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Why have a funeral?

We have funerals for many essential reasons. In addition to offering a way to respectfully commit the body of someone we love to the ground or to ashes, funerals have been a means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about life and death.

Funerals provide the opportunity to Gather, Remember & Celebrate the life we've lost. The purposes of the funeral ceremony can be summed up in the following ways: 

  1. Reality - It’s hard to truly accept the finality of death, but the funeral helps us begin to do so. At first we accept it with our heads, and only over time do we come to accept it with our hearts.
  2. Recall - Funerals help us begin to convert our relationship with the person who has died from one of presence to one of memory. When we come together to share our memories, we learn things we didn't know and see how the person's life touched others. 
  3. Support - Funerals are social gatherings that bring together people who cared about the person who died. Funerals are in remembrance of the person who died, but they are for the living. The funeral is a special time and place to support one another in grief.
  4. Expression - When we grieve but don’t mourn, our sadness can feel unbearable, and our many other emotions can fester inside of us. Mourning helps us heal, and the funeral is an essential rite of initiation for mourning. It helps us get off to a good start and sets our mourning in motion.
  5. Meaning - Did the person I love have a good life? What is life, anyway? Why do we die? There are no simple explanations, but the funeral gives us a time and a place to hold the questions in our hearts and begin to find our way to answers that give us peace.
  6. Transcendence - Funerals have a way of getting us to wake up—to think about what we truly care about and how we want to spend our precious remaining days. Ultimately, funerals help us embrace the wonder of life and death and remind us of the preciousness of life.

The meaningful funeral ceremony is made up of various elements. It is only through combining them – the visitation, music, readings, eulogy, symbols, actions, and the gathering – that the essential final experience is reached.

(Adapted from ‘Educating the Families You Serve about the WHY of the Funeral’ by Alan Wolfelt, PhD)

Throughout many important moments and settings in life, we turn to music to help set the tone and establish context. Can you imagine the holidays without music? What would a great film be without its soundtrack? And what about birthdays and weddings?

For funerals, music has long held an equally important role. Throughout human history, it has been recognised that music and funerals belong together.

At the funeral, music is one way that we let friends and family know that their normal and necessary emotions of grief, which music tends to draw forth, are welcome. Music is also a universal, unifying medium that joins mourners and speaks for them when words are inadequate.

Quiet reflection during musical interludes often stimulates acknowledgment of the reality of the death. Music often helps us move from knowing something in our heads to knowing something in our hearts. What’s more, music is often very moving to mourners and can provide effective moments in which to think about their loss.

Music can help us recall memories. Music associated with special times we shared with the person who died as well as lyrics that seem to capture him or her, elicit memories we may not even have known were there.

Have you ever noticed that during musical interludes at a funeral, the mourners gathered will often hold hands, lean on one another, or embrace? That is because music is also effective at activating empathy and support.

Though music is very individual, and people often bring their own unique meanings to any given piece, certain pieces of music speak to a body of faith or, more generally, to spirituality and often bring mourners meaning. Hymns are an obvious example, but classical music, pop songs, and other musical genres can be just as effective at helping mourners search for meaning.

Rather than considering “suitable music”, these questions may be considered: What music did the person who died love? What music reminds you of him or her? What music captures your feelings best about this unique life and death? Who in your circle of friends and family plays an instrument or sings and could be invited to participate in the ceremony? 

Without doubt, music’s healing presence is an essential and beautiful element of every funeral.

(Adapted from ‘Educating the Families You Serve about the WHY of the Funeral’ by Alan Wolfelt, PhD)

Down the centuries, viewings have been a crucial part of the funeral process, with the family and primary mourners keeping an around-the-clock vigil over the dead body of the person they loved.  The body was the focal part of the entire funeral process, from the procession into the church to the procession out of the church to the procession to the cemetery through to the committal. The body never left the family’s sight. Clans and tribes revered and stayed near the body until it was laid to final rest. Cultures the world over have always demonstrated a passion to recover the “fallen warrior” and dignify the death by bringing home the body.

But in recent decades, the trend has been toward body-absent ceremonies, which can seem more like parties than authentic funeral experiences.  It’s a bit like the guest of honour is missing in action.

The term “wake” originated from the custom of watching or guarding a dead body the full distance to the grave. Sadly, we have forgotten that staying with the body to the place of final farewell helps us acknowledge the reality that this person is leaving us now.

Specific to the dead body, people often also say, “well, it’s just a shell.” But regardless of your faith, the body of the person who died is still precious and still very much represents the person you love. Doesn’t this person deserve to be accompanied or seen through to the end of their days on Earth, which includes the disposition of their body?

Of course, a dead body is not the same as the person we loved. But when we are grieving, the mind seeks proof. So, if we are fortunate, we see the body, we touch the body, we spend time with the body… and our minds, which so very much want to deny the truth, cannot help but begin the process of acknowledging the reality of the death.

Yes, it’s sometimes hard for us to view the dead body of someone we love, but it’s a good-hard that helps us cry and express what’s inside us. Spending time with the body also helps us consider the meaning of our loved one’s life and death.

A meaningful funeral is not about denying death but befriending it.

(Adapted from ‘Educating the Families You Serve about the WHY of the Funeral’ by Alan Wolfelt, PhD)

Most funerals formally come to an end when the mourners gather to share food and drink, and to talk about the person who died. These gatherings, or receptions, can take place anywhere, including the funeral home, a church meeting room, a restaurant, or at a home of a friend or family member.

At the gathering, a natural “telling of the stories” of the person’s life and death takes place. This helps mourners once again acknowledge the reality and finality of death and recall the person who died.

Giving expression to the pain of the loss is another central need of mourning that the reception helps facilitate. All thoughts and feelings are welcome at the gathering. People often laugh and hug one another, offering each other support. While there are often tears, the mood may begin to evolve into a sense of peace and a soothing of souls, imbuing the funeral with meaning.

Often, people look different at the reception than they did during the other parts of the funeral. They are often more relaxed, less tense. They may even seem joyful.

Memory tables at the reception also help capture the personality of the person who died and the unique relationships he or she had. Some families enjoy continuing to show PowerPoint slide shows or memory videos. This is another way of personalising the reception and often inspires reflection on the life of the person who died. Special food items may be served to recognise and share the culture, traditions, or the favourite food of the person who died.

Before they leave the reception, mourners often make plans to see each other again or to reach out in various ways to help the family. This reminds people of the need to continue to be present to each other in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Sometimes families are reluctant to have a reception because they are concerned about additional costs or unsure whether anyone will come. But receptions are valuable for everyone, and food and beverages can be kept simple. The funeral home will be able to give advice on this.

What is really important is that the reception affords the opportunity to bond with other mourners.

(Adapted from ‘Educating the Families You Serve about the WHY of the Funeral’ by Alan Wolfelt, PhD)

The eulogy – which comes from the Greek eulogia, meaning “praise; good or fine language” – acknowledges the unique life of the person who died and affirms the significance of that life for all who shared in it.

Without a eulogy and/or other personalised means of acknowledging this particular life and death, the funeral often becomes an empty formality that implies this unique and precious person’s life story wasn’t worth gathering and sharing.

There is value to “telling the story” – of reviewing, aloud, the sequence of events of a person’s life, including the weeks leading up to the death. For mourners, telling the story is central to their healing. In the context of the funeral ceremony, the eulogy is the grand, public telling of the story that unites all the mourners present.

In addition to helping mourners recall the person who died, the eulogy usually addresses the mourners’ search for meaning. What did this person’s life mean? What value did it bring to those it touched?

Through the stories the eulogy tells, it often suggests possible answers to these kinds of questions and can help begin to move those in attendance closer to a sense of peace. The fact that a eulogy is being given helps those present with the reality that the person has died.

At the gathering after the funeral, the eulogy often fosters conversation, giving family and friends a common lifeline to hold onto as they support one another and give expression to their thoughts and feelings.

Done well, the eulogy can be the most memory-filled moment in the funeral. Whoever writes it can be encouraged to gather memories and thoughts from others so the story is as rich and comprehensive as possible.

Families often say the eulogy is the most meaningful part of the funeral ceremony – but only in cases in which it was truly personalised. It’s usually much more meaningful to have a family member or friend of the family give the eulogy. Instead of a formal eulogy, it’s possible to have funeral attendees stand up one at a time and share a memory or thought.