By Victor M. Parachin
Advice columnist Ann Landers once told a 17-year-old girl she should attend her best friend’s funeral. “A funeral provides proof that the deceased is gone,” she said. “It helps the bereaved to overcome denial mechanisms.”
Shortly after that column was published, Landers received a compelling letter from a widow who agreed: “You’re right, Ann. Don’t let anyone change your mind. I learned the lesson from bitter experience.” The widow related how her grieving was delayed and intensified over a 20-year period because she failed to have a funeral at the time of her husband’s death. She explained:
My husband was declared missing in action over France on June 10, 1944. In January of ’45 he was declared dead after his plane was found. I refused to believe it. News items about lost flyers who were found alive in unexpected places kept my hopes alive. Finally, I was forced to make the decision and I requested that my husband be buried in France. A flag came home.
Almost 20 years later I took my son to France to visit his father’s grave. When the kindly custodian asked us whose grave we had come to see, my throat closed. I couldn’t speak or eat for 48 hours. I grieved as if my husband had just died.
Even now, as I write these words I can feel my throat tighten. I realize I suffered all that agony because I had never witnessed the final farewell. I should have requested that my husband’s remains be sent home and had a funeral.
That woman’s experience is not an isolated one among those who have a loss but, for various reasons, do not have a funeral service. Those who study and work closely with the bereaved understand there are psychological pitfalls and dangers when funeral services are eliminated or abbreviated. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center For Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado puts it this way:
The growing trend toward minimizing the funeral ritual or eliminating it altogether has resulted in many people not knowing how to mourn in healthy ways. . . . Clinical experience suggests that when the funeral ritual is minimized or distorted, mourning often becomes minimized or distorted. Likewise, when no funeral ritual occurs the mourner often adopts a complicated response style of delayed or absent grief.
The reality is that funeral services are good for people. This is especially important to emphasize today because traditions and rituals have become suspect. Here are eight benefits of having a funeral service.
1. A funeral service gets the grief recovery process started. With a funeral service, important first steps are taken that lead to a healthy grief adjustment. This was articulated most effectively by Erich Lindemann, MD, while he was chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
At the time, one of the greatest tragedies in modern U.S. history took place on November 28, 1942. That day the streets of Boston were filled with football fans who had come to watch Holy Cross play Boston College. After the game many people went to the nearby Coconut Grove Nightclub to celebrate. During the festivities a fire started. The nightclub, holding about 1,000 people in a building designed for 600, was immediately engulfed in flames. The fire claimed the lives of 492 people, making it the worst nightclub fire in history.
Afterwards, Lindemann and his colleagues worked with grieving family members. Using data from his work and study, Lindemann published his classic paper The Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief. He wrote: “The funeral service is psychologically necessary in order to give the opportunity for ‘grief work.’” And working through grief, according to Lindemann, is the only way to remain emotionally sound.
2. A funeral service confirms the reality that a death has occurred. As strange as it may seem, those closest to a loved one who has died often need evidence that the death has happened.
For many people, seeing leads to believing. Initial impulses about death are to resist and deny. This was something frequently encountered by Edgar N. Jackson, a minister and grief educator who served as a chaplain in the Army Air Corps during World War II. In his book, For the Living, he tells of repeatedly witnessing denial from parents who received fateful telegrams from the War Department informing them their son was killed during conflict. He said:
It was my duty to visit families of servicemen in my particular unit who died. Again and again I found relatives denying reality and clinging to illusion. “I know about the telegram and all that,” they would say, “but nothing can keep me from believing that some day the door will open and our son will be there, telling us he was captured by the enemy and it took him all this time to get out.” Other times they talked about the possibility of amnesia, or his being shot down in a remote region. In each instance this was a carefully constructed denial which they chose to cling to rather than accept the painful truth.
3. A funeral service is a vital mechanism that overcomes denial. William J. Worden, PhD, professor of psychology at the Harvard Medical School and author of Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, makes this important observation:
There is strong advantage to having the family members see the body of the deceased loved one, whether it be at the funeral home or at the hospital. Even in the case of cremation the body can still be present at the funeral service in either an open or closed casket and then the cremation done after the service. In this way, the funeral service can be a strong asset in helping the survivors work through the first task of grief. That task is to overcome denial and accept the reality of death.
4. A funeral service provides a sense of control. Having to make funeral arrangements offers grievers an early opportunity to take action. Funeral service preparation can transform feelings of powerlessness into a greater sense of control. Although survivors could not prevent the death, now there are decisions they must make such as locating and calling a funeral firm, establishing the place and time of a funeral, selecting a casket, choosing clothing, and contacting friends and relatives.
Such decision making begins to provide grievers with a sense of control over their lives. This is vital for the months ahead. Survivors will have to take further control of their lives as they forge a new identity and build new lives for themselves without the presence of the deceased.
5. A funeral service invites community support. The funeral service brings the broader community of family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances together to offer support. This helps the bereaved turn from hurting to healing as they become recipients of empathy and compassion. Without a funeral, grievers are deprived of the opportunity to make this important transformation.
In fact, many express regret at not having had a service of some kind. In their book on suicide and its aftermath titled Silent Grief, Christopher Lukas and Henry M. Seiden give this advice:
There is at least one thing all survivors can do that many find helpful. They can involve themselves in normal rituals: a memorial service, a funeral, an announcement in the paper. Many survivors told us that this did not occur and that contributed to the family’s agony.
They cite a disappointed family member who said, “My brother’s family didn’t want a ‘party,’ so they decided to have nothing at all. We just went hom
And a wife said, “We didn’t have a memorial service; we moved. There was no external sign of Sam’s suicide. It was a mistake.”
6. A funeral service lets the light in. The death of a loved one is a dark, depressing, and potentially despairing event. The funeral service provides opportunity for those hurting the most to be reminded that God is present in the midst of pain. They will receive comfort from the reading of Scriptures such as 2 Samuel 22:29, 33: “You are my lamp, O Lord; the Lord turns my darkness into light. . . . It is God who arms me with strength.” Additionally, grievers will hear prayers offered by others asking God to bless and comfort them. It is the funeral service that allows the light to penetrate the darkness of loss.
7. A funeral service promotes the release of grief emotions. In many segments of our society, it is not permissible to show emotion and feeling. However, this is not true at a funeral service. There, those present are free and even expected to shed tears, be sad, express hurt, and articulate fears for the future. The funeral service becomes a place of refuge where the emotions of grief can be fully released.
8. A funeral service creates space and place for the community to grieve. People are social creatures in need of each other. This is especially true when there has been a loss to death. The funeral service allows people to come together for mutual grieving and supporting.
So basic and important is this sense of community togetherness in times of crisis, that family members sometimes wisely override the wishes of the deceased who specified “no service” or “something very, very simple with only immediate family.” In the book Midlife Orphan, author J. Brooks relates this story about Mimi, a beloved mother, grandmother, and friend to many:
When Mimi died, only the immediate family attended the graveside funeral service in accordance with her wishes. But so many people wanted to pay their respects to this wonderful woman that Ron (her son) organized a memorial service at home the day after the funeral. For nearly two hours, more than 100 friends, family members, and coworkers shared their memories of this beloved woman. They extolled a woman who saw only the good in everyone, who was a great sport, willing to try new experiences, passionately devoted to her family, and who made the world’s best chicken soup. It was an extraordinary outpouring, marked with tears, laughter, and the love that was Mimi’s legacy.
Thus, the funeral service and ritual, properly managed, delivers great therapeutic benefits to survivors. It ought to be viewed as an investment rather than an expenditure.
Next week: “Children and Grief” (part two of this three-part series).
Victor M. Parachin is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He served local congregations in Chicago and Washington, D.C. A full-time freelance writer, he is the author of a dozen books. A bereavement educator, he is a grief consultant for the National Funeral Directors Association and writes a monthly column for the trade journal, The Director. His column, “Grief Relief,” is read by funeral professionals across the country who use the information to better help their client families.