I conducted a memorial service recently for a friend who passed away after a lengthy illness. The service was a time of celebration among family and friends for a life well lived. Despite the lengthy illness of the deceased, she had shown great faith over a long period and received loving care from her husband, family, medical providers, and hospice staff.
This was the first funeral service I have done in awhile, and I found myself talking with the funeral director about recent changes he had experienced related to burial, cremation, type of services, and other issues. I was a bit surprised when the funeral director said that one of the biggest trends was to do nothing when someone died. “The family calls us to come pick the body and do a cremation. Sometimes they pick up the cremated remains and sometimes they don’t.”
This was a surprise to me, but another trend I had noted in some recent obituaries was the announcement of a death with no plans for a funeral, memorial service, or graveside service.
I understand that not all funeral services are going to have the pageantry of a burning Viking ship or the impact of the funeral pyre provided Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars. The size or style of the ritual is not important. I have presided over a graveside service with a dozen mourners present and been part of services where several hundred attended. The attendance is not important but the ritual is.
Rituals serve a purpose in life and must not be ignored. There are sound cultural, spiritual, emotional, and psychological reasons for some type of funeral rite even if the deceased is not a person of faith.Reflecting as one who has buried three grandparents, two parents, a grandson, and a number of friends, I can see the value in some type of death ritual. Let me suggest several reasons to have a funeral rite.
First, the funeral service provides an opportunity to show respect for the deceased person. Everyone is a child of God. Even if the person’s life was not exemplary in every way, he or she was a person made in the image of God and worthy of respect. Taking time to reflect on death increases our appreciation of the life that God has given.
Second, the funeral ritual supports family and loved ones in a time of loss. When one is hurting, just the awareness that there are others who love and encourage in the loss of an important person in one’s life means a great deal. There is often little a friend can say, but the person’s presence communicates a lot.
Third, the service celebrates what the deceased contributed to the world and the values they embraced, even if the person was not a Christian believer. Everyone leaves some mark in the world, and the funeral ritual allows this to be emphasized. If the person was a believer, this is a significant time to bear witness to the faith that motivated and sustained the deceased.
Fourth, the ritual recognizes our common humanity. The loss of loved ones is something that all of us experience and, at some point, each of us will leave behind family and friends. This is a reality that must be faced and cannot be denied. The ritual acknowledges this fact of life.
Fifth, some type of funeral ritual is part of a healthy grieving process. Certainly, there is often resistance to exposing one’s grief publicly and going through the stress of a structured funeral service. Even so, the service provides a point of transition for those who have experienced loss. The very act of going through a funeral helps the loved ones to acknowledge that their lives have changed. To act otherwise is to dwell in denial.
Sixth, the funeral service can be a vehicle of hope. Do I look forward to funeral services? For the most part, I don’t. But I often find myself leaving a service with a new appreciation for the difference one person can make in the world.
There are many other reasons to argue for the value of funeral rituals and their importance even in a society that has little time to stop and acknowledge the reality of death. These rites affirm both the fragility and tenaciousness of our humanity. My great fear is that the growing indifference to these rituals may be the ultimate expression of a disposable economy where what is no longer productive is simply discarded. I certainly hope that is not the path we are following. .
Pastors report a rise in “do-it-yourself” funeral ceremonies: expressed in a story from ABPnews/Herald on ‘Nones’ increasingly uninterested in ministers at time of death, funerals.