People die every day. And every day, people engage in elaborate rituals for the dead, as they have since the beginning of recorded history, and earlier. All of us know what a funeral looks like, whether our religion is Christian, Jewish or Muslim. But the burial rites of those faiths, which emerged relatively recently in human history, have their roots in the basic human need to cope with death, a need that existed just as strongly among pagan religions.

Prehistoric Funeral Practices

The ritual of staging ceremonies for the dead predates even ancient, pagan religions. Thanks to recent archaeological findings, we know that prehistoric people practiced funeral rites. Discoveries in northern Iraq, from as far back at 65,000 years ago, indicate that Neanderthals buried their dead on a bed of flowers. Cro-Magnons left evidence of more elaborate burial practices, even burying bodies in full clothing with intricate, beaded stitching. Experts say that such careful rituals are evidence of religious beliefs, attaching spiritual significance to the transition between life and death, as religions do today.

Preparation For Life After Death

ancient Egyptian stone statue (toned)

For early cultures, burial rites were designed to smooth the pathway to the afterlife. No society took the transition more seriously that the ancient Egyptians, whose culture thrived 2,000 to 5,000 years ago. Their burial rites were technologically advanced and expensive. Egyptians believed embalming, chemical preservation of the body, was necessary for the dead to transition into the next life. Pharaohs received the most lavish send-offs, but there was an embalming method for every income level. Even the poor could afford a crude form of preservation with salt.

Death Rituals of the Druids

The Druids were the tribal priests of the Celtic people whose practices were first recorded by Emperor Julius Caesar in 50 B.C. They worshiped nature and their death rituals involved returning the body to the earth. For some, cremation on a stack of burning wood was popular. Others favored simply leaving the body in the open to be devoured by animals and birds. Interment inside large, elevated mounds of dirt was another Druidic practice as was burial in the personal graves. Because the Druids did not allow written records of their activities, the meaning of their rituals has been lost to time.

Dignity Even in Death

Though ancient funeral practices come in many varieties, they all emphasize the dignity of the deceased. Egyptian mummification took this to an extreme, preventing the body from decomposing at all. Greeks ritually washed and anointed dead bodies. Romans also cremated the dead and kept the ashes in their homes in a place of honor. Human beings in every culture through history have created rituals to make the journey from life to death easier. But the real effect of these rituals is to give comfort to those still living.