Attending Funerals: What’s in it for You?

by , ,

One of the reasons I co-founded our company WILLOW is because I love attending funerals.

I recently learned on Facebook that my friend’s father had just died. I had great respect for his dad, was sad for my friend, and was looking forward to going to the funeral. Unfortunately, I missed it. I was so disappointed. Of course I wanted to support my friend in his time of grief, which I did by calling him right away. But after I talked to him I was even more upset that I missed the funeral.

The deceased was a Christian Palestinian who immigrated to Canada from Gaza as a young man and became an academic scholar of Islam. I knew him also as a supporter of my previous work at Peace it Together. His death notice in the local paper said, “He had a particular passion for connecting people of different faiths and backgrounds.” This was one of his legacies, and as I heard from my friend, it was  also a defining characteristic of his funeral..

My friend described the funeral, which was held at a downtown Anglican Church, as a multi-faith service with readings and prayers from the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions, as well as a Secular Andalusian Arab song and a reading from the Epic of Gilgamesh. He said it was beautiful and inspiring. He and his sister also spoke, which I would love to have heard.

A funeral is a community space for personal, spiritual and life reflection.

In my view, funerals are not only opportunities to support the bereaved and honour the dead, they are community spaces for personal, spiritual, and life reflection. I’m so sorry to have missed that opportunity.

I love attending funerals because I get to learn about the person who died and I almost always leave feeling inspired to apply something to my own life. In our blog post titled, Oh, How I love a Good Funeral! I wrote about how Don Grayton’s funeral and his printed Heart Will inspired me to live and love life more fully. At the funeral of another friend who died last summer, I learned that as a facilitator he regularly declared “love ‘em up!” to his colleagues before leading a group. Michelle and I now use this phrase before our events both in memory of our friend and also because it so aptly conveys the spirit we want to bring to our work.  

Expressing grief close at hand often triggers more grief – in a good way.

Funerals also give me the permission I sometimes need to mourn other people who’ve died. Whether consciously or subconsciously, expressing the grief close at hand often triggers more grief, which is truly a gift (even if it doesn’t always feel like it). When I reconnect with these emotions, it feels healthy and cathartic and gives me another chance to integrate previous losses into my life.

Funerals can also teach us something about an important cause or issue. When a friend of mine committed suicide some years ago, the Rabbi took the opportunity to address the taboo around suicide in a way that eased the tension around our friend’s death and changed the way I think of other people who died by the same cause.

At funerals I get connected to all the people whom the deceased and I knew in common. Funerals are social events where you may bump into people you never knew, knew your dear friend or relative. Now I’m bonded with those people more deeply and every time we see each other we reminisce about the person who died, or exchange that knowing smile that we’re richer for having known them.  

A good funeral is a village-making event.

As Stephen Jenkinson says, the mark of a good death is that it’s a village-making event. We believe this to be especially relevant when planning and attending funerals or other end-of-life rituals.

What about you?

How do you want your death to impact your world?

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 Comments

  • Why would one want a village-making event if they were/are not that on this side of the grass? My personal wishes do not concur with your ideas. Great for those who wish so. To each their own preference. I choose not to go to funerals unless it is a family member. I know in my heart to share condolences before if possible and certainly after also if possible. We are fortunate to have the freedom to make these alternate choices. I know your work is most helpful for some. I do find it interesting to read or listen to. Thank you.

    • Thanks very much for your comment. Indeed, our preferences are deeply personal and we appreciate hearing about what you see as relevant (or not) for you Lorraine. I want my funeral to be a village-making event because it reflects the way I’ve lived my life (on this side of the grass, as you so poetically put it) and I believe it would comfort the people who choose to attend my funeral. As one ‘left behind’ I’ve felt held and supported when I mourned a loss inside the community I found at a funeral. I’m also so glad that you find our material interesting. With deep appreciation!

  • My sense is that there are two or three rites involved after a death. The first is immediately after the death, within the initial hours — just sitting vigil and/or saying goodbyes. The second is the rite at the time of final disposition — more or less formal — and what I would refer to as a ‘funeral’. To my mind, a funeral is specifically for acknowledging the reality of death (why it is then important to witness the cremation and/or lowering of the casket into the grave and then the grave filled in), and for mourning the loss of the physical person in our lives. The third is sometimes called a ‘memorial’ and sometimes ‘celebration of life’. This is the time that we gather to remember and honour the life lived, and our relationship to it — a quite different ‘flavour’ of rite than a funeral one, and often done weeks or months after the death.
    Also, while I definitely support memorials, I encourage families to consider doing a ‘celebration of life’ while the Death Journeyer is still alive. First of all, the DJ gets to hear, and honour, all of the wonderful memories others have of them. It is also a wonderful time for the DJ to give away their possessions. In one case, certain possessions were designated for specific people — but then all of the rest were put in a room, and those gathered were free to choose something and tell the DJ why that was a significant representative of their relationship with the DJ. Very empowering — and especially for the DJ; and the DJ doesn’t have to do anything except listen to the stories/memories (as they often too weak to deal with individual visitors).

    • Dear Pashta, thank you for your thoughts and for sharing your wisdom. Two or three rites sounds like bliss to me. Every rite creates so much room to connect and be with the scope of our emotions. My observations from my time in funeral services is that many folks want to rush through as few rites as possible and just be done. This is not serving anybody. Here’s to more collaborative efforts to inform, educate and empower folks to seek and find what we need to honour our dead, mourn our losses, celebrate life and build connections.

  • Now Willows are very different from Sequoias. Yet when I was in Sequoia National Park with the world’s largest organisms, I had to think of Willow. Why?

    I knew that sequoias need fire to reproduce, that the heat of wildfires opens the cones and releases the seeds; but to see these beautiful gentle giants in their natural habitat, many of them blackened at their bases – in some cases the fire-scars reach up the side of the trunks – moved me deeply. Fire as a symbol – actually more than a symbol, a reality – of both death and birth was powerfully apparent.

    When I returned I read your post about attending funerals which, in turn, reminded me of the fire-touched sequoias in California. Being touched by the reality (the fires) of death – others’ and our “little deaths” – can open us up to experience life more deeply, more preciously, can release the seeds of rebirth.

    • Thanks so very much for your moving and comments Rudi. We feel like the sequoias are perfect metaphors for so much of what is talked about in our workshops.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.