Symbols & the Funeral Service

Symbols & the Funeral Service

Life is so very fragile. We must treat the living as if they are dying, and the dead as if they are alive.  Nicholi Bereyeve

The services of the funeral profession, including the funeral ritual, are actually symbols that are implemented to care for the living as well as the dead. The purpose of this article is to discuss the importance of symbols in the funeral.

Symbols about throughout life. In fact, without them, life, as we know it, would be drastically different. For instance, the symbol for the letter D is “D”. Not that it couldn’t have been “XX”, but it is recognized as a line with a half circle, “D”. Without this type of symbol recognition, one would not be able to understand this manual. But, for our profession, the use of symbols goes much deeper. Here is the definition that we will use:

A symbol is a thing that leads to knowledge of something other than itself. This deeper notion of symbols helps people make an unknown reality known. The practice of firing three rifle volleys over the grave of a service person i seen today as part of the military funeral. Guns, bullets, shell casings and people are involved. The volley is what people see and hear, but what is the deeper symbolism behind this practice? Symbolically, the firing of three volleys over a grave means that the battle is over, that the dead warriors must be given attention and that what the warrior did in battle was important and deserves a moment of recognition and honor. The historical background that gave rise to this symbolic ritual had its origin in the old custom of halting the fighting by firing three volleys so that the dead could be removed from the battlefield. When each army had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate that the dead had been ethically cared for and that they were ready to return to the fight. Today the symbol of the battle is not a literal war, but the battle of life. The symbol of the three volleys is a recognition that the war of life has ended, that the dead person (warrior) is gone from life (the battlefield) and that our lives go on (return to fight). The funeral ritual is full of this type of valuable symbolism.

The story of our funeral symbols is a fascinating one that combines history, psychology, liturgy and many other disciplines.

Examples of symbols are:

1. The Rite of Draping the Casket with a Flag – History
This custom began during the Napoleonic Wars (1806-1815). The dead were carried from the field of battle in flags.

Symbolism – Covering the casket with a flag is symbolic of the dead person being carried away from the battlefield of life.

2. The Rite of Depositing a Sprig of Acacia in Masonic Funerals – History
The Hebrew custom is to plant a branch of acacia vera on the graves of departed relatives.

Symbolism – The texture and color of the Masonic Apron is similar to the acacia. The acacia then becomes a symbol of innocence since the Masonic Apron is a badge of innocence for all Freemasons.

Primary and Secondary Symbols of Death

There is only one, supreme, primary symbol of death and that is the prepared and restored dead human body. The remaining symbols, (caskets, flowers, hearses, mementoes, etc.) Are described as secondary symbols of death. The ideal way to experience the reality of death and the beneficial nature of the funeral is by using the primary and secondary symbols of death in unison. If the primary symbol of death is not used, then people can utilize the secondary symbols to establish the reality of death. The unhealthiest decision is for the bereaved to utilize neither the primary nor secondary symbols.

1. The Primary Death Symbol – the prepared and restored dead human body.

• Provides a visual and tactile confrontation • Establishes the reality of death
• Is not offensive to those in attendance

By viewing and touching the primary symbol of death, the bereaved are seeing something (the body) that leads to knowledge of something other than itself (the reality of death). It helps make an unknown reality (the death of a significant person) known.

2. The Secondary Symbols of Death

The following outlines the secondary symbols we see in our modern funeral service and what they mean to the families we serve and to us as funeral professions:

ITEM #1 – Casket; Surface Observations: metal or wood container; Symbolic Analysis: tangible symbol of death, symbolizes relationships of the deceased, symbol of attempt to contain death in an orderly fashion, symbol of separation, symbol of reality, symbol of ritual process, symbolizes a tangible partition between life and death.

ITEM #2 – Outer receptacle; Surface Observations: concrete or metal container; Symbolic Analysis: sym- bol of peace of mind, symbol of durability, symbol of immortality, symbolizes finality, e.g., “Close the vault door”.

ITEM #3 – Flowers; Surface Observations: organic plants; Symbolic Analysis: symbolizes the need for beau- ty at death, symbolizes new life, symbolizes life being cut from the stem, symbolizes the fragility of life.

ITEM #4 – Funeral vehicles; Surface Observations: automobile; Symbolic Analysis: symbolizes death universally, symbol that death goes everywhere, symbol of the death bearer, symbol of the universality and mobility of death.

ITEM #5 – Funeral facilities; Surface Observations: building; Symbolic Analysis: symbol of an identifi- able place where death is honestly confronted, symbolizes dignity, symbol that death occurs, symbol of recognition (funeral home sign, lighting, building, etc.).

ITEM #6 – Funeral music; Surface Observations: notes, sound; Symbolic Analysis: symbol that life is tem- poral, symbol of life themes, symbol of attitudes and relationships, symbol of comfort, symbol of affection, symbol of past traditions, symbol of new traditions.

ITEM #7 – Funeral procession; Surface Observations: autos lined up; Symbolic Analysis: symbol of pilgrim- age, symbol of organizing what we don’t understand, symbol of recognition, symbol of the beginning, and arrival at the final destination in the journey of life.

ITEM #8 – FInal consignment (disposition); Surface Observations: legal requirement; Symbolic Analysis: symbol of chosen finality, symbol of forced finality, symbol of final farewell, symbol of closure, symbol of the living touching death, symbol of new life, symbol of our own end.

ITEM #9 – Personal mementoes; Surface Observations: trinkets and things; Symbolic Analysis: symbol of commemorating life, symbol of attachments.

ITEM #10 – Fraternal/societa recognition; Surface Observations: none; Symbolic Analysis: symbol of ac- complishments, symbol of life themes, symbol of life interpretation, symbol of immortality.

ITEM #11 – Permanent monuments; Surface Observations: blocks of stone or bronze; Symbolic Analysis: symbolic immortality, symbol of identity, symbol of community, symbol of beliefs, symbol of relationships, symbol of history.

ITEM #12 – Urn; Surface Observations: plastic, wood or metal container; Symbolic Analysis: symbolizes organization, symbolizes an attempt to put something back together again (ashes), symbolizes portability.

Written by Todd Van Beck