Practices Surrounding the Dead in French-Speaking Belgium: Rituals in Kitlike Form

Florence Vandendorpe. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Evolution of Funeral Practices In Belgium In Recent Decades

As in other European countries, funeral practices have changed in Belgium in recent decades. In urban areas, traditional practices, including wakes, funeral hanging, mourning clothes, and funeral processions behind the hearse, have almost completely disappeared, and new practices have emerged. On the whole, this evolution can be characterized by what Jean-Hugues Déchaux (2000) calls the “intimatization” of death: Death, which previously was a public and collective event, seems to be experienced more and more in the private domain. Each person tries to give meaning to it on an individual basis and no longer publicly exhibits his or her feelings. Even the disposal of the body has become more individualized, with cremation and scattering of ashes gaining more and more in popularity. As a result, in many cases, death leaves scant or even no visible trace. Although this evolution can be considered a general tendency, it is particularly developed in urban areas from which it spreads throughout the country. It cannot, however, be observed in all places with the same intensity. In rural areas, change appears more slowly, and step by step. In some remote places, where people have little contact with the outside world, funerals still follow the traditional scheme as if time had stopped.

Much has been said and written about this evolution, which has generated a number of questions and worries. For many years, researchers in the social sciences have analyzed it in a very critical way, warning about its consequences (see, among others, Ariès 1975; Thomas 1985, 1991; Elias 1987; Javeau 1988). They have argued that the disappearance of traditional funerary practices is a sign that people nowadays refuse to confront the reality of death. This evolution was associated with a rejection of traditions and rituals, with the disappearance of religious practice and beliefs, and with the disentanglement of social and family links. Emerging funerary practices were suspected of being empty and ineffective and were accused of exposing individuals to an everlasting grief. This thesis was popular in public opinion too, and as a result several initiatives were taken to confront what was called the “taboo of death” in an attempt to “resocialize death.” This has led, for example, to (a) the setting up of discussion groups and free telephone lines where individuals are encouraged to talk about death and grief, (b) the training of specialists to help people talk about death and create new rituals, and (c) the publication of books and the organization of conferences on this issue. In France and Belgium, the development of these initiatives was so important that Louis-Vincent Thomas (1991) ironically called it “death-fancying.”

Slowly, however, probably partly as a result of these social initiatives and partly because new funerary practices became more and more widespread and socially accepted, this taboo thesis has been questioned. Some researchers, such as Tony Walter (1991, 1996a), Christian de Cacqueray (1997), Michel Vovelle (1997), and Louis-Vincent Thomas (2000) in his more recent work, argued that the taboo period was over. Others, such as Clive Seale (1995), argued that the denial of death thesis was an exaggerated interpretation that never did correspond to reality because it kept important dimensions of contemporary practices at bay. Indeed, several authors (see, e.g., Walter 1996b; Baudry 1999, 2000; Déchaux 2000) pointed to its normative aspect, and argued that it resembles a moral judgment more than an exact description of social practices. Taboo or not taboo? The debate is still open. What is clear is that in Belgium, as in neighboring countries, death-related practices have changed a lot in the past few decades, and these changes have been strongly condemned. As we shall see, however, contemporary funerary practices appear to be much more complex and meaningful than is usually imagined.

This chapter is organized into four parts. The first deals with morgues, funeral homes, and practices related to the preparation of the body in view of its last appointment with the living. The second part shows how funeral ceremonies are organized, with a special attention to the function that, in this context, is carried out by the Catholic religion and the priest. The third part deals with the disposal of the body and examines how burial and cremation take place. Finally, the fourth part gives some information on afterlife beliefs.

Morgues and Funeral Homes: A Play Around the Body

In Belgium, the body of a deceased person is usually exhibited for a few days so that relatives can come to visit it. Before being exposed, it is washed, dressed, and prepared for its last appointments with the living. Today, except for a few marginal cases, those who lay out the corpse are professionals: members of the hospital staff when death happens in a hospital, undertakers when it occurs in another place. Relatives are not offered the opportunity to take part and sometimes are even forbidden from doing so. It is seen as a professional task. As it is done today, laying out the body does not suspend the process of putrefaction. People who wished to stop this process and keep the body unchanged for a longer period previously used embalming. This practice started to develop among urban upper classes for some time, until it was officially forbidden in 2001 for ecological reasons.

Laying out the corpse is considered homage to the deceased. It aims to remove any physical damage so as to render the body its usual appearance. It may, for example, hide the marks of autopsy (which some physicians systematically request) as well as organ donation, which is legally authorized in Belgium unless the deceased has previously declared his or her opposition. It particularly hides signs of pain and anxiety so that the deceased looks peaceful and calm. When the deceased does not look like a happy sleeper who died dreaming a beautiful dream, everything is done to reestablish this image and preserve an imaginary idea of what happened, in a process similar to what Erving Goffman (1959) called “staging practices.” As demonstrated some time ago by Glaser and Strauss (1968), dead bodies never appear directly. They are first shaped by the hospital staff or undertakers to fit the collective story people want to hear. This story is that of the “good death,” which today is considered a death that provokes no pain and no physical or mental decay. This reflects the way the body is considered in our society. As Travaillot (1998) has shown, by the middle of the 1980s, the body had ceased, in France as in most Western societies, to be considered as something that had to be controlled and shaped so as to reflect the power of the mind. Since then, physical activities have been governed by new principles that relate to ideas of self-development and harmony: The body has become an important part of the self and is considered to reflect, somehow, the person’s well-being and inner maturity. As a result, physical decline and suffering have started to have very negative connotations. This appears, for example, in the ideal picture of a healthy old person used in the nursing homes studied by Magnusson (1996), where activity is encouraged to ward off physical and mental decay, regardless sometimes of the person’s wishes. If health has always been the aim of medicine, the fight against physical and mental decay can also be seen in the way old age is now considered in medicine: Specialists are called to attest that aging does not necessarily go together with physical decay and that even when this is the case, other solutions can be found to run counter to it—see, for example, the study published recently by the University of Brussels (Morais, Fery, and Kolinsky 1997). Via his or her body, a person’s identity itself is at stake.

Once the body is considered presentable, it is placed in a room where people can come for a visit. Most of the time, dead bodies are shown in funeral homes. This is due both to practical constraints (lack of space and time) and to voluntary choices: Most people nowadays do not want to keep the body at home. They do not know what to do with it, and most of the time they want to get rid of it as soon as they can. Furthermore, the vast majority of deaths today happen in hospitals and hospices. The deceased person has already been away from home for some time, and it is easier for the family to rent a room in a funeral home. In some rural areas, however, families insist on keeping the body at home until funerals take place and ask hospitals to give them the corpse as soon as possible. This, however, is not the norm. Dealing with corpses has become a task that is almost exclusively carried out by professionals. Previously responsible for a few limited aspects of funerary practices, such as the transport of the deceased from his or her bed to the grave and the production of coffins and stones, funeral directors today tend to occupy a more and more central position. They are the ones who lay out the corpse and present it in a specific room (which they provide as well); they organize all aspects of the funeral with the family and inform the priest when a religious ceremony is requested. As we shall see, they even serve as guides in ritual practices and invent new symbols and rites.

Let’s come back, however, to the presentation of the corpse. The body is generally viewed successively in different places: Family members and close intimates come to see it where the person died—for example, at home or in the morgue of the hospital. Then the body is moved into a place (usually a funeral home, sometimes a private house) where it is accessible to a larger audience. In cases when professionals think that it cannot be adequately presented (e.g., after a violent death or an accident), the coffin is closed. When the family has brought the body back home, the visit—as well as the wake when it is organized—is usually held with the coffin closed, too. Most of the time, however, the coffin is not closed, and visitors can see the body in the coffin, in the position of someone who is asleep. People are informed through death notices or obituaries of the place where they can come and visit it. Few people go, however, unless they are family members or close friends of the deceased. When the visiting is done in funeral homes, a book is placed at the entrance of the room, where visitors can write their condolences to the family. It is also common to leave a calling card.

There are many kinds of funeral homes. Some resemble a private house with different bedrooms where dead bodies are displayed, each of them in a separate room like children in the same family. Other rooms look like luxurious hostels with marble and stones. Whatever the style, funeral homes are places where people do not speak aloud. The rooms where bodies are displayed have no direct light. Most of the time, an altar candle is placed next to the coffin as well as a religious symbol that varies according to the religion of the deceased: It can be a crucifix, the torch that symbolizes secularism, the star of David. To ensure that everybody will feel at ease regardless of his or her beliefs, many places have opted for neutrality. For example, in some hospitals, the symbols of different religions are kept in a cupboard until one is chosen that suits the beliefs of the person whose body or coffin has to be exposed. In hospitals, again, personnel have been specifically trained to cope with different beliefs and practices, and books have been published to offer them guidance on this issue. These documents detail the attitudes to be adopted concerning washing the body, the position of the arms, the decoration of the room, and so on, so as to meet the requirements of the deceased’s religious community (Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, etc.). Sometimes a room is specially reserved for the ritual ablutions required by some religious communities (such as the Jewish community). Religious representatives of these communities can perform the appropriate rites there. In many places, decorations have been chosen so as to ensure that people from different religious backgrounds will feel at ease. They do not refer to a particular corpus of beliefs and avoid images that can be associated with one religious community (such as a virgin or a star). As we can see, adaptability to everyone’s beliefs is considered a right: the right everybody has to live and die according to his or her convictions. The diversity of beliefs is fully recognized and respected. It is interesting to note that a religious or civil symbol is always placed next to the coffin, even when the beliefs (or disbeliefs) of the dead person had very little place and importance in his or her life.

Traditional religious symbols are sometimes accompanied by other evocative decorations chosen or even created by funeral directors in search of new symbolic forms. These are found in very different backgrounds such as Freemasonry, Orientalism, and others. For example, in a luxurious funeral home of Brussels, geometrical shapes are painted on the walls as well as on the ground. Representations of hands, birds, eyes, and feathers are placed on official documents. In the main exhibition room, next to the place where bodies are displayed, a long tube made of transparent glass has been placed. This tube is full of water, and when the mechanism is on, bubbles can be seen inside rising to the top where there is a candlelike light. This indicates a search for meaning that leads funeral directors both to look back at tradition and to invent new symbolic forms.

The Funeral Ceremony

The last time people meet to pay homage to a deceased person before leaving the corpse is always an emotionally important time. Except in a few situations—for example, when the deceased is an indigent or an isolated person who died leaving no family—a funeral ceremony is organized. People who attend funerals are usually dressed in dark colors, although black is no longer the norm. In some conservative areas, women traditionally sit on the left and men on the right. Most of the time, however, men and women stay together. Family members sit in the first rows, friends come behind, and acquaintances stay at the back.

In urban areas, funerals are attended by relatively few people: only family members and close acquaintances of the deceased and his or her family. This, however, does not hold for well-known families and for working-class areas where the whole community comes to express its solidarity with the grieving family. In rural areas, by contrast, funerals are attended by many people—friends, neighbors, relatives, colleagues—who come to pay homage to the deceased and express their solidarity with the grieving family. The church—in the countryside, the vast majority of funerals are celebrated in a church—is often full at the beginning of the ceremony, even if sometimes at the end part of the audience has already gone: It is common to show one’s presence by coming to the funeral and leaving a calling card at the entrance of the church. But in some areas, with the exception of close friends and relatives who stay until the end of the mass, many people leave after having shown themselves to the family, which usually happens in the middle of the mass during the offertory. The offertory is a part of the Catholic funeral ceremony where people are invited to proceed one after the other to the middle of the church, approach the coffin, and kiss the crucifix or paten presented by the priest. All people present in the church take part in this ritual, even if they are not believers. But instead of going back to their seat afterward, those who do not feel very close to the family or to the deceased leave the church. To avoid the disappearance of half the audience in the middle of the service, some priests have taken to placing this procession at the end of the mass. This says a lot about the way people look at Catholic rituals today: They are adopted piecemeal. As we shall see, this is in fact acknowledged by the Church and the priests who, somehow, have adapted themselves to it.

During most funeral ceremonies, people receive a souvenir, generally a photo of the deceased, accompanied by the dates of his or her birth and death as well as a poem, a few sentences, or a religious text chosen by the family. These are distributed during the offertory to thank the audience for their presence and support.

Back on the Way to Church

Of the population living in Belgium, 80% have been baptized according to the Catholic ritual. Baptism, first communion, and marriage are still largely celebrated at church: In 1998, 64.7% of newborn children were baptized (in Brussels, however, the proportion falls to 23.4%), and 49.2% of marriages were celebrated at church. As Liliane Voyé (1996) has shown, however, these figures reflect more a desire to affirm family unity and search for rites to celebrate important periods of life than a real adhesion to Catholic religious beliefs. Indeed, regular religious practice has dropped to 11.2% in 2001 according to the Catholic Episcopal Centre; according to other sources, this figure would even be less. And still, although most of the Belgian population does not practice religion any more, most families want funerals to be presided over by a priest; 77.2% of funerals celebrated in 1998 were religious. The same situation can be observed in France, where according to Vibert (2000) 1 person in 10 attends mass, whereas 8 in 10 require Catholic funerals for themselves or will go to church to accompany a deceased person. Several reasons may be invoked to explain this paradox.

First, in Belgium, death mostly involves the older generations. In 1999, people who were 65 years old or more accounted for 80.5% of deaths. Of these, 43.3% were over 80 (De Cock 2001). The waning of religious practice essentially concerns younger generations, whereas many elderly people still attend mass or consider themselves believers even if they do not practice very often. When an elderly person dies, even if his or her family does not believe or practice any more, out of respect for the deceased’s beliefs they will usually choose a religious mass. As we have seen, after his or her death the deceased continues to be considered as a person with specific beliefs, and relatives do their best to ensure that these beliefs are taken into consideration. This sometimes leads to uncommon situations, with the family, for example, telling the priest,

I do not believe, and nobody in the family does any more. But mother was religious, and out of respect for her we want a religious funeral. However, it does not really matter what you do; do it as you like. The only thing we want is mother to be celebrated at church.

Another reason for the popularity of religious funerals may be what Grace Davie (1994) calls “the discrepancy between believing and belonging” (p. 106). Nowadays, many people who believe in God do not practice religion anymore. This can be explained in part by the mistrust of institutional life, which in urban areas is very common. Church as an institution is disregarded, and going to church is considered a hypocritical practice that does not make sense anymore. Believing has become private and individual, and it is experienced outside the walls of the church. As a result, even though religious practice cannot be seen as much as it was in the past, there are still many people who believe, even if they never attend mass. It is interesting to see that in Belgium, this situation is combined with its opposite: “belonging without believing,” or rather “practicing without believing,” as seems to be the case in Denmark as well (Riis 1996). Even if they do not consider themselves believers, most Belgians who are adults today were educated with a Catholic background. They have attended Catholic rites, they are used to them, and even if some do not believe at all in these rituals, they still opt for them because there are not many alternatives. Although funeral directors, secularist counselors, and crematoria directors spend a lot of energy and considerable imagination to create new funeral rituals adapted to nonbelievers and other persons who do not recognize themselves as part of the Catholic Church, most people still turn to the church when someone dies. They consider that something is missing in nonreligious rites, even if they cannot always say what and why—something that they say can be found in Catholic ceremonies. They therefore choose a ritual in which they do not necessarily believe. The church is used as a framework in which rituals are found, rituals that do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of those who perform them. We will come back to this point later.

As a result, many people who go to church for a funeral do not practice any more, and some of them do not even believe in God. However, they go nonetheless, and if some of them participate in the mass from afar, others actively take part and perform ritual actions—such as kissing the crucifix during the offertory—that do not always make sense for them. Albert Piette (1999) has argued that far from being an exception, discrepancy between the practice of rituals and adhesion to the meaning they are supposed to bear is a relatively common situation. It seems that nowadays this has become commonplace. During funerals, most people who attend the mass have not been in church for a long time. They watch in silence, but many do not know what to do and what to say. They have no idea what the rite is about. To reduce the embarrassment these situations produce, some families opt for a Catholic funeral without Holy Communion. In some areas, two funerals out of five follow this reduced schedule. This, however, rarely happens in the countryside where people are more attached to traditional rites. Whatever the schedule of the ceremony they choose, families generally have very little idea of what a funeral mass is and how it is organized. Some priests therefore spend time explaining before and sometimes even during the mass what they are doing and why. They tell the audience that they are not obliged to do things—such as kissing the crucifix or the paten—if they do not believe in it and suggest that they do something else instead. They indicate when to sit and when to stand. I met a funeral director who enters the church with the family and sits next to them in the first row. This allows him to show everybody what to do and when. He indicates where to go, sings the songs, and prays at the correct time. In so doing, he guides the assembly, which, he says, would otherwise be lost. Of course, not all priests and funeral directors have such an open attitude. Some celebrate the mass as if nothing has changed.

The Catholic Church has adapted itself remarkably to this new situation, which it is conscious of and fully accepts. The Church knows that a significant part of the audience takes part in a ritual that they look at with scepticism and distance, feeling external to it. The Church has therefore adapted its practices accordingly. This evolution is not specific to Belgium. It has also been observed in France where Jean-Claude Besanceney (1997) has shown how Catholic rituals, which were previously centered on the deceased and his or her afterlife, today also take into consideration the situation of relatives, including their sadness. Priests, indeed, are conscious that the religious texts and gestures do not have much meaning for a large part of the assembly, which, therefore, they seek to involve by creating warm and human ceremonies in which each individual can introduce words or gestures meaningful for himself or herself. They give families the choice between several texts, both religious and nonreligious, even if the ceremony is celebrated at church. This again is justified by the principle of respect: Whatever the beliefs of the people we help, we respect them. Taking into consideration the fact that many people who choose a Catholic mass do not practice any more, books have been published that offer a choice of secular texts to help priests adapt themselves to these new needs. This indicates, once more, that the Catholic ceremony has become a framework within which people seek something—something not necessarily related to the Word of God.

Note, however, that even if the vast majority of funerals today are celebrated with a Catholic ceremony, this may change in future. In a recent survey, only 59.3% of young adults (aged between 25 and 35) said they would opt for a religious ceremony, compared with 72.8% of older ones (from 45 to 55). In the same groups, 22.5% and 12.3%, respectively, were in favor of a nonreligious ceremony, and 14.0% and 9.6% said they would rather have no ceremony at all. When funerals are celebrated without a religious ceremony, they are prepared and orchestrated by civil counselors or funeral directors. In the crematorium of Brussels, this was the case in 36.4% of funerals held in 2002.

Funeral Ceremonies in a Crematorium

Although going to church to celebrate funerals still remains the norm, a growing number of funeral ceremonies today are celebrated in a crematorium, especially in urban areas. Cremation in Belgium was first promoted by non-Catholic individuals—mostly Freemasons—who strongly reacted against the institutional power of the Church and tried to create new funerary practices adapted to the needs and beliefs of atheists. Although today cremation is no longer selected only by people who have anti-clerical views, this particular historical context can still be seen in the elements used to decorate the crematorium: Because cremation was primarily thought of as an alternative to Catholic funerals, it had to create its own settings, rituals, and symbols. Some were taken from the Masonic tradition; others were invented. We therefore find frequent occurrences of geometrical shapes such as lozenges, circles, and triangles painted on the walls, the ground, and the doors of crematoria. Original materials are sometimes chosen as well to give the place a particular atmosphere. In some places, great use is made of wood and marble; flowers and plants are used for decoration, and water is also present—for example, in the form of aquaria. The atmosphere created in this way tends to give a feeling of quietness and permanence, as if life is always present and is not affected by death. As Seale (1998) has shown, these elements have been chosen to evoke the possibility that death is not the end of life but that something will possibly come afterward. It is interesting to note that like the decorations chosen in recent morgues and funeral homes, they do not refer to a specific religious system but are relatively open so that they can be meaningful for everyone, whatever his or her beliefs.

When funeral ceremonies take place in a crematorium, they are generally limited by the crematorium schedule to 15 or 20 minutes unless the family pays extra (which is rarely the case). They follow a standard scheme that has been decided on by the crematorium director. Like those held in a church, crematoria ceremonies are generally organized in collaboration with families. The crematorium staff offers to meet the families a few days in advance to prepare the ceremony and suggests that the family choose the texts and music according to their wishes. A celebrant is proposed according to their beliefs: a priest, a civil counselor, a crematorium employee, for example. Here again, the symbols (e.g., the crucifix, the star of David, the torch for secularism) of each community are kept in a particular place from where the crematorium employees select the appropriate symbol and place it next to the coffin before a ceremony begins.

Everything is done to ensure that the beliefs of the dead will be respected. Depending on the needs of the family, the crematorium employees take a more or less active role. They contact the celebrant and tell him or her what to do if the family so wishes, they suggest some music or texts, and they even help the family to prepare the ceremony when this is requested.

Crematoria nowadays cannot therefore be considered only as technical places where practical questions related to the cremation are dealt with. The role they are taking today goes beyond these technical aspects to cover all needs involved with cremation, including the social (a meeting room for the family and close relatives, a place to eat and give and receive condolences while the cremation takes place) and the symbolic. They do their best to address what they consider a need for symbolization and rituals. For example, the crematorium of Brussels proposes four texts that attempt to address the need for meaning that death requires. These texts are based on the following themes: the journey, fire, absence/presence, and religion. One of these texts can be read during the ceremony by a member of the crematorium staff if the family so wishes. At the end of each ceremony, the crematorium staff members give a flower to each of the participants to place on the coffin before leaving. When the urn containing the ashes is returned to the family, they organize a small ceremony, too. Efforts also have been made to decorate the lawn where ashes are scattered in a symbolic way. In Brussels, this place has been called “Parc de la Souvenance” (which in English can be translated as “Garden of Remembering”) and has been organized in such a way that it includes evocations of the four basic elements (water, air, earth, and fire).

The fact that funeral directors and crematoria today try to create new rituals and symbols to offer an alternative for those who do not wish to go to church raises questions for many anthropologists: Is it possible to invent a ritual? Can a ritual be reduced to a combination of gestures, words, and symbolic objects organized according to a determined schedule? Can we consciously and intellectually decide that these or those actions will have an effect as rituals? Several anthropologists have criticized this view. Albert Piette (1999) and Patrick Baudry (2000), for example, have shown that a ritual cannot be reduced to the meaning it is supposed to have. A ritual is essentially an action, an action that in itself is meaningful. The act of performing a ritual makes sense for those who accomplish it and who do not even question themselves as to the meaning it may have. The professionals who attempt to create new rituals tend to forget sometimes that “there are other activities than rational ones, and the actions which individuals perform do not always have a conscious and thoughtful meaning for them” (Piette 1999:27). That these practices have more and more success today, however, seems to indicate that at least part of the audience is able to appropriate what is done and find some comfort therein.

Pressure Toward Personalization and Participation

In some cases, the funeral has been entirely scheduled by the deceased, who even chooses the content of the ceremony and in rare cases decides who will be present and who will not. These, however, are exceptional cases. Most of the time, the ceremony is orchestrated by the celebrant. For example, when the family has asked for a Catholic ceremony, the funeral director informs the priest, who then contacts the family and fixes a time when he can visit them and prepare the celebration. In urban areas, the priest rarely knows the deceased or his or her family. The area he is responsible for is so large and people who attend the Sunday mass are so few that he often meets them for the first time. One of the priest’s aims then will be to find out some information about the deceased. Contrary to what was done in the past, the ceremony today gives indeed an important place to the deceased person. It starts with a few words about his or her life and praises his or her qualities and accomplishments. It also contains a certain number of texts chosen by the relatives, and the objective of many priests is to help the family to choose the texts that best represent the person they mourn. To this aim, they often invite close relatives to write a personal text that they can read during the ceremony.

This tendency toward personalizing ceremonies is well-known among those who study funerals in Europe. It stems from the idea that each individual has to develop himself or herself independently and express his or her ideas according to the principle of authenticity. It has been described notably in France (Déchaux, Hanus, and Jesu 1998; Thomas, 2000). The following advertisement, used by the Co-operative Funeral Bond in Britain, shows that it is also very common there:

It is a thoughtful and responsible way of showing concern for your family. It means decisions can be made calmly and dispassionately now, so that at the emotional time of your family’s loss, your known wishes will be fully respected … Every person is different. Every funeral can be too. It should be a reflection of the individual.

Besides this tendency to personalize ceremonies, another principle that governs ceremonies today is that of participation. It is thought that the more relatives involve themselves in the ceremony, the more beautiful and respectful it will be. As a result, professionals who are responsible for the organization of the ceremony (e.g., priests, civil counselors, crematorium employees) generally ask the family to involve themselves in the preparation of the funeral. They invite them to choose the music, they suggest that a text be read by a child, and so on. Most families, however, do not wish to be involved in the service and do not know what to do. Those who like to participate are used to expressing themselves, which is surely not the case for the majority. As has already been shown (see, e.g., Déchaux et al. 1998; Vandendorpe 1999), the pressure toward personalization and diversification of ceremonies reflects a new norm that does not suit everybody equally. On the contrary, although it meets the needs of families of higher social standing who share the idea of individual expression as an aim, it does not meet those of other families whose means of expression are more limited and who do not expect the mass to be organized by anybody other than the priest. Very often, when they are asked to select a text for the ceremony, people reply, “I don’t know anything about this. I trust your judgment.” They have no idea what they would like to hear or say, and the question itself is meaningless to them.

When Catholic Volunteers Take the Place of the Priest

In Belgium, as in other European countries, there is a growing shortage of priests: Only half of the priest positions were fully occupied in 2000. Priests therefore cannot be present at all celebrations as they were in the past. They try to attend as much as they can, and when they cannot go somewhere, someone else has to be found to take their place. To address this problem, the Church has looked for alternative solutions, one of which is the training of Catholic volunteers. Men and women who are willing to assist people in funerals and grief participate in training in which they are taught how to organize a Catholic celebration with grieving families and how to listen to them. They are shown how to construct a schedule for the ceremony and how to orchestrate it in situ. According to the needs, and according to the way the priest sees his role and theirs in the parish, Catholic volunteers play a more or less important role in the celebration. In some areas, they preside at the ceremony and fully replace the priest. In this case, the ceremony is conducted without Holy Communion because this can be given only by the priest. The role and presence of Catholic volunteers in funerals will most probably increase over time because there is no reason for the need to diminish in the future. Even if some families are reluctant to have the ceremony presided over by someone other than the priest, the presence of Catholic volunteers seems to be accepted and, on the whole, understood. Some people even declare that the contact they have with volunteers is more open and warmer than that with the priest, whom in urban areas most people do not know.

The New Function of Funeral Ceremonies

The themes developed above show the current diversification of ceremonies, which in some cases, are presented in kitlike forms: Families have the choice between several celebrants; they can choose the place, the texts that will be read, the music, and the length of the service. With or without the Holy Communion? With or without the priest? With or without a ceremony at church? It resembles a model they have to build. This evolution of the way ceremonies are prepared reflects that what people seek in a funeral ceremony has changed. On this topic, the survey Jean-Pierre Hiernaux and I carried out in 1998 (Hiernaux, Vandendorpe, and Legros 2000) provides interesting data: Both sets of respondents, between 25 and 35 years old, and between 45 and 55, gave very little credit to the idea that the ceremony should ensure the access of the deceased to eternal life (only 6.7% selected this possibility in the first group, and 8.7% in the second group). More than half the individuals from both groups considered that the major function of the funeral ceremony was “to pay homage to a unique individual by expressing what she/he had contributed.” Finally, more than 30.0% of individuals from both groups believe the funeral ceremony is held for the benefit of the relatives. We see that if they believe that there is any kind of afterlife for the deceased person, people no longer believe that this afterlife depends on what is done or said during the funeral mass. The ceremony instead is seen as an opportunity to pay homage to the deceased person and to help the living cope with their grief.

Religion today is no longer the framework in which funeral ceremonies are organized; it constitutes only a part of a ritual that also contains other elements. Furthermore, the church is a place where people go for very different reasons than faith. Many are not sure they believe in what is said; they do not even know what the rite is about. But still, for different reasons, this is the best place they have found to celebrate a death, and therefore they go. The Catholic ritual in this case appears like a tool people can select or reject according to their wishes. They can even select which parts of the Mass they want to keep and which ones they want to reject (e.g., Holy Communion, religious texts).

This indicates how much the role and position of the Catholic Church in our society has evolved. Reduced to a professional who can be rented for an hour, replaced sometimes by Catholic volunteers, what remains of the function the priest previously had? In case of ceremonies organized in a crematorium, the priest often has to wait in a backstage room until the crematorium employees tell him when to enter. The role he occupies in such situations is very limited; when the ceremony is organized by the crematorium staff, funeral directors, or Catholic volunteers, his function seems to be almost reduced to what could be called “the Word of God’s man.” He is someone people call on to perform specific actions and who is paid for his task. Is he still necessary at all? In England, a survey has been done on this issue by Davies (1990), who observed that 25.0% of the population was not opposed to having funerals presided over by someone who was not member of the clergy. In Belgium, because there is no other possibility, this has become the norm in some places such as Auderghem (Brussels), where all Catholic funerals are presided over by volunteers.

Disposal of the Body

Burial Ceremonies

In Belgium, burial has long been the only way of disposing of the body. Today, although cremation has increased markedly during the last few years, burial still remains the most common practice. The burial generally takes place immediately after the funeral ceremony, in the presence of the family and close relatives. Because of time constraints, priests no longer always assist, but when they do, they say a prayer in front of the grave. When they are not present, this is generally done by funeral directors who organize a short ceremony. It is common, for example, to distribute a flower to each participant and ask them to proceed around the grave and throw it over the coffin.

The corpse is buried horizontally in the ground. The coffin is placed in either an individual grave, a collective vault, or a semicollective grave in the case of indigents. In urban areas, graves are more and more individualized. In rural areas, by contrast, collective vaults are still the norm, and they are reserved for family purposes: They contain the corpses of members from the same family. Since 1998, according to the law, collective vaults can contain the bodies of close friends. This reflects how the position occupied by family in our society varies according to place and to time. Still the reference in rural areas, where the bodies of deceased are often brought back and buried in the village where they came from even if they left the place many years before, the family is only one part of a social network in urban areas where chosen relationships are given more importance. The grave can be rented for up to 50 years. It is usually covered with a tombstone and a cross. It is common to decorate it with a small photo of the deceased as well as a short poem or prayer. The name of the deceased, as well as the date of his or her birth and death, is carved on the stone.

After the burial, people usually gather in a place where sandwiches and drinks are offered. These moments are not necessarily sad. Covered with flowers after the death, graves are usually well looked after in the countryside. They tend, in contrast, to be visited less and less with time in urban areas. Every year, however, when the “Day of the Dead” (Jour des Morts in French) arrives on November 2, all cemeteries drown in hundreds of flowers that overflow the graves and often pile up in the paths.


Although legal in Belgium since 1971, cremation has long remained marginal in this country where the norm has been the burial of the corpse. More recently, however, cremation has become more widespread. Since 1981, the number of cremations in Belgium has increased by a factor of five (7,170 cremations were carried out in 1981 compared with 36,678 in 2001). In 2001, 35.17% of the deceased were cremated. In some cities like Gent, Antwerp and Brussels, cremation has become the norm. It is more developed in Flanders than in Wallonia, where most of the deceased are still buried. According to the survey we conducted in 1998, the choice in favor of burial among French-speaking individuals will, however, reduce with time. Whereas 50.6% of the 45- to 55-year-olds were in favor of burial (compared with 38.5% in favor of cremation), this difference decreases to 45.2% versus 40.5% among the younger generation (aged 25 to 35).

First promoted by nonbelievers who were in search of new funeral practices separate from the church, cremation is still chosen today by most nonbelievers. It also attracts more and more believers, however. In the survey we conducted, 37.0% of the people who favored cremation said they did not believe in any kind of afterlife, but 28.0% said they believed the soul goes to Heaven for eternity. Although most of the nonbelievers declared that they would opt for cremation (selected by 59.0% compared with 25.0% in favor of burial), cremation was also selected by many believers who do not practice (selected by 35.0% compared with 58.0% in favor of burial), and became marginal only among regular churchgoers (only 19.0% selected cremation compared with 64.0% who chose burial). This shows that this practice is no longer related to a specific (non)religious faith.

Sometimes preceded by a ceremony at church or in a private place, cremation may also be done without any ritual. In this case, the coffin is brought to the crematorium by the funeral director’s staff who afterward return the urn containing the ashes to the family or scatter them on the lawn. In most cases, however, family members and close relatives accompany the coffin to the crematorium where a short ceremony takes place before the cremation itself. After the cremation process, which takes about one and a half hours, there are several options. The family has the choice of scattering the ashes on the lawn, scattering the ashes in the sea, burying the ashes with the urn in the cemetery, or placing the urn in a columbarium. Since 2001, if the deceased has declared in favor of this choice on paper beforehand, it is also possible for the family to take the urn for conservation, spreading, or inhumation in another place. In Britain, where spreading of the ashes of remains is more ancient and more common, the spreading of ashes in locations of relational significance is considered by Davies (1997) as a kind of private postmodern rite. In Belgium, however, as this practice is still marginal; it is too early to see which function it will take.

In 2002, most ashes were scattered (80.5% of funerals done at the crematorium of Brussels). In our survey, scattering of the ashes was selected by the vast majority of respondents, too: 81.0% of those aged between 25 and 35, and 75.3% of those aged between 45 and 55. Only 8.0% of the respondents said they would like the ashes to be placed in a columbarium; this, however, represents 15.5% of the cremations in Brussels today. In Brussels, again, 4.0% of ashes were buried in 2002. Apart from a few flowers that people leave on the lawn at the end of the ceremony, and except for the little commemorative plaques some choose to leave on walls at the entrance to cemeteries, a ceremony of scattering generally leaves no visible trace.

Beliefs In the Afterlife

The current diversity of practices related to the disposal of the body reflects the diversity of beliefs regarding the afterlife. If a significant percentage of people still believe that the soul of the deceased goes to the kingdom of Heaven for eternity (23.0% of individuals aged between 25 and 35 years and 34.0% of those between 45 and 55 according to our survey), other ways of representing the afterlife have much success as well. For many people today, if there is any survival after death, this relates only to some aspects of the deceased (which, for example, may be referred to in terms of vital energy or spirit), and this cannot be considered as the survival of the person itself. Of the people we interviewed, 16.0% said they believed in a spiritual survival on earth: The deceased person still survives in the form of spirit, energy, or simple consciousness that may be incarnated again. Belief in reincarnation is adopted by individuals who consider themselves Catholic believers (5.7% of those who practice and 18.8% of those who do not) as well as by nonbelievers (18.9%).

The do-it-yourself and syncretic aspect of contemporary religious beliefs is well-known among those who study religion in Belgium and elsewhere in Western Europe. Danièle Hervieu-Léger (1997), for example, has shown how individuals today borrow and reinterpret beliefs and representations from different religious backgrounds to build their own religious package. It seems that, a priori, no beliefs are mutually exclusive. New religious beliefs generally tend to present life as a personal quest for inner development and offer a perspective of healing and unity between body and soul. Note that belief in reincarnation is only one example of representations of the afterlife, which may also take other forms. Some people consider, for example, that survival after death takes no spiritual form but a physical one, parts of the human body (organic parts and energy) being naturally recycled in other forms.

For some authors, these beliefs indicate the inability of our society to consider death as a limit to life (see, e.g., Thomas 1991; Déchaux 1997; Baudry 1999). Others (such as Hiernaux, cited in Hiernaux et al. 2000) consider that they reflect the growing success of new symbolic representations that will progressively replace former traditional religions. What is clear is that these beliefs are well articulated regarding the practice of cremation. Indeed, cremation is sometimes considered a practice that facilitates or even conditions after-death survival. The fire, for example, is thought to contribute to the separation of spirit and body. It also symbolizes the revival of the spirit into another global dimension. The spreading of ashes is easily associated with the idea that after death individuals will get mixed into the universe or into nature, to combine with other elements and give birth to new lives. This is particularly clear when ashes are spread over the sea, which has so often been considered a symbol of maternity.


The above discussion has shown how funeral practices are evolving in Belgium today. Even if they do not necessarily include the same texts and the same rituals as before, most funeral ceremonies are prepared with much care. The same is true with dead bodies, which are still carefully laid out and prepared even if those who wash and display them are no longer the relatives. Cremation as well, which has so often been associated with death denial because it generally leaves no visible trace, is not incompatible with elaborated rituals. Black suits have been replaced by gray ones; sometimes a civil counselor, a Catholic volunteer, or a funeral director has taken the place of the priest, but that does not mean that people do not pay attention to what they do. Practices have only changed and do not take place any more as they used to in the past. We have seen (a) the central role occupied nowadays by funeral directors and crematoria who progressively try to cover symbolic needs as well; (b) the general pressure toward personalization of ceremonies that pushes families to take an active part; (c) the changing use of Catholic rituals, which in this context are somehow instrumentalized; (d) the adoption of neutrality regarding religious beliefs in recent funeral homes, hospitals, and crematoria as a mark of respect for individuals’ beliefs; and (e) the growing success of cremation and its articulation with new beliefs relating to the afterlife. This evolution reflects the changes that have affected Belgian society in recent decades—a society in which the individual tends to be considered more and more as the only one responsible for his or her life, his or her beliefs, and his or her death. This somehow has become the last point on which everyone still agrees: the right for each individual to do things as he or she likes. As a result, respect for everyone’s ideas and beliefs has become the major principle according to which many things are organized, including religious rituals.

It is perhaps useful, finally, to remember that at the occasion of death, many actions take place that do not necessarily have an official and public aspect. Family members and close relatives call each other and meet to talk about the deceased and prepare the funerals. Initiatives do not necessarily end with the funeral ceremony but sometimes take place afterward as well. Some families, for example, organize a second Mass 1, 5 or even 10 years after the death to pay homage to the deceased; others will organize a dinner and invite close friends of the deceased; some will ensure that the projects of the deceased will eventually come to reality even if it takes a few years. In focusing on the official practices, we probably too often forget to take into consideration these spontaneous ones, which suggest that the official offers access only to a limited aspect of contemporary funeral practices. By doing this, we can have only a partial knowledge of social practices that often take place over a longer period of time. Such moments, however, are more difficult to observe because they take place in the very heart of intimacy. They are not planned in advance and are generally very small scale. They undoubtedly deserve further study to improve our understanding of modern attitudes toward death.