Why do we have ceremonies like weddings, baptisms, funerals, and religious confirmation observances? Because they help to define who we are within a society or community; these events are considered to be a rite-of-passage, marking our transition from one social status to another. Such celebrations and commemorations are significant social events, and worthy of our attention.
“A good funeral,” wrote well-known funeral director and writer, Thomas Lynch, “gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.” A funeral is truly a rite-of-passage for everyone involved, transporting not only the deceased into a new social status, but also the bereaved family and friends.
While the funeral marks a significant change in the fabric of a closely-knit network of people, it is also plays an important part in the process of acceptance and adaptation following the death of a loved one.
Robert Kastenbaum, author, playwright, and professor, wrote “I believe the funeral is part of a deeper and more complex process in which we both separate ourselves from the dead and try to establish a new relationship with the dead and each other.”
Funerals have been a part of the human experience of death for thousands of years. From the time human groups identified themselves as “community”, the need to ceremonially recognize death as a social transition has caused a flourishing of funeral traditions around the world. Archaeologists declare the first funeral event was 60,000 years B.C.E., when Neanderthal groups in Europe used flowers and other artifacts to decorate the body of a loved one prior to burial. While you can debate whether this was the actual start of the funeral tradition, it’s easy to see that such caring actions illustrate a deep social connection to the deceased–connections similar to the ones we have today with our own family, co-workers, and friends.
“Recognizing our mortality is an important part of the human condition,” writes Dr. Justin Marley, “and how we plan for this is important just as it is for birth and other parts of the life cycle.” In other words, life demands of us all that we acknowledge its loss.
A funeral then is a ceremonial observance intended to celebrate not only the life, but the achievements, of someone within a community–one which also serves to redefine existing social relationships. Considering the wide diversity of human societies around the world, it’s easy to see that the nature and design of a funeral ceremony is a reflection of the beliefs, attitudes and assumptions of those within the community itself. That means there are many types of funerals today, including the Green Funeral, intended to care for the deceased while protecting the environment.
Unique ceremonial elements commonly unavailable for most people living in community, such as the presence of an honor guard, are included in funerals for members of the military, police, or other civil servants who died in the line of duty.
A Memorial Service is a ceremony held when the body of the deceased is not in view. If cremation was the preferred act of final care for the body, the focus of the event could be the cremation urn. If burial has taken place prior to the ceremonial gathering, the focus could simply be an enlarged photograph of the deceased, or a memory table of treasured keepsakes.
In all honesty, we can’t say it often enough. If you’ve recently lost a loved one, a ceremony–whether it’s a traditional funeral or modern memorial service–will do more than you realize. Robert Kastenbaum shared, “The funeral…would not have become so important to so many societies unless it served significant needs and values.”
And here’s what we know from professional experience: the ceremony, no matter what it involves or how it looks, is an essential part of supporting the bereaved while transitioning all involved to a newly-recognized social status. The husband becomes a widower; the child who loses his or her parents becomes an orphan. Sometimes we don’t have a name for this new status, but nonetheless, the shift in status needs to be publicly acknowledged.
Any of the members of the Capital District Funeral Directors Association can assist you in the planning of a funeral or memorial service for a loved one. Consult our Member Directory for the name of the member firm nearest you.
Kastenbaum, Robert, Death, Society and the Human Experience, 10th edition, Allyn & Bacon, 2009.