Sunday, 7 February 2010

what are funerals for?

I'll trundle a bit further down this particular branch line in my meandering journey to the heart of mortality (modest aim, I know..) because these immediate questions about funerals are important, to me and others.

Charles, in his comment on my last posting, is thought-provoking and interesting, as ever. He prompts me to ask a question: what is a funeral for? Are they as useless at achieving what they set out to do as Charles suggests? So leaving "are funerals any good?" for a blog soon, I'll look now at what funerals are apparently for.

1. Let's be direct about this - there is a body to dispose of. It needs to be put in the ground, or burned. ( The Towers of Silence/Sky Burial method is not really an option for us here and now - is it?) However sad we may feel about it, the thing is finished with. It once embodied that distinctive wave of energy we call a human life. It no longer does. So a funeral is a ceremony preceding the disposal of a body. This basic function creates a certain imperative. (Not, of course, that it is necessary to have a funeral in order to dispose of a body at a crematoriuum or a burial ground. You just need certain documents and some money! Incidentally,
will give you a lot of very helpful and independent advice about funerals, from a particular point of view, if you're looking for advice.)

2. The mourners present need to be helped towards a new relationship with that body. It has changed from an embodied life to a body that may still symbolise, very powerfully, that life, but is not any longer that person. (I've looked at this in an earlier post.) In short, mourners need to release the body and stay with the life they remember, the life that has been part of their lives and is still therefore part of them. It's time to let go of the physical thing, it can no longer be part of their lives. A body is no longer a person. That bit hurts, and a funeral has a function in relation to that hurt.

3. The mourners need a chance to relate their specific loss to wider patterns of human life and death, within a set of religious or secular concepts and emotions. They need to find some larger meanings to relate to. Few of us can actually live with the idea that a life is meaningless - humans build meanings, and someone's absence needs to be built into the lives of those present. At a more personal level, reassurances may be needed that the life that is over means something to other people, especially if it has been a humble, nondescript sort of existence. (The mourners of big-shots may have different needs at this point..!)

4. The mourners may need, may be looking for, some consolation or comfort in what the funeral means to them. This may be even more important for non-religious people, who don't believe, or at least are not certain about, meeting up in a supernatural world (a life beyond this one.)

5. The mourners need to share this event as a group. not just suffer it individually. There is grief to express; a ceremony, a ritual even, may give voice to that grief in other than purely personal, individual terms. This shared expression, in our culture, may be fairly reserved and low-keyed - we don't ullulate much - but it is still there.

6. There is a life to be informed about, perhaps to wonder at, certainly to celebrate if possible.Though not every life can be celebrated. "We are here to celebrate the life of Adolf Hitler" would have been a bad start to a funeral - I'd have wanted to celebrate his death.

These seem to me to be what a funeral is for. No doubt there are other functions one could identify?


  1. Tony Walter in Funerals And How They Can Be Improved talks about groupings reconfiguring themselves in the light of the death. I think an example he uses is of an army, I don't know, regiment or battalion or whatever: how it asserts closed ranks and survival. Families need to regroup, too, as do co-workers, friends, neighbours, the bowls club, etc. This is something I always address if I can because I think it's valuable.

    Actually, I have a big checklist and give it to families, saying 'These are all the reasons why people have funerals. They are goals, if you like. Tick the ones you want to achieve.' I think that's useful for them in objectifying exactly why they are griefwalking through this strange custom.

    At the end of the day of the funeral, I'd suppose that most are more comforted by the quality of the send-off they've arranged than for any comfort they have received direct. I have a feeling that most of the benefits of a funeral to the living are by-products of doing a fab job for the dead person.

    Good question, Gloriamundi. And a big one. Thanks for the thought-food!

  2. "Griefwalking" is good, Charles, and I like the idea of a checklist. Regrouping I relate to that marvellous comment in the article you linked to ("More than just a matter of tone" 04:02))about "working his absence into the fabric of things" - if a funeral helps people (groups, individuals) get started on that work, or carry on with it, then maybe it's good, whatever it's like. I think that's what people are striving for when they talk about "getting on with our lives, in the way s/he would have wanted us to." If someone's absence becomes part of the altered meanings of the group's life, then it's regrouping. The group is not denying or trying to ignore their loss, they are living onwards with it. H'm. I should say more about this in my own ceremonies, I think. Thanks.