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Did funerals in this period serve any purpose other than 'to display and reinforce the social distinctions of the dead'?

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Introduction

Ashley Wicken Did funerals in this period serve any purpose other than 'to display and reinforce the social distinctions of the dead'? Fundamentally, the funeral is the disposing of a corpse hygienically underground. Of course it also provided a place where individuals could mourn their loss. However, the English funeral during both the late medieval and early modern period also projected certain religious, as well as socio-economic and political beliefs. Changes to the role, nature and appearance of the funeral did take place during this period but peoples experience of this varied; according to social class, and location. Death is universal and ignores social status; it removes the mystic of superiority surrounding those of high social standing. The funeral on the other hand is an attempt to re-establish and re-affirm this mystic, broken by death, through use of status symbols and gestures. In other words the funeral was used, primarily in this period to reinforce social hierarchies. The underlying function of the funeral was the placing of the rotting body into the ground, 'ashes to ashes dust to dust'. The importance of this aspect of the funeral was hygienic; a rotting corpse would spread disease and often smelt very bad. The emphasis placed upon this is interesting and can be illustrated with reference to an example from Cressy, the vicar of Raynham, Essex, in 1624 allowed a body to rot for three days before burial, he was charged with negligence1. Overall 70% of bodies were buried within three days 90% within four2. ...read more.

Middle

The dirge, or office of the dead ended, which at one time would be sung at the funeral, and if they could afford it for days or weeks after the funeral and on anniversaries. Post-reformation priests would now sing from scripture about the passing of worldly possessions, also teaching of resurrection in a transformed state. However to suggest that the English experience of the reformation was universal is too simplistic. The process was gradual with regional differences persisting across the country for different periods of time. Edward VI attempted to end bell ringing after and during funerals, however Cressy's Study of ecclesiastical administration uncovered local variations, in Kent 1562 three peals in burials were given this was seen as excessive but not illegal, whilst in Yorkshire the bell was not tolled at all. This regional inconsistency was typical of the experience of the reformation, because the attitude of local priest played such an important role in the ceremony. In general terms however it is possible to argue that before the reformation, fear of avoidance of purgatory was a feature of the funeral and so the funeral served religious functions. While after the reformation, to varying levels, religious aspects to the funeral were abandoned. Although relatively speaking the funeral, as Llewellyn argues became more about social status and less about religion after the reformation, it also became increasingly private, as Cressy points out the aristocratic funeral became less about impressing all of society and more about impressing other elites. ...read more.

Conclusion

Again symbolic of the succession and farewell, and sympathetic towards the new age. The importance of succession is illustrated with reference to the funerals of Women. The aristocratic lady received no such grand funeral; Anne Fortescuein's in June 1518 cost little over �39, a relatively insignificant amount. The lack of pomp at female funerals is a clearly illustrates that when no title or social hierarchy is in question, the funeral takes a very different form to those where it does. The funeral acted to reaffirm the social status of families of high social standing. Throughout this period pomp typified the wedding of the rich, whilst simplicity those of the poor. The funeral offered a place of hygienic disposal, mourning, satisfaction of certain religious duties to the dead, as well as more importantly the reinforcement of social status, between both rich and poor and internally by rank. The events of the reformation effected the relative importance of these factors, for example it reduced the importance of region to the funeral, as well as moving the funeral, gradually, from the public to the private sphere, however throughout the funeral offered a medium of maintaining the status quo by reinforcing social divisions, weather between or inside of class's. Finally we should note the importance of the separation of the social and physical body in order to reinforce this continued division. The English were famed for their grand funerals, the main purpose of which was to reinforce social, political and economic hierarchies. ...read more.

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