different to our modern-day versions. Before Christian wakes, before the deceased was buried, friends and family would watch over the deceased. In Ancient times, it was about keeping the body safe from ‘dark spirits.’ During Anglo-Saxon Christian times, wakes were celebrations of life, much like today. However, whilst there are ‘feasts’ and music at modern wakes, the Anglo-Saxons used to celebrate with sports and dancing as well. After the wake, in the evening, there would be prayer and meditation throughout the night.

Wearing Black

The tradition of wearing black came into common social practice in Victorian times, although it began as early as the Elizabethan era. When Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, passed away, she entered a prolonged mourning, where she wore black. Victoria wore black for the remaining years of her life, after her husband’s passing. Now, it is acceptable to wear dark colours, as well as black to funerals. However, some encourage their guests to follow the will of the deceased and wear bright colours or other clothing requests – as ‘life celebrations’ become increasingly popular, but more on that further down.


In the past, funerals would have flowers in the room to cover the unpleasant odour, however, there is a symbolic deeper meaning than that – hence why they remained in common place since. However, for some, they ask for donations ‘in lieu of flowers’, for a charity, selected by the family or friends of the deceased. Funeral donations date back to Elizabethan times, when money was given to the poor, as part of the funeral proceedings.


Whilst in the religious funerals in the past would feature hymns, modern funerals focus on playing a selection of songs that the deceased enjoyed. Normally picked by the loved one’s friends or family, a selection of music is chosen to accompany the funeral proceedings. Some still choose to have hymns; however, these are normally for those that are religious.

Modern Funerals

Nowadays, life celebration and green funerals are becoming more and more common. Life celebrations are about creating an atmosphere less sombre than a funeral. It’s a way of honouring someone’s life without ‘mourning’. Whilst it’s a traumatic time, many prefer to arrange a funeral which is happier for the guests. Green funerals are about being conscious of human’s environmental impact on the world. Disposable coffins, burying ashes with trees, woodland burials and more.

Whilst many traditions remain part of modern funerals, the choice is yours. A funeral is about planning a way to best honour a loved one, whether that be through traditional proceedings or something a little different, it doesn’t matter. Whilst traditions will always hold a place in the funerals of today, it’s about commemorating the deceased in a way that mirrors their life.

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