Why We Use Candlelight at Funerals

by MSO
JFK's body lying in state with casket draped in American flag.

Candles light the way for the body of President John. F. Kennedy as he lies in repose in the East Room of the White House.

Candles and other types of lights have been used for thousands of years and have been associated with funerals for almost as long. Almost every culture, race and religion has used candlelight to connect with the divine and to help the departed leave this world for the next.

The word “funeral” was derived from the Latin word “funus” which means “torch”. Early Romans believed that lights were needed at funerals to guide the departed through the darkness to the eternal light that was waiting for them.

Lights were also lit around the body or grave of a deceased person to keep evil spirits away before they had a chance to take possession of the body and reanimate it. Early cultures also believed in providing in death, what the person enjoyed in life. Along with burying people with food, drinking and eating vessels and treasures, light was also included.

In fact, archaeologists found the remains of candles in Egypt and Greece dating back to 3000 B.C.. Cicero, the early Roman philosopher and politician, ensured that his beloved daughter Tullia was buried with a light when she died in 45 BC. When her tomb was rediscovered in the 15th century in Rome a perpetual lamp was said to have still been burning fifteen centuries later. Conjecture is that this could have been possible if the fuel source may have been natural gas or oil.

Candles were also used at funerals because of early people’s fear of the dead. They believed that a candle’s flame would show the deceased that he or she was honored and remembered and so there would be no reason to haunt their families in a spirit form.

The early church used candles as a symbol of God. To integrate Christianity with the pagan customs of bringing lights to a funeral, the church declared that candles had to be made solely of wax because, “The wax, being spotless, represents Christ’s most spotless Body; the wick enclosed in it is an image of His Soul, while the glowing flame typifies the Divine Nature united with the human in one Divine Person.”

In Christian religions, during the Easter season a new candle, called the Paschal Candle, is lit with a new fire and represents the risen Christ. During a funeral the Paschal Candle is lit and placed near the casket as a reminder of the deceased’s baptismal vows and with it the flame symbolizes hope for eternal life.

In Judaism a memorial candle is lit after the death of a loved one and remains burning 24 hours a day for an entire week to help mourners remember that each person brings light into the world and that the soul is eternal.

Photo by: Abbie Rowe – wikipedia.org

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