Funerals are much more than just a moment when the family gathers together to honour the life of one of their loved ones. They are an integral part of the grieving process. The following resources are articles written by Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, an internationally renowned author, educator and grief counselor. These articles explain the importance of funerary rites and the needs of the bereaved, while explaining how a family can customize a funeral service in a meaningful way.
Why funeral rituals are important
(By Alan D. Wolfelt)
Rites are symbolic practices that help us and our families and friends express our deepest thoughts and feelings about the major events in life. Baptisms celebrate the birth of a child and entry into the family of the church. Birthday parties honour the passing of another year in the life of a person we love. Marriages publicly affirm the private love shared by two people.
Funeral rites are a public, traditional and symbolic way to express our beliefs, thoughts and emotions about the death of a loved one. The funerals, an ancient practice and symbol, help us recognize the reality of death, pay homage to the deceased’s life, promote a way of expressing pain in accordance with cultural values, offer support to the bereaved, allow them to embrace their faith and beliefs about life and death, and offer continuity and hope to the survivors.
Unfortunately, our culture avoids mourning and, to a large extent, has forgotten these essential funeral goals. As an educator and counselor for the bereaved, I am very concerned that individuals, families and, ultimately, society as a whole will suffer if we do not attach importance to the funeral rites they deserve. This article examines the benefits associated with lost funerals as a result of the tendency to reject symbols.
I found that a good way to explain the purpose of authentic funerals is to place them in the context of the “reconciliation needs associated with bereavement”, which other writers call “grieving tasks”. There are six reconciliation needs, and, in my opinion, they are of paramount importance in the grieving process. In other words, bereaved people who meet these needs with the love and compassion of those around them are better able to accept their grief and continue to enjoy life.
This is how authentic funerals contribute to the satisfaction of the six reconciliation needs associated with bereavement.
Need # 1. Recognize the reality of death
When a loved one dies, we must openly acknowledge the reality and purpose of death in order to overcome our sorrow. In general, we accept this reality in two stages. First, we accept death rationally; we learn about the death of a loved one and, intellectually at least, we understand the fact of death.
Over the next few days and weeks, and with the understanding of the people around us, we begin to emotionally accept the reality of death. Meaningful funerals can be a wonderful starting point for a rational understanding of death. Intellectually, funerals teach us that a loved one is now dead, even though we have denied that fact so far. When we call the funeral home, schedule and plan the funeral, identify the remains, and choose the clothes and jewellery for the deceased, we cannot avoid recognizing that the person died. As the coffin descends into the ground, we witness the finality of death.
Need # 2. Accept the pain associated with the loss
As the recognition of death progresses from rational acceptance to emotional acceptance, we begin to accept the pain associated with loss. This is another need mourners must meet in order to heal. Crying is a healthy way to externalize our thoughts and pain and that is what healthy funerals allow us to do.
People tend to cry, and even to sob and moan at funerals because they force us to focus on death and the often very painful feelings we experience. For an hour or two—longer for the bereaved who plan the ceremonies or receive visitors at the funeral home—people attending the funeral are unable to intellectualize their pain or detach themselves from it. Fortunately, funerals are an event where the expression of sorrow is accepted. They are probably the only occasion where externalizing sadness is accepted in our society.
Need # 3. Remember the deceased
To console us in our sorrow, we must move our relationship with the deceased from the physical plane to that of memory. The authentic funeral encourages us to begin this progression because they allow us to reflect on the moments (good and bad) that we shared with the deceased. Like no other time before or after death, the funeral invites us to focus on our past relationship with that person and share our memories with others.
At traditional funerals, the eulogy (praise) highlights the main events in the deceased’s life and the main characteristics of the deceased. The eulogy helps the mourners because it tends to create more intimate, personalized memories. Later, after the ceremony, many of the bereaved will informally share their memories of the deceased. This sharing is also significant. During our mourning, the more we can “tell the story” of the death, of our memories of the deceased, the more we will be able to accept our sorrow. In addition, the sharing of memories at funerals confirms the importance we place on the deceased and legitimizes our pain. Often, the memories others share with us are memories we were not aware of. We discover other aspects of the deceased’s life that we can cherish forever.
Need # 4. Develop a new identity
The development of a new identity is another imperative of mourning. We are all social beings and our life is defined in relation to the people around us. I am not only Alan Wolfelt, but a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a friend. When one of my relatives dies, I define myself differently.
Funerals help us to acquire a new identity because they allow us to publicly recognize our new roles. If you are the parent of a child who dies, funerals are the beginning of your life as a former parent (in the physical sense, this relationship will always be present in your memory). The funeral attendees actually say: “We recognize your new identity and we want you to know that we still care about you.” On the other hand, in the absence of funerals, the social group does not know how to treat the person whose identity has changed and that person is often socially abandoned. In addition, the presence of friends and caregivers at funerals helps us to realize that we continue to exist. A comment that mourners often make that illustrates this question of identity: “When he died, I felt like I was losing part of myself.”
Need # 5. Try to find a new meaning
When a loved one dies, one naturally questions the meaning and purpose of life. Why is this person dead? Why now? Why this way? To overcome our sorrow, we must first accept it by asking this kind of question. In fact, “why” questions help us decide if we want to continue living before deciding how we will continue to live. It is not necessary to find a definitive answer. It is having the opportunity to think (and feel) that matters.
More fundamentally, funerals reinforce a central fact of our existence: we are going to die. Like life, death is a natural and inevitable process (North Americans tend not to recognize this fact). Therefore, funerals help us make sense of the life and death of the deceased, as well as our own life and imminent death. All funerals we attend are a kind of a rehearsal of our own.
Funerals allow us, as individuals and as a community, to express our beliefs about life and death. The practice of funerals shows that death is important to us. For the living to continue living as fully and healthily as possible, it must be so.
Need # 6. Continue to receive support from others
As we mentioned, funerals are a public way of expressing our beliefs, thoughts and emotions about the death of a loved one. In fact, funerals are the public opportunity to provide support and help others overcome grief during and after funerals. Funerals make a social statement that says, “Come support me.”
Whether they realize it or not, those who decide not to have a funeral say, “Do not come and support me.” Funerals also allow us to show our support. Unfortunately, our society is not demonstrative, but at funerals we are “allowed” to kiss, to touch, to comfort. Again, the words are inadequate and we express our support nonverbally. This physically manifested support is one of the main aspects of healing promoted by appropriate funeral rites.
Finally, and quite simply, funerals are a meeting place for mourners. When the deceased or their family is important to us, we try as much as possible to attend the funeral. Our physical presence is the most important manifestation of our support for survivors. While attending the funeral, we tell everyone present that we share their grief.