Are funerals dead?

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Are funerals dead?

When was the last time you heard or used the word funeral? Not, celebration of life, not memorial service but funeral? Ahhh, not so much these days in our increasingly secular world.  

And when was the last time you said, “So and so is dead” or even more rare, “So and so is dying?” When people die, they’re dead. They don’t pass away, pass on, or depart. They’re not lost, asleep or pushing up daisies. They die and then they’re dead. Our collective aversion to the word dying warrants a whole other post.  

To die is a natural, normal, unavoidable and inevitable part of being a living creature. While there are certainly some deaths that are anything but natural or normal, many, perhaps most, deaths are of the expected, anticipated kind.

No pun intended, but really, truly, euphemisms around death and funerals are killing us!

A euphemism, as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”

Well now… That pretty much sums up the prevalence of celebrations of life and our general discomfort with the term funerals, doesn’t it?

I have a secret. After several years of an off-and-on apprenticeship, I’ll soon be a licensed Funeral Director. That’s not the secret though. The secret is that despite my deep desire to honour people’s right to choose how they mark someone’s death, and my belief in the healing power of ritual and ceremony, I have a problem with the ever-popular, celebration of life.

My grumble about celebrations of life is that by their very name they leave little room to acknowledge and hold the sorrow, pain and heartache of a death. More often than not, the cheerful memories of the good times and gratitude for an end to ‘suffering’ dramatically outweigh and attempt to negate any experience on the other side of the emotional continuum.

When we allow ourselves to be heartbroken and receive comfort from others, we free ourselves up for love.

As individual human beings and as communities of mortals, I believe we need to be with the full scope of our emotions. We need to learn how to be with our pain, our suffering, and our heartache. When we allow ourselves to search for meaning, be heartbroken, and receive comfort from others we free ourselves up for love, joy and connection.

Learning to lament frees us up to love.

At the same time though, I know many people associate the word funeral with their nightmare of a big fat opportunity to get ripped off and suffer through a generic, empty ceremony where the officiant, in a bad suit, can’t pronounce Grandma’s name. Truth be told, I make that same association and I know first-hand it doesn’t have to be that way.

With varying degrees of emphasis and in our own public or private ways, we gather when someone dies to mourn, celebrate, honour and remember a life lived. Consider that we can reclaim the word funeral so it can hold the space for all we need it to be.  

What about you?

What’s your experience with funerals, celebrations of life, and memorial services? Does it matter what we call these gatherings?  

Please join the discussion at the bottom of this blog.  We’d love to hear from you.

PS

Dr. Alan Wolfelt of the Colorado based, Center for Loss and Transition has lots of helpful information about the needs of mourners and the value of funeral rituals.

16 Comments

  • As always—great job on your blog ladies. Thanks for your perspective. Funerals in Scotland, where I had the privilege to participate in organizing funerals for my parents over the past 10 years, are in my opinion horrific money-grabbing machines. Your blog is certainly refreshing and I like the notion of calling a spade a spade…dead is dead and the honouring of a life is a funeral ☺.

  • Thanks so much Audrey. Yes, “dead is dead” and we each get to attribute meaning to that reality. The good news that there is a new wave of progressive funeral providers – locally and on the other side of the Atlantic – who operate based on the principle of giving people what they want and need versus what the business has to sell.

    • Ah! Often a client asks ‘what do you call it’ Sometimes the deceased requests a celebration of life however, it’s not about them. Those of us left behind are often in disarray, grieving, hurting, confused and lost. Of course we want to honour their life, even celebrate it but there is so much more going on. Mourning is our way to Publically share and acknowledge our loss. Grief is more private.

      As a Professional Funeral Celebrant I use Funeral if the deceased’s body is present. Memorial is used if they are not (or if their cremated remains are).

      Of course each Ceremony is unique to the client and sometimes a celebration of life is appropriate. The friends have already done their grieving or found other ways to mourn.

      Rant over. Great blog Michelle

  • I believe that funerals, memorials and ‘celebrations of life’ are three very different rites that served different purposes.
    I encourage clients to consider doing a ‘celebration of life’ before the death. This allows for the Death Journeyer to hear their family’s/friends’ favourite memories of their life together; and it is an excellent way of allowing for ‘good-byes’ to be exchanged with the least amount of energy required on the part of the DJ. This can be combined with the DJ passing on their favourite possessions — perhaps some labelled for specific people, and the rest available for the rest of the participants to choose from. This second option can lead to poignant sharing, as the person shares with the DJ their reason for choosing that object.
    Funerals are rites to help ‘survivors’ (don’t like that term) to face the reality of death, and mourn the loss of the ‘in person’ relationship they had with the DJ. They are best held at the time of internment — as the body is being put into the grave, or is burning in the crematorium (just before or after, or during if the family/friends choose to ‘push the button’ and witness the cremation). Green burials allow for a full funeral experience, as family/friends are often allowed to participate fully in filling the grave and/or choose to plant indigenous plants over top of the grave.
    Memorials are usually held weeks or months after the death, when the DJ’s larger community can gather ‘in memorandum’ (which includes memories of celebration AND mourning).

  • There’s such richness in really contemplating the intentions and nuances of each ritual. I’m really intrigued by how you present this Pashta. I also like the concept of a Death Journeyer. In the forma world of funeral studies and funeral law the DJ is typically described as the decedent. What a difference our words make.Thank you!

  • Hi Michele. Wow and thank you! Thank you for what you are thinking, and offering for discussion?

    The question that really should be asked, is
    ” Not what we call the gathering but how was the gathering perceived and enjoyed by the invited guests.: That is of major interest, right?
    Many years ago, when working for the City of Vancouver, I was assigned the “unwanted” task of finding out why the cost of burying, the poor and indigent was constantly increasing.
    I visited many commercial service providers of funeral services, speaking with funeral directors, and casket manufacturers.
    Also witnessed a few of those, “let’s fix em up so they look almost better dead then when they were alive.” Pretty amazing nonesense!

    Brief summery of results of investigation. And what I learned from that experience!

    1. Monopoly plays a great role in the pricing of “services” provided by the commercial service providers, in the business disposal of bodies. Please do not be alarmed, the word “disposal” was used.
    If those in the grieving process do not have a staunch none emotional advocate beside them during the initial and ongoing sales pitch by the service providers staff, the services offered, will drive the cost of whatever you wish to call the disposal of the dead person, to costs almost reaching heaven!
    Reminder folks it is a business!!!! Sales, Sales Sales is the name of the game!

    2. A new service provider known then as First Memorial Services, which offered a no nonsense, no frills, disposal service at a fraction of the cost of traditional stodgy pricy funeral was flooded with calls and provided a much need service. Amazing what they did and probably still do today. Which I understood always met the needs of the departed, unless
    I am dead wrong. No one has challenged that as yet!

    3. Clearly there needs to be a competitive process set up so everyone can obtain, from commercial service providers in the funeral business firm offers for a established list of (a) must have basic services, (b) services that may look good to others that the arranger cares for the dearly departed, and (c) those services categorized as not necessary but will comfort the sales staff, because by selling these they can meet their sales quota!
    These services should be published and made available to those in the process of dying so they can select what they need, and remove that burden from those left behind!
    Hey, this will be the biggest event in their lives, surely they should play a major part in the arraignments.

    4. In regards to caskets, well, make your own, if you need one, no one can stop that.

    Everyone,before they depart this beautiful place call earth,please take the time to visit either on line or a casket store and look at the caskets. You will I guarantee be awestruck at the sales room layout which has the card board carton disposal unit next to the pine box, just as you enter, obscured by the door when it is open, and no one will refer to it unless you ask!:-)

    Your attention will be drawn and focussed on the lighting and music coming from the back of the store where you will see the latest model of caskets.

    Picture this in the theatre of your mind.

    The casket is hung from the ceiling, giving you the impression that it is in a departure lounge, and if you purchase that casket, your chances of heading up rather than down are greatly increased along with the payment for the casket of the future, featuring silk lining and down pillows, two choice firm and not so, adjustable head rest and moon roof for viewing both in and out!
    What we call the departure of a person, is really not the question. The question should be how well did the attendees enjoy the services, what ever they were!
    I suggest a rating system, so everyone can learn how to put on a great send off for the dead. Some suggestions gather from attending a number of gatherings.

    1. Make sure the microphones are tested before the service.

    2.Adjust the microphone to meet the speakers mouth so the mumblings and ramblings are at least annunciated loudly enough so one can separate one thing from another.

    3. If the person for whom people are gathered never or rarely entered a church or other place of worship, cut the hocus pocus and go straight for the stories of his or her life.

    4. Very important, the MC should know the dead persons name, as it makes everyone very uncomfortable when the MC stutters and can not remember for whom we are gathered. This can give the MC a bad name and lessen future speaking opportunities, as well as being somewhat upsetting to the grieving persons.

    5. And this is probably the most important part of every gathering, the food and drink. Can we stop with the egg salad sandwiches? Let’s go with quality sandwiches made today, not yesterday or held over from another function. A variety of fresh crab, shrimp and a choice of breads, with cakes from Bon Ton, always makes a great impression and an overall high mark, when rating your gathering.

    After each gathering I offer the following rating topics.

    MC: quality of his presence, actually mentioned the person’s name correctly and not too much hocus pocus and got those who would speak up to a properly prepared/tested microphone and completed their delivery – 5 points if all were achieved.

    Comfort and Ambiance of Facility: Quality furniture with appropriate air condition and sound system. 5 points if all achieved.

    Food and Beverage. This is the Biggy! Look for quality in food, servers, and beverage. Should have available tables so no standing while eating or lap eating, with appropriate beverages to keep everyone happy! 10 points if all achieved.

    What was the original question?

    • You are right, Michelle. Celebrations of Life often don’t allow for grief and sadness. I attended a C.O.L. in January that made room for tears and grief and that was because a minister who knew the family spoke with love and also, most of the people attending were Christians. They had a belief about where my friend had gone once she had died.
      These days many or most mourners believe, “They die and then they’re dead,” as you put it, and often say “At least he’s not suffering now.” What is left but to look back on their friend’s life?
      At my friend’s Christian C.O.L. the minster said, “Let us pray,” and we all recited The Lords Prayer. Someone sang a hymn. I was comforted
      As a Buddhist, I do not believe that once you’re dead you’re dead. For the 49 days after her death I recited mantras and by performed a Powa Ceremony to help her towards a fortunate rebirth.
      Most of us today are private about our religious beliefs in public or even among our friends and family.
      We are out of practice with Rites of Passage or we never learned them in the first place yet we yearn for something ‘to do’ to show our love and respect for the persons we have lost, but we don’t know how.
      And if we do know how, we go home and perform our ritual in private.

      • Thanks so much for commenting Gillian. I appreciate being reminded that what we observe in public is not always the full scope of how people engage (or not) with ritual and ceremony. Indeed, we are out of practice. We sense there’s is a strong desire among those folks we meet to rekindle or reconnect with power of ceremony. And to open ourselves up to practices that moved beyond our personal traditions and cultures. The Circle of Life with forward by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a lovely, easy look into how human throughout the world mark life’s transitions. It was given to me many years ago by my brother and is one of my treasured possessions.

  • Dear Dave, you’ve really given this some thought! I love that you’ve taken the time to reflect upon what you’ve observed over the years – both that which disturbs and irks you and that which stirs your soul and creates meaning. Thank you!

  • This was a really engaging read and you make some great points. We always hear a lot about “celebrating their life”, but it is possible that it can be a hindrance to the healing process. Thanks for the insightful article!

    • Many mercis Derek. Indeed, we all get to healing in our own ways but the options we see for ‘how’ are definitely influenced by our surroundings and what has become the norm – not normal necessarily – but the norm as in typical.

  • No doubt euphemisms get in the way of experiencing death and mourning. (When someone says to me, I’m sorry you lost your son… I say, I haven’t lost him at all, I know exactly where he is!) However, I also think too much is made here of naming a ritual and presuming the name represents the same thing in each case. It simply doesn’t. Some funerals are celebratory, some celebrations of life are simultaneously happy and sad, and so on. And then there are unnamed but equally important rituals that continue on… celebrating birthdays, death days, daily rituals like candle lighting, and all souls day, for example. These, like funerals/COL/memorials can be both individual and collective, opportunities to share sorrow and caring for each other.

    The term funeral is associated with funeral homes and personally my experience with that business hasn’t been positive. So seeking other labels that permit distancing from the business of death has been, at least for me, important.

    • Thanks so much for your comments Sandra. It is indeed not helpful to assume that the naming of a ritual represents a shared experience or expectation of what that gathering will hold for its participants. I appreciate your reminder of the many rituals that continue on after a death and the reality that all these milestones create opportunities for both individual and collective significance.

  • Great job! It’s refreshing to see the level of understanding for someone new coming into the profession. You’ll have a great career. Best wishes.

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