Why You Are Wrong About the Purpose of Funerals

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

There are popular sentiments of a couple generations of people that go something like this:

“Just put me in a pine box and throw me in the ground”.

This is the belief that having a funeral is about drawing attention to one ’s self and making one’s self the centre of attention.

“I just want to be cremated and nothing else”.

This is the idea that if there is no funeral, then everybody is saved from having to grieve.

“We are going to have something private… just for the family”.

This is the thought that death is a private matter and only affects the family.

What if I told you that all of those sentiments are working against their intentions?

There is a reason that cultures around the world have created rituals surrounding death. It is the same reason that cultures around the world have created rituals around marriage and the birth of children.  Rituals signify that the family unit has changed, and the community gathers to support the family. This is an innate part of being human. Rituals are created to provide guidance through grief and re-entrance into the community.

So, what is the worst thing that could happen if you don’t have a service? Unresolved grief can have a much bigger impact than feeling depressed. It has been linked to substance abuse, obesity, and many types of mental illness. This is not to say that having a service is the magic elixir to getting through your grief, but it is a very healthy start.

Another important thing to remember is that  a lot of people who come to the funeral do not have ties to the person that died, but rather have ties to the surviving members of the family. Having some time for all of them to gather and support the family quickens the processing of the death event through the sharing of stories.

It is our experience that somebody must tell the story of their loss at least 100 times before the healing can really begin.

Thus being, if a story has to be told 100 times, would you rather do that over the course of several days in a setting that encourages sharing, or would you rather tell that story every time you run into a friend at the grocery store, football game, party, church, or work? People have an innate need to support each other. They will find an outlet to do so whether it is planned or not. Denying them a  time to do so will not stop them from talking about the death. It will only delay the conversation and prolong the healing process.

This brings us back to the sentiments listed above. All of these statements are grounded in the belief that the purpose of a funeral is to dispose of a body, they neglect the most significant part of the funeral is the ritual surrounding it.

Thomas Lynch said it the most profoundly, “A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”

In an effort to save the people we care about from having to experience pain, we make decisions that only serve to prolong their suffering by ignoring the second half of that statement. The pain of grief is unavoidable and is assailable only through direct confrontation. There is no way around it, no shortcuts through it, and no amount of coddling will make it go away. There is a reason why every culture has rituals around death. Funeral rituals are designed as a roadmap to recovery from a grief event. Thousands of years of collective consciousness have taught us what is truly helpful after a death. Funerals are for the living.

Have you experienced other culture’s death rituals?

What benefits have you personally seen from traditional funeral rituals?

With thanks to Kevin Schoedinger for the use of this post.