Recently, I provided pastoral care to an intellectually disabled man whose mother had died. For some days after her death, he appeared not to have quite grasped what had happened; he kept returning to the hospital, asking to see her body, and having long conversations with members of the pastoral care team, trying to come to terms with his loss. Discussing this with a colleague, I asked what day the funeral was to be, commenting that perhaps the funeral would help this man move past this initial difficult stage of his grief.
“Oh,” my colleague said. “The family have decided not to have a funeral. It’s becoming more popular now; they just get the funeral home to do a quiet burial with no service for anyone.” The two of us agreed that this wasn’t a development we welcomed; both of us saw some sort of rite of passage as being important for people who are grieving. But we could see why, newly bereaved, not wanting to deal with the pressure of hosting a public event, (and, let’s face it, put off by the cost), people might see this non-funeral option as an attractive one. So in this blog post I want to make the case for a funeral, explaining why I see it as valuable and important.
A disclaimer first, by the way. This is not me advocating that everyone must have a religious funeral or memorial service. Those can be good, and in appropriate circumstances I think a better option than a secular one, but here I’m arguing for the idea of a rite of passage to mark death in a more general sense.
Ritual functions as a means of helping us cope with life’s most difficult circumstances. It is a way of coming to terms with forces we experience as destructive, unintelligible and immoral (and I’m hard pressed to imagine any force better fitting that description than death). In its patterns, predictability and purposefulness, ritual (and the use of symbol that goes with it) helps us to focus on norms, beliefs and sentiments which give us a way through crises that might otherwise overwhelm us. Funerals done well, then, become a way of helping us to face death, loss and grief and help us to begin to deal with them healthily. They also help mourners come to terms with their changed patterns of relationship, changed status or roles within their family, and changed sense of identity.
Anthropologists have identified in funeral rites three phases, all important for the reasons I’ve just outlined: separation, transition, and reincorporation.
Separation is about coming to terms with the initial loss. Funerals make opportunities for this in elements such as viewing the body (especially for loved ones who were not present for the death), going physically to the grave, actually burying the coffin. These allow mourners to experience the death and its reality, often breaking an initial sense that the death “isn’t real.”
Transition is about the experience of being in-between. It is about the adjustment that needs to happen for a wife to think of herself a widow, or a child as an orphan. This adjustment takes time, and it is facilitated by suspending the activities of normal life and being actively involved in the change. So, things like choosing a coffin, filling out legal paperwork, and also receiving support and care from the wider community play their part here. Funeral services too, with their review of the deceased person’s life and loves, and their framing of that within a context of meaning, help people to move through this time of transition.
Reincorporation is about being able to pick up the threads of life again and go on, with the loss of a loved one now better integrated. Rituals, as they are provided by the community for the mourners, also help here. They keep mourners moving, doing, communicating.
Of course, none of these things – separation, transition, re-integration – is achieved simply with a funeral. It’s not that quick or easy. But funerals, done well, make some provision for all of these elements of healthy grieving, and can play an important part in carrying people through the disruption of death. They also allow a safe space for experiencing, and giving voice to, painful but deeply significant feelings.
You’ll notice that I have said this of funerals done well. Too many funerals have encouraged people to suppress their grief, deny the reality of death, or otherwise act in unhealthy ways. I’m not arguing for that, and I’d go so far as to say that anybody uneducated and unprofessional enough to run that kind of funeral shouldn’t be in the business. That’s not what it’s about, and this is too important to stuff up. It matters, because people matter.
There is something else worth considering, too. Funerals are not just for the grieving immediate family. Much wider communities, of extended family, friends, colleagues and so forth gather for them. These people, perhaps less emotionally affected, nonetheless have an opportunity to consider death and grief, and in some measure to be prepared for their own later experiences of loss. This is part of why I tend to recommend children come to funerals; it is better to learn about death and grief when distant relatives die, than for your first confrontation with death to be your mother’s. On the other hand, funerals can also be helpful to older people who have experienced loss before; it can be a prompt to confront and work through their own unfinished grief. In short, a funeral is a community event, and it has benefits for the whole community.
That is my plea for considering funerals carefully. They matter, because grieving people matter. Let’s not throw out one of the most tried, trusted and true ways of carrying those grieving people on a whim.