Why do we have funerals?

What is a funeral?

A funeral is a service or ceremony to remember, honour, pay tribute to or celebrate the life of someone who has died.  It is a time to remember, to say goodbye and to show support for those who loved and will miss that person.  A funeral is a ritual, or rite of passage, marking transitions both for the person who has died and their family and friends.  A funeral is also a very important milestone; saying goodbye in a meaningful and appropriate way is a key part of the grief journey.  Traditional or ‘normal’ funerals also usually include the burial or cremation – but as we’ll see, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

Why do we have funerals?

A funeral is much more than simply the burial or cremation.  Funerals are an opportunity for those close to the person who has died to remember, and to share their memories.  Funerals confirm the reality of the death, which is particularly important where the death is sudden or unexpected.  Funerals bring together the community of those who knew and loved someone to support and comfort each other.  The process of arranging the cremation or burial and putting together a funeral ceremony is an important time; a chance to review and remember, to talk to others about their memories and thoughts, an opportunity to say anything that has been left unsaid.  We have funerals not so that the burial or cremation can take place but for the benefit of the mourners.  A fitting funeral service plays a significant part in mourning and anecdotal evidence from bereavement counsellors indicates that grief can be complicated if there has not been a chance to say goodbye in a meaningful way.

What happens if we can’t have a traditional funeral?

Sometimes the circumstances in which a person died, or their geographical location means that mourners cannot attend a traditional funeral.  At the present time in the UK the social distancing measures introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic means that churches are closed and many crematoriums are either closing their doors or severely limiting the number of mourners who can attend.  The burial or cremation can go ahead with no mourners in attendance (usually called a Direct Cremation or Direct Burial), but this doesn’t allow for a funeral service at the same time.  However, the funeral service is so much more than just the burial or cremation: the service for the mourners can most definitely still go ahead as it’s not necessary for them to all be in the same place at the same time.

Remote Funerals

If it’s not possible to have a funeral which brings everyone physically together, mourners can still be connected through technology.  Remote funerals are possible, with everyone sitting in their own home joining a service led by a celebrant sitting in theirs.  Mourners can share rituals such as lighting candles, sharing memories or giving tributes, reading poems or prayers, listening to music, raising a toast, wearing a favourite colour or making and eating someone’s favourite food.  Words of farewell can be spoken to say goodbye to the person who has died, without the coffin having to be in the same room.  And, most importantly, these rituals can still provide what we need from funerals, answer the reasons why we have funerals – they bring everyone together albeit virtually rather than physically, they provide comfort and show support, they allow everyone to remember and they give everyone the chance to say goodbye.

lighting candles to remember

Should I delay the service until we can have a more normal gathering?

If you think about the reasons why we have funerals, you’ll see that it’s necessary to have some sort of service around the time of the death.  The process of ‘sorting through’ memories, thoughts and feelings about the person who has died is extremely helpful to someone who is grieving.  Putting together a funeral service, talking about the person who has died, telling their story, is a helpful way to start along the path of living without a loved one.  Even if you can’t attend a church or crematorium for a service, you can still plan a meaningful funeral to have in the here and now. 

Memorial or Celebration of Life Services

There is, of course, also the option to have a Memorial or Celebration of Life service at a later date, when everyone can gather together to remember a life but it’s important that that doesn’t replace the funeral.  The immediate need to confirm the reality that the death has happened, to say goodbye and to show support and comfort for those close to the person who has died doesn’t go away.  Funerals very much do still need to be held, we just need to think more creatively and originally about what a funeral is and why we do have funerals, and find ways of meeting those needs without being physically present at the burial or cremation.  

Further Information

If you’d like me to help with a distance funeral, or some advice on how to bring everyone together in remembering even when you can’t be physically together, see Remote Funerals.

For a more academic look at funeral rituals and their impact on grieving, see this article from the Funeral Guide website.

Funerals in the time of coronavirus

The funeral world is changing.  Rapidly.  A month ago it was unthinkable to say that churches would close, that crematoria would restrict numbers attending funerals, that mourners would have to sit 2m apart, that at the time when we most need connection and support no-one would be able to comfort a friend with a hug.  Yet with funerals in the time of coronavirus that is exactly what we are facing as I’m writing this.  And even this may change.  Within days or weeks we may get to a point where funerals are banned; where the physical act of burial or cremation of the deceased takes place with no mourners in attendance.  As this excellent article from The Good Funeral Guide says, we will need to consider the possibility of funerals at a distance, funerals without mourners present.

The importance of a funeral service

I have long argued that funeral services are critical.  They are, after all, more for the benefit of the mourners than for the person who has died.  Yes, a funeral service remembers and perhaps pays tribute to the deceased, but for those who are present it also confirms the reality of the death, provides a rite of passage to mark the transition from life to death, enables mourners to say goodbye, gathers together the community of those who knew the deceased, and it should also provide comfort for the future by reminding mourners of what they have and take forward in their lives that came to them from their loved one.  The psychological importance of a good goodbye cannot be understated.  Saying goodbye in a meaningful and appropriate way has a huge impact on the grief journey.  Despite the times we are living in, I still firmly believe that a funeral service is critical.  The challenge facing me, along with everyone working in the funeral sector, is how to deliver a funeral at a distance which still provides that meaningful goodbye and supports those who are grieving.

Distance funerals

Distance funerals are going to have to be part of the answer to supporting the families we work with.  There is already the facility to webcast a service from many crematoria, and this has been of value when families live overseas.  Back in November I worked with a family who Facetimed the whole service of a service at the South Downs Natural Burial site to a grandchild travelling in New Zealand, for example.  Technology already allows us to connect with friends and family from all over the world, and those connections are going to become even more critical.  Along with many other celebrants, I am working on ways to deliver a funeral service from my home, connecting to the friends and family of the deceased via an online meetings platform so that I can lead the service as I normally would, and bring in those who wish to speak, as I would do in the course of a normal funeral service.  I’m also considering how I could work with families to write a simple funeral ceremony that they could use or share in their own home.  It’s not going to be ideal, but I firmly believe distance funerals will be better than nothing – which may well be the only other alternative for time being.

Other ways to remember

I have also argued in the past that funeral services don’t need to be formal, that they can be as informal as a gathering in the local pub to raise a glass and share memories.  Even more so now I stand by that argument.  These ways of remembering, again especially if connected by technology, could be really valuable in bringing together the community of those who knew and loved the person who has died.  You could nominate a date and time for all friends and family to join in with an act of remembrance.  Something like wearing a particular colour, eating the deceased’s favourite food or enjoying a sip of their favourite tipple.  A few years ago the husband of an online friend I made through a dieting app died.  We couldn’t physically attend his funeral but she’d mentioned that he often had a pencil tucked behind his ear. Many of us all over the country did exactly that and then shared photos of ourselves with said pencil in place to let her know that we were supporting her and thinking of her that day.  Simple gestures of solidarity and support like this can be really powerful.  They tell someone you’re thinking of them, you’re there for them even if you can’t physically be together.

How to involve those who aren’t online

Technology can bring us together even where we’re apart, but only if we have the connection.  Sadly the majority of those who don’t have the technology are likely to be in the older generation.  We will need to think creatively about how we support and include them in distance funerals.  It may be possible to call them on the telephone so that they can at least hear a service being webcast or otherwise shared online.  Maybe everyone could write to them to share their favourite memories of the person who has died.

Memorial Services

Another option is to delay the gathering to remember someone’s life.  Instead of having a traditional funeral, some families may wish instead to hold a memorial or celebration of life service at a later date when it is safe for us once again to gather together.  The coffin does not need to be present at these types of service.  Instead the deceased can be represented by a photo or something else that will call them to mind.  For example, my Grampy always wore a flat cap so that would have been a good object to represent him.  Planning for these services may be a way that families can put together the kind of tribute to a life that they would ordinarily have had at the time of death, but even if there is a plan for a later service, I still think that it will be important to mark the death at the time.  Even when we are physically apart, we can find ways to connect, to come together to support those who were closest to the person who has died. 

Who can help?

Funeral celebrants, ministers, funeral directors and crematorium staff all care deeply about doing the best for the families we work with.  We are all thinking creatively, changing the ways we work, doing our best to help as much as we can until this crisis is over.  If you’re facing the prospect of a distance funeral for a loved one, talk to us.  We’re all here to help. Please contact me if you need advice or guidance about distance funerals at this time.