Why are funeral rites important?
Recently, a friend’s mother died at the tender age of 51, after a two-year struggle with cancer. Her 21-year-old daughter, Sarah, sobbed as she told me the story of her ordeal. My heart broke for her. She is so young to lose her mother. I asked her when the funeral was planned so that I could attend. She explained to me that her mother’s ashes would be spread sometime later this year, but there would be no funeral or memorial service.
Ironically, she told me her sad story on the same day that I learned my mother had passed away. Ten days later, my family reconvened in Fort Lauderdale, where we held her memorial service. Surrounded by friends and family, we remembered her, shared our pain and our loss, and afterwards, felt that the burden of grief had been distributed among all of us, and transformed. It was a cathartic experience.
Anthropologists and archeologists know that a culture has existed when they find evidence of funeral rites. The inevitability of death is not new. Since the beginning of time, humans have grappled with the reality and mystery of our mortality. From the ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids to our modern religious traditions, every culture develops rituals that help mourners find solace, connection, and meaning. These ceremonies help us cope with loss.
But today, these age-old traditions are replaced and sometimes, simply ignored. I have attended a variety of “Celebrations of life” held months later to make it more convenient for family or friends to attend. In some instances, like my friend, there is no ritual or community gathering at all.
What’s going on? Why are century old traditions changing? Probably, the biggest factor is how bodies are handled today. According to a recent news report, 2.5 million Americans die every year. In 2011, over 42% of these deceased were cremated. That is double the rate of 15 years ago. In Washington State, the cremation rate is 72%. There are many reasons for this change in tradition—families live far apart and cremation is much less expensive (the average funeral costs almost $8000 today compared to $1500 for a cremation).
Funerals, with a variety of religious rituals, required a relatively quick burial. Once a body is cremated, the ashes can be stored indefinitely before spreading them. And then sometimes, the deceased may want their ashes spread on distant shores. These changes allow for delayed rites and rituals.
Why is this a problem? Memorial gatherings provide mourners with a community of grievers, who are able to offer love and support to each other as they experience the pain of loss. Rituals and rites connect us to the generations that have come before us and the generations that will come after us. It helps us reconcile loss through the continuity of life. It provides a valve, to discharge emotions and rekindle connection between the living. It is important.
Some of the changes in memorial customs are positive. In the past, one person, the priest, minister or rabbi might give the eulogy. Today’s memorial gatherings often give many mourners an opportunity to remember the person and mark their passing at the service.
I disagree with the new designation for memorial ceremonies called “Celebrations of Life”! That sounds like a birthday party, not a ritual to mark the end of life. To me, this title reflects a collective denial of death. Death is not the enemy of life; it is the natural end of one’s journey on this earth.
When a mourner doesn’t attend a memorial gathering, or one isn’t held, they may experience a condition psychologists call “incomplete grieving”, where their sadness persists because they are unable to experience it fully and publically. This can evolve into a depressive reaction that can be disabling.
Grief does not end after the funeral or memorial service. It comes and goes in waves throughout the rest of one’s life, but less frequently as time goes on, these waves of sadness become less frequent. Eventually, we get used to the absence of our loved one, even though we may miss them more.