There are three keys events in a person’s life when their otherwise invisible practise of religion suddenly becomes visible. Traditionally these occasions are birth, marriage and death although there are also other social events where religion may be prominent such as circumcisions, rites associated with coming of age and some pivotal moments in their education. Each of these stages is associated with some form of ritual which can involve members of the wider religious community as well as family members. In contemporary society and probably on occasions in the past, some of the religious rites associated with stages of life are omitted either because of expense or because of an increasing secularisation of society. However the religious aspects of the final rite of passage are the least likely to be abandoned both because of the conservative nature of funerary rites and because death is implicitly linked to a religiously inspired afterlife.
There are many examples where friends and colleagues are unaware of a person’s religion until an untimely death when they are confronted with the full range of funerary rituals associated with the religion and sect of the deceased. Of course the extent to which such rituals are perceived to help the relatives rather than provide intercession for the deceased varies depending on religious observance, beliefs, and community priorities. Whatever the motivation, funerals and their material manifestations are a significant component of both anthropological and archaeological investigation.
Archaeology and death has a particularly strong relationship as few other rites of passage leave such a strong and durable imprint on the material record. In fact a brief review of archaeological literature will demonstrate that a large proportion of reports, monographs and museum exhibitions are concerned with aspects of death and burial. One of the first archaeological textbooks was A Handbook of Egyptian Funerary Archaeology written by Wallis Budge, a Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum and published in 1898. In any case burials are certainly one of the most durable expressions of human culture providing a physical expression of beliefs about death and the afterlife. We just have to look to the excavation of graves at Shanidar caves in northern Iraq to provide some of the earliest evidence of ritual burial 35,000-65,000 years ago, and a fascinating insight into the civilisation that existed at that time. Another famous early example of burial is the so called Red Lady of Paviland, who is actually a man, dated to 26,000 years before the present and comprising skeletal remains covered in red ochre and accompanied by a sea shell necklace and jewellery made of mammoth ivory.