Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint.
Henri Nouwen

Why Do We Have Funerals?

Why Do We Have Funerals?
Another significant comment I received while I was writing In Due Course was this one from Deb regarding funerals. Here is the relative portion of her comment and my response:

“... I expect that my mother will not live much longer and we have not had a relationship for a number of years. As a result I am considering whether or not to attend the funeral. My brother refuses to even consider it and her stepchildren would consider it only if their father is still living. I'm certain her family will not understand if I don't attend, but at the same time it is painful to pretend that there was somehow a caring relationship there which for me died a long time ago. Thank you for any insight you can give.”


Deb's question about whether or not she should attend her mother's funeral reflects a common dilemma in our culture – should I or should I not go the funeral. For this reason, I think it is helpful to review why we have funerals or other memorial rituals in the first place. There are three important aids that these rituals provide for our mourning: disposition of the bodily remains, bringing into concrete reality the implications of the death, and beginning the process of re-building a disintegrated world view so that the we can live a meaningful life going forward.

Disposition of the Body
 As members of humanity, we have an innate sense that human life is valuable. Therefore, when someone dies we believe that the physical holder of that life (the body) that remains should be treated with respect. Archaeological evidence shows that since the time of the Neanderthals, humans have ritualized the disposition of the bodily remains of their companions. Today, various cultures and belief systems prescribe the appropriate treatment of a body. For many, disrespectful treatment of the body is considered either a crime against man and/or God, or the greatest possible sign of disdain for the deceased. So, the first purpose of a funeral is to provide those who knew the person the opportunity to dispose of the bodily remains of the deceased in a respectful and appropriate manner.

Solidifying the Implications of the Death
 The second major contribution that memorial rituals serve is to provide a way for the implications of the death to become real, that is, to help the process of psychologically separating the dead from the living. When we are first told about the death of someone, a common first reaction is not to believe it has really happened. For many suddenly bereaved people, it can be difficult to differentiate between what is real and what is unreal, what is symbolic and what is literal. The idea of the death occurring is so “unreal” that we want some kind of physical proof to verify it before we can make it “real.” The most definitive proof is seeing or touching at least some part of the deceased 's body. While there are many stories and television shows demonstrating this need, one of the most moving reports that I have read was the caption of a photo that appeared in the Austin American Statesman last fall. The photo showed a grieving, crying woman at the funeral service for her father who was reported missing in Laos on March 28, 1968. The caption states that the graveside services were being held because the remains, one lone tooth, of the father/soldier had been returned to the family recently. After 38 years physical proof finally existed that the father/soldier was dead and no longer with the living. Merely being in the presence of all or part of the body (whether it is a closed or open casket funeral or cremains in an urn), and the associated funeral ritual can be important in making the death a reality.

Aiding in the Rebuilding of a Disintegrated World
I have written previously about how the death of a loved one can shatter the assumptive world each of us has built for ourselves. Funeral rituals can be the first steps in rebuilding that world. The disintegration, or shattering, of our world after a death can occur at four levels: the individual level, the family level, the social level, and the spiritual level.

Disintegration at the individual level is characterized by the assortment of grief reactions we have after the loss and a feeling of “going crazy.” This can lead to some loss of personal identity and of how to live in the changed world. Our mourning requires us to re-define who we are in light of our loss.

Disintegration at the family level involves the breakdown of past family roles and relationships. Everyone in the family has to renegotiate who they are and what they represent in the revised family structure. For example, when my aunt died last month, my elder cousin assumed the role of, and was readily acknowledged as, the new matriarch of the family. Disintegration at the family level can cause old tensions to re-surface or new ones to arise. The change in the family system caused by the death requires the family to rebuild its structure in order to survive.

Disintegration at the social level refers to the breakdown of the structure of the society that the deceased was an important part of. The magnitude of this can range from Who will run the government if the president of the United States dies? to Who will drive the carpool on Tuesdays now? In these cases and all in between, the affected level of society will have to be reworked so that it can once again function properly.

Disintegration at the spiritual level deals with our ability to make sense of what has happened and with our relationship to whomever/whatever we consider the transcendent (e.g., God, the Universe, etc.) to be. Rebuilding means re-establishing how we view the world and our place in it while at the same time re-negotiating our relationship to our personal concept of the transcendent.

The benefit of a funeral ritual in these re-integration efforts is that it brings others into the experience. Nothing can change the fact that the death has occurred, but those who are directly affected are not totally helpless victims. With the aid of others, mourners can decide how they will react to the experience and how they will get back some measure of control over their lives.

So, should Deb go to the funeral? I cannot answer the question for her, but I can suggest she take a hard look at her own circumstances and where she is in her grieving (not only the imminent physical death of her mother, but also the “death” of the relationship years ago and of any hope of ever having the family/mother she wanted/needed). She should seriously consider if attending the funeral will assist or hamper her as she re-builds her world.
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The Death of a Counselor's Mother
Comparing Levels of Grief
 

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