In today’s culture we have been trained to work hard, to strive for something better, to get things done faster and cheaper, and to not waste time on stuff that culture deems as trivial or unimportant. Unfortunately, this mindset has been applied to the concept of the funeral and the final farewell we give our cherished loved ones. As families live a less centralized life, with family members often spread out through different states, the desire has become to get everything done as quickly and painlessly as possible in order to minimize the impact on family and friends who have jobs and responsibilities, or who may have to travel to attend the service. Some families are even making complete arrangements over the phone for immediate cremation with little to no ceremony involved in the process. For many of you reading this, you may now be asking yourself, “so, what is the problem?” I am glad you asked that question!
The funeral has served six major functions since the beginning of time that go far beyond the simple task of finding something to do with our loved one’s physical shell.
First, the funeral provides a time when family and friends can come together and begin the difficult process of grasping the reality that someone they have loved dearly has died. Seeing the body, or simply receiving family and friends, allows our minds to begin to understand the permanence of our loved one’s death. Grasping this reality does a great deal to begin a person’s grieving and mourning process properly.
Second, the funeral provides a time when friends and family can come together to recall the life of a deceased loved one in a way that helps convert the relationship with that deceased loved one from a physical relationship to a more spiritual and emotional one. This time of recall allows everyone in attendance the chance to share memories of the person who has died and can help family members by providing an opportunity for the sharing of cherished remembrance rather than thoughts of regret and sadness.
Third, the funeral tells the community that someone loved in the community has died, and that their family needs support. Allowing friends, family, and acquaintances to come together in a supportive environment to lift each other up in their grief, also gives a chance for those left behind to turn their grief into mourning (the outward expression of grief).
Fourth, as mentioned above, changing grief into an expression of mourning helps prevent our sadness from becoming an unbearable weight we carry around our soul. Tears are therapeutic. Expression of the many feelings and emotions surrounding the death of a cherished loved one is vital to the beginning of a healthy grieving process.
Fifth, throughout time mankind has been on a quest for meaning. During the sadness that occurs after the death of a loved one, this search for meaning occurs asking the questions “did my loved one’s life have meaning?” and, possibly, “does my life have meaning?”. Raising these questions during moments of reflection brought about during a well thought out funeral, allows those present to determine how they want to move through their grief into their “new normal.”
Sixth, along the lines of number five, funerals allow us the chance to wake up to the things we really care about. Reflection of the life lived and our life going forward has a way of either affirming or challenging life choices, and allows us to embrace the importance of the life we live.
The funeral is less about a showy display for the community, and more about the facilitation and beginning of a healthy grieving process. Over the next few weeks we will look at how history has evolved in the art of remembering those around us who die, and how that has impacted the way our culture currently grieves.
*the information used within this article is drawn from the work of Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, PH.D., The Why of the Funeral.