It is thought that Kent started this painting about 1908 on Monhegan Island, Maine, one of the artist’s favorite sites. The landscape in the background recalls the headlands in Kent's other Monhegan paintings, and the subject matter and composition compare with other works done about the same time, also on Monhegan. In this burial scene, the figures form a shallow band resembling a frieze that stretches the length of the canvas. The composition recalls that of the friezes found on classical architecture, which Kent had studied closely.
The painting was first exhibited in New York in April of 1911 and received rave reviews. Critics cited the unusual blending of quotations from classical art with a modern sensibility and style. Duncan Phillips, who recognized this polarity in Kent's work, stated that Kent was "at heart a Greek but with many modern complications." Kent's early architectural training, which undoubtedly included the study of Greek and Roman monuments, may have inspired the composition of the frieze. In fact, the undulating line of the mourners' arms and hands, the presence and placement of the children, and the draped clothing suggest the processional frieze on the Augustan Ara Pacis (“Altar of Peace”) in Rome.
When Kent first exhibited the painting, both critics and other artists noted that Kent’s painting shared the poetic universality and vaguely Greek aspect of compositions by the contemporaneous painter, Arthur B. Davies. Phillips, who also saw an affinity with Davies, observed: "There is a sense of resignation to fate in many of Davies's pictures inspired by Greek tragedies and in Rockwell Kent's dirge… entitled 'Burial of a Young Man'. In that American masterpiece we feel the inevitable working of an absolute will against which the rebellious spirit of youth is of no avail." When he purchased the somber Burial of a Young Man in 1918, Phillips was undoubtedly responding in part to the recent deaths of both his father and brother in the 1918 influenza epidemic, and also to the horrors of World War I.