Why We Have Funerals

Yme Woensdregt

I’ve noticed over the last number of years that it is becoming more and more common for people to choose not to have funerals. Honestly, that causes me some concern.

People are making this choice for a number of different reasons: I don’t want it to be all about me; funerals are morbid and sad, and I’d rather have a celebration at some later time; it’s an inconvenience for people; I want people to remember me as I was when I was alive; I don’t want to bother anyone; I don’t want my family to bear the cost of a funeral. I’m sure there are other reasons.

On top of that, we have all kinds of euphemisms for talking about death. Rarely do I hear someone say, “So–and–so died.” Rather, we use phrases like “we lost her” or “he fell off the twig” or “she’s no longer with us” or “he didn’t make it” or “went out with a bang”. Some religious folks say that “she was promoted to glory.” Google it. You’ll find hundreds of other ways to avoid saying the word “die” or “death.”

We avoid the subject. But we can’t. According to a popular saying, it’s one of the two certainties in life. None of us are going to get out of life alive.

Instead of a funeral service, many people are opting for what is called “direct cremation”. The body is removed from the place of death directly to the crematorium, and the cremains are then given to the family, without any memorial or opportunity to grieve.

As I said, this causes me some concern.

I understand that it’s hard to talk about dying and death. Yes it is. It’s a difficult time, a time of sadness and grief. But it’s precisely because it’s difficult that we need some way of honouring our loved ones.

I talked recently with a family who told me that they had convinced the person who had died that it was important to the survivors to have a funeral.

I think they were exactly right. The funeral service is not for the person who has died. The funeral rite is for the living.

Why do I say that? I have three main reasons.

1) A funeral lets us grieve. Yes, I know grief is hard. We generally don’t grieve very well. Our society much prefers us to be always happy. Someone asks us, “How are you doing?” and we normally answer, “I’m good thanks” — even if our lives are falling apart. “Never let them see you sweat” — right? No one else wants to know that we’re struggling. No one else really cares. So we bury our sadness, we push down our grief, we put on our pretend face and cover up our sorrow.

But when someone we love dies, we need to be sad. We have experienced a deep loss. We need to express that sense of loss. A funeral rite gives us a safe space to mourn, to acknowledge that someone we loved has died. At a funeral, people are surrounded by those they love. Their family and friends embrace them in their pain, and they begin the process of learning to deal with their loss. We begin the process of letting go, of saying goodbye to someone who was a huge part of our lives.

2) A funeral lets us celebrate someone’s life. Tears are almost always accompanied by laughter. As I listen to eulogies, people will often tell a story about the one who has died which brings out a smile. We celebrate the goodness of the person’s life, and remember all those good memories. We give thanks for the love people have brought into our lives.

3) A funeral lets us begin the search for meaning. We begin to think about the meaning of life and death at a funeral. We begin to try to make sense of the change in our life.

Finding meaning in the midst of life and death is a long process. It takes a lot of time and effort. The funeral rite is a time when we can begin that process. When we are surrounded by family and friends, we can ask questions about meaning … “Why?” “Why now?” “What am I going to do now?” “How will my life make sense without her or him?” As we begin to deal with those kinds of questions, the healing process begins.

Let me make a few final comments.

A funeral need not be a religious service. It makes absolute sense to hold a non–religious rite for a person who wasn’t religious. You have the freedom to tailor a funeral service to reflect your spirituality.

A funeral need not be expensive. There are some basic costs for cremation or burial, but beyond that, the costs are entirely within your control. The best way to ensure you keep that control is to pre–arrange what happens to you at the time of death.

A funeral is not inconvenient. Taking a few hours out of your week to show your love for the person who has died is not an inconvenience. It is a privilege.

Let me say it again. A funeral rite is not for the dead; it is for the living.

If you have specified that you don’t want a funeral … let me encourage you to rethink that. Talk about it with your family and friends. Discuss your wishes. Talk about their needs.

It’s a good thing to do.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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