According to statistics, it's believed that the annual funeral market is currently worth about $20 billion. Additionally, it's believed that there are about 2.4 million funerals taking place each year in the United States.
Yet, although it might seem to be a macabre subject, the history behind modern funeral traditions is rather interesting. From the tradition of wearing black and the 21-gun salute to the reasons behind why graves were originally dug 6 feet, we're going to delve into each of these topics and more.
If your interest is piqued and you have always had a fascination with death, or are simply curious about the history surrounding the traditions we still practice today, these facts about funerals may surprise and enlighten you.
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The Civil War Introduced Large-Scale Embalming To The USA - So Soldiers' Remains Could Be Preserved For The Journey Home
If not for the Civil War, it's unlikely that embalming would have become as popular as it did in the USA, and may have remained a practice for preserving medical specimens.
According to historical accounts, embalming became popular after the Army Medical Corps colonel became the first Union officer to be killed in the war. Upon hearing about his demise, Thomas Holmes embalmed the colonel and took him to the White House to be displayed for President Lincoln and his family and friends.
Soon after, many embalmers began to advertise their wares because of how much money could be made from those who perished during the Civil War. According to accounts, Holmes alone embalmed around 4,000 soldiers at $100 a body, which was a large sum at the time.
It wasn't until General Ulysses S. Grant withdrew the embalmers' permits that the craze began to slow, but the embalming technique has lived on and is still practiced today.
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The 21-Gun Salute Took Shape Due To Early Discrepancies Between Land And Sea Artillery
According to the US Army Center of Military History, the 21-gun salute has its origins in early military artillery:
The tradition of rendering a salute by cannon originated in the 14th century as firearms and cannons came into use. Since these early devices contained only one projectile, discharging them once rendered them ineffective. Originally warships fired seven-gun salutes - the number seven probably selected because of its astrological and Biblical significance. Seven planets had been identified and the phases of the moon changed every seven days. The Bible states that God rested on the seventh day after Creation, that every seventh year was sabbatical and that the seven times seventh year ushered in the Jubilee year.
Apparently, land-based cannons had access to more gunpowder than sea-based ones, and could fire three shots for every one fired at sea. This led to the adoption of the 21-gun salute on land, and was adopted by navy batteries once gunpowder became more reliable on oceangoing vessels.
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Coffins Became Caskets As Part Of A Larger Trend To 'Beautify' Death
It might be surprising, but there is a difference between a coffin and a casket, even though these two terms are often used interchangeably. A coffin is six-sided and tapers from the top to the bottom, while a casket is four-sided and rectangular in shape.
In the 17th century, coffins were usually reserved for the wealthy. Many poor families would simply bury their dead in a shroud or winding sheet. Yet, why were caskets invented if coffins are practically the same thing? Caskets began replacing coffins as part of a larger trend to beautify death during the American Civil War.
Many believe that the brutality of the Civil War combined with the utterly tragic scale of death led people to break with traditional rituals and imagery. Coffins were traditionally plain and made of wood, whereas caskets could be decorated and made from a number of materials. The casket was an effort to pay respect to the deceased and distance mourners from death in a more honorable and pleasant manner.
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Until The Rise Of Protestantism, Headstones Were Reserved For The Wealthy
Headstones (also known as tombstones, gravestones, and grave markers) have been used to mark graves as far back as 3000 BCE. Yet, it was not a funeral practice that became common until the mid-1600s.
Before the 1900s, headstones were generally made from sandstone or slate, and some graves also had footstones that would mark the perimeter of a grave from top to bottom.
As with many other practices in history, headstones were not used by the poor. It wasn't until protestant theology became popular and widespread amongst the masses that everyone adopted headstones. Before the protestant faith gained popularity, headstones were usually reserved for the more well-off middle and upper classes.
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The Lighting Of A Candle In Honor Of A Loved One Who Has Passed Can Be Traced Back To The Fourth And Fifth Centuries
In many cultures, a popular funeral tradition is to light a candle for loved ones who have passed. Some religions and cultures will call for the candles to be lit before a funeral, during a funeral, after a funeral, and on the anniversary of a person's passing.
This funeral tradition can be traced back to civilizations like the Macedonians in the fourth and fifth centuries. It is believed that Macedonians would light candles on the day of a person's burial and up to 40 days after a death. They did this because they believed the candle's flame was a way to ward off demons and ghosts who wanted to harm the deceased soul.
Like the Macedonians, the Romans and Greeks had similar candle lighting traditions surrounding the passing of a loved one. They would light torches or candles so that the dead could be guided along their journey. Today, candle vigils are a popular occurrence to honor those taken too soon.
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Funeral Flowers Were Originally Used To Mask The Smell Of A Decaying Body
Before funeral practices like embalming and refrigeration became commonplace, flowers were used to mask the smell of a decaying body.
Funeral home directors would often strategically drape flowers over a coffin or casket to ensure the loved ones and guests at a funeral did not smell the body as it began to decay. A famous example of this practice in history was the funeral of President Andrew Jackson in 1874.
President Jackson's body was not embalmed, so when the day of his funeral arrived, his body had already begun to decompose. To preserve the president's dignity and ensure the guests were not horrified, President Jackson's casket was closed and piled high with fragrant flowers on top and around his casket.