British Burial Traditions
Looking at burial and funeral rites from
the stone age until today.
Created by CPJ Field and Co.
• In Stone Age Britain from around 4000 BC, the
dead were buried in chambered tombs alongside
the rest of their families or other members of
• The chambers were constructed as barrows (or
large mounds of stone or timbers) and had a
forecourt where the burial rituals were observed.
• This type of burial often served to unite the
community as it brought together members of
the sparsely populated land.
• Approximately 1000 years later, passage graves
developed.These graves were built out of a
mound of earth or stone with one entrance.
• They consist of a number of chambers, and are
most commonly found in a cross shape.
• Passage graves are also known as passage tombs,
and they have also been identified in Ireland,
Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands.
• Some of those found have been decorated with
• The Iron Age influenced burials differently in
many of Britain’s regions.
• Archaeologists have found examples of
numerous styles of burial rituals ranging from
cremation which was commonplace to the
unique style of chariot burials where the
deceased was buried with his chariot, horses
• Interestingly, many burials in Roman Britain were
not burials at all.The bodies of the deceased
were cremated on a wood-pyre located near to
where the ashes would be buried.
• Cremation saw the ashes placed in a pot with
some of their possessions and valuables which
was then buried.
• The growth of Christianity in Roman Britain
influenced burial styles with the first examples of
graveyards, which included religious paintings and
• The Anglo-Saxon period saw a growth of both
cremations and burials but scholars have
noted that there was huge variation in styles
of this period.
• Bodies were found in a number of positions
including face up and face down, as well as in
deep and shallow graves and typically with the
head facing to the west.
• The burial styles of theVikings during their time
in Britain did not differ greatly from the way the
existing population buried their dead.
• Evidence shows that they practiced both burials
and cremations, and that frequently they were
buried with possessions such as embroidery,
swords and nails.
• There are a number of burial mounds throughout
the UK that have been identified as belonging to
• Plague swept through Europe beginning in the
14th century and lasted until the 18th century.
• During this time, as the number of victims
continued to rise, existing burial grounds became
full and pits were dug to contain the infected
bodies of the dead.
• These burials were well organised and often
included physicians directing the process, working
with drivers who moved bodies day and night.
• Tudor England saw a few new styles of burial,
including Heart-burial, in which the heart is
removed from the deceased and buried
separately to the rest of the corpse.
• Before burial, the body would be washed,
wrapped in a sheet and placed inside the coffin. It
would be adorned with flowers or herbs.
• Generally, a feast would be held and money
would be distributed to the poor. For families
with little money to spare, the feast would be
limited to ale and cakes.
• In the 17th Century, funerals and burials were
becoming more structured and included the
ringing of a bell.There were nine rings for a man,
six for a woman and three rings for a child, and
then one ring for each year of the deceased life.
• Mourning clothes were worn to trick returning
spirits into not recognising those attending.
• A searcher, often a highly regarded person in the
community, would be summoned to determine
the cause of the death.
• In the 18th century, gift favours were added to
the typical funeral rituals.They were tied in silk
and distributed to the mourners.
• Of course, funerals differed greatly in their
design depending on the wealth of the
individual being buried. Many of the aspects of
the burial ritual were dependent on the social
stature of the deceased.
• By the 19th century, mourning had developed a
complex set of rules, including wearing mourning
clothes.Widows, friends and acquaintances wore
different levels for different lengths of time and
servants wore black arm bands.
• Increasingly, photographs of the dead were taken
as a way to create the last visual remembrance of
the person.These were frequently displayed in
the drawing room.
• Green burials have become popular in the UK,
particularly since 1990 when a funeral director
in Carlisle called for the government to react
to the United Nations' Environmental Program
Local Agenda 21, which focuses on
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