Funeral customs provide the final chapter of most lives and allow family and friends to gather for comfort and remembrance. Some societies view death as an end and others as a transition or beginning. All have customs, many based on religious custom, to dictate the time period between death and funeral. As technology advances and transportation options improve, this period becomes more similar across cultures.
The period between death and funeral includes preparation of the body for "consignment" to its final resting place and a period of waiting to see if the "sleeper" will awake. Early societies in the Fertile Crescent and Northern Africa had little control over this time; they had to bury their dead quickly. Muslim and Jewish traditions, true to Middle Eastern roots, dictate that the body be consigned to its resting place as soon as possible after death, followed by periods of prayer and mourning. The sophisticated Egyptians perfected the art of mummification, a process that took 70 days. Similar procedures were used from China to the Andes Mountains. The physical demands of dehydration and preservation gave mourners time to invent rituals and practices that would inform succeeding generations' customs. Today, funeral directors preserve bodies for burial within hours.
The Soul's Journey
Unlike the Egyptians, who believed in physical afterlife and surrounded their dead with food and items they might need, Hindu and Buddhist faiths believed that the soul would "transmigrate" to another body at death. To this end, they allowed the dead to lie undisturbed until their soul was at peace---a process that embarked upon within a few days. After this period of respect and solitude, the soul was believed to leave the body to continue its journey. In India, bodies were cremated quickly. In much of Southeast Asia, they are still consigned to the flames or tomb with little preparation other than gentle cleaning and draping. Chinese tradition developed a ritual period of between 50 and 100 days of prayer for the dead still practised in many areas. Early Christians saw death as an entry into Paradise and followed a pattern of quick consignment of the body that persists to this day; some Christian denominations insist on a three-day pause to symbolise the death and Resurrection of Jesus. Most traditions balance a respect for the deceased, concern for a soul or spirits, and a practical need to preserve or dispose of a physical body.
Finding out what traditions exist within a family will guide how much time should elapse between death and funeral. Traditions still persist; Buddhists still request three days of solitude and Muslims still insist on immediate burial. Tradition aside, refrigeration, improved preservation science and high-speed transportation make it possible to return the departed to his or her hometown; and for the family to gather within a few days, no matter how far-flung the generations have become. Many groups maintain a period of watching (or "waking") over the body for a period of as little as an evening to several days. Some prohibit burials or funerals on specific days, such as the Sabbath in the Jewish tradition, in which families bury their dead within 24 hours. In addition, the funeral budget and family situation may limit or extend the wake period. After a day for preparation of the body and a day or two of "visitation," though, most American funerals take place from a few days to a week after death.