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Polen, Juden beim Sargtragen

The funeral ritual is a set of gestures and words and in some countries dances, accompanying the agony and death of a human being.

Anthropologists generally consider that the funeral rituals are one of the foundations of the transition to civilization.

These rites appear to be always religious, but the recognition in the contemporary world of an agnostic philosophy changes taking into account the last moments of life and / or to the emergence of a new type of rites and ceremonies.

The nature of the ritual varies with time, the social status of the deceased, the beliefs of a society, the conditions of death and, sometimes, the will of the deceased.

Retrospective study of funerary rituals by the clues in the tombs, crossed with other archaeological features, allows to define the geographical area and sometimes the history of extinct societies.

Similarly ethnology attaches great importance to the study of funerary rites, which enlightens the understanding of the relationship between individuals and the world as they see it.

Funerals and the collective mourning are also an opportunity to particular moments of sociability that mark the history of a group.

A key moment – for an ordinary individual – is embalming (thanatopraxy), cremation (the term incineration is usually reserved for animals) or burial (funeral) and, more rarely, immersion in sea, cannibalism (real or symbolic, for example with the use of the ashes of burnt corpse) or the offering of the body (usually cut, as in the people of the Himalayas) to the vultures.

Famous people sometimes are entitled to “exceptional” funeral. The nature of the ultimate and collective as well as the staging of the ceremony tribute, and the erection of a monument left to posterity, vary with times and periods. It happened sometimes that sacrifices the environment of the deceased to his death.

Behaviors suggestive of funeral rites were observed in animals such as elephants and hippos .

The funeral ritual: a rite of passage

Worldwide, funeral rituals are varied but all correspond, according to the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, to a rite of passage in three stages (some more or less attenuated over time and civilizations): separation step materialized by the death, ritual of verification of the death, and the death announcement; liminality with the exposure of the deceased, the wake, the funeral procession, the masses for the dead, burial or cremation; aggregation step (meals funeral commemorations) that occurs after a longer or shorter depending on the period and religious affiliations mourning period.


For some scientists, the first known burial practices date back to the Lower Paleolithic (deposit of the Sima de los Huesos, Spain).

The burial of El Tabun, Israel, attributed to Neanderthals, date 120,000 years ago.

One of the oldest burials of prehistory is in the Qafzeh cave, Israel. There are about 100 000 years of men, 60,000 years older than the Cro-Magnon, attaching a particular attention to the remains of their dead. A grave is particularly remarkable: the child with the antlers.

From the Neolithic, the funerary structures are becoming increasingly sophisticated. The mounds are among the oldest brands that man has left on the landscape.

Translated and adapted from Wikipedia.

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