A while back, I was having a conversation with a friend. We got to talking about the different cultural customs of funerals around the world. At one point, my friend stopped me and asked, “What’s the point? When I die, I don’t care what happens to me.”
In today’s world, it’s not an uncommon thing to hear. Many people have misconceptions about funeral service. And many don’t understand the point of funeral rituals. You’ve probably heard a friend or family member say some version of the following:
- “I don’t want people to make a big fuss about me.”
- “I don’t care. Just cremate me.”
- “I’m not religious, so I don’t want a funeral. Just put me in a box.”
- “I don’t want people crying over me.”
Let’s think for a second that these people are correct in thinking that funerals don’t serve a purpose. Then why have we practiced funeral rituals for thousands and thousands of years? Since the earliest humans, there has been some sort of funeral ritual. Even though funeral rituals differ across cultures and have evolved over time, the act of the funeral ritual remains.
It’s because funerals have a profound purpose. Let’s explore the qualities that make up a meaningful funeral.
The Purpose of a Meaningful Funeral
Dr. Alan Wolfelt — a grief counselor, author, and founder of the Center for Loss & Life Transition — laid out an instructive guide on the key components of a meaningful funeral. It’s called the Hierarchy of the Purposes of Funerals. These components, identified in the graphic below, help a grieving person reconcile their loss. When these needs are met through the funeral service, a person can find meaning in life and their loss.
Let’s start at the bottom of the pyramid. Confronting reality is the most basic need a funeral service meets. From there, we’ll work our way up.
When a loved one dies, families and friends must acknowledge the reality of loss. Trying to avoid or distract ourselves from a loss only hinders grief. A funeral service is the best way we can openly confront the reality of the situation. A person we loved has passed.
Attending a funeral or memorial service openly acknowledges death. Dr. Wolfelt writes that by visiting the funeral home, organizing a memorial service, choosing memorial songs, picking out your loved one’s clothes, and viewing the body or urn, are all ways in which we confront the reality of loss.
A funeral also marks an important transition. Our relationship with our loved one has changed from actively knowing the person into recalling the memory of who that person was. A funeral enhances this transition. The funeral lets us gather with friends and family and recollect memories, share stories, and learn more about the deceased.
Funerals also provide the bereaved with social support. It’s one of the ways in which a funeral isn’t just for the departed. It’s also for the grieving. Funerals bring people together, allowing them to support each other in the face of loss.
Expressing our grief is healthy. By avoiding or denying our grief, we put ourselves at risk of developing complicated grief. Funerals are outlets for healthy expressions of grief. We cry at funerals, share memories, laugh, and participate in rituals that honor our loved one. All of which are ways to express grief over the loss. As Dr. Wolfelt puts it, a funeral allows us to mourn. And mourning is grief openly expressed outside of ourselves.
It’s important to remember that people can mourn in different ways. A traditional funeral might not be for everyone. But creating new rituals, such as a unique ash releasing ceremony or having the memorial service in a unique location, also are effective ways to openly express our grief.
Funerals also help us start to find meaning. The ceremony addresses the meaning of one’s life by sharing their life story. And a life story is often shared at a funeral by the recollection of memories, viewing photographs or videos, eating our loved one’s favorite foods, playing their favorite songs, and other memorial activities. The more personal a funeral, the more meaning we can find in it.
We also learn more about the meaning and purpose of our own life. A meaningful funeral ultimately can help us confront the reality of our own eventual death, and inspire us to make the most of our life.
The final need a funeral meets is transcendence. A meaningful funeral makes us view life in a whole new way. Dr. Wolfelt states that “funerals help us embrace the wonder of life and death and remind us to live deeply, with joy and love.”
What does a funeral mean to you? Share with us in the comments below!