For thousands of years, in addition to offering a way to respectfully farewell someone we love, funerals have been a means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about life and death.
Funerals have a way of getting us to wake up – to think about what we truly care about and how we want to spend our precious remaining days. Ultimately, funerals help us embrace the wonder of life and death and remind us of the preciousness of life.
Did the person I love have a good life? What is life, anyway? Why do we die? There are no simple explanations to these questions, but the funeral gives us a time and place to hold the questions in our hearts and begin to find our way to answers that give us peace.
When we grieve but don’t mourn, our sadness can feel unbearable and our many other emotions can fester inside of us. Mourning helps us heal, and the funeral is an essential rite of initiation for mourning. It helps us get off to a good start and sets our mourning in motion.
Funerals are social gatherings that bring together people who cared about the person who died, but they are for the living. The funeral is a special time and place to support one another in grief.
Funerals help us begin to convert our relationship with the person who died from one of presence to one of memory. When we come together to share our memories, we learn things we didn’t know and see how the person’s life touched others as well.
It’s hard to truly accept the finality of death, but the funeral helps us begin to do so. At first, we accept it with our heads, and only over time do we come to accept it with our hearts.
In times gone by the body was the focal part of the entire funeral process, from the procession into the church to the procession out of the church to the procession to the cemetery through to the committal. The body never left the family’s sight – or heart.
Yet in recent decades, the trend has been toward body-absent ceremonies, which can seem more like parties that authentic funeral experiences. While historically we understood the essential, universal need to honour and affirm the life of the person who died with the body present throughout the entire funeral process, now the guest of honour is often missing in action.
How often have you heard it said “Oh, we’ll just remember her the way she was when she was alive….” Or “seeing the body is just barbaric and unnecessary”? Yet we submit that there is nothing barbaric about facing the death of someone loved openly and honestly.
Specific to the body, we often hear people say, “well, it’s just a shell.” Of course, this is an attempt to render the body irrelevant and make it disposable. Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof) in the soul and the afterlife, the body of the person who died is still precious. This body still represents the person you love. This is the body that animated life! Doesn’t this person deserve to be accompanied or seen through to the end of his or her days on earth, which includes the disposition of his/her body?
Bereavement originates from the word “reave” meaning “to be deprived of” or “to be forcibly robbed of something.” When we experience the death of someone loved, we are indeed forcibly robbed of something very precious to us. “So, not only is the dead body “proof” for our logic mind, it is a means of transition for our searching heart, which so much yearns to still be with the person. It can feel uncomfortable and painful in the moment but is ultimately helpful and healing.
The body definitely invites us to accept the reality of the death, first with our heads and over time with our hearts. The body also prompts us to recall how this unique person embodied his life in the world – how those hands did so many things, how that face brought us joy. When we spend time with the body in the company of other family members and friends, the body activates support. It also facilitates expression of our inner thoughts and feelings. Spending time with the body also helps us consider the meaning of our loved one’s life and death and, in giving us these final memories of seeing the person we loved through to the grave, sets us on a course for transcendence through grief.
The formal words of the readings we use in funeral ceremonies also have the capacity to bear the weight of our most profound thoughts and feelings about death. They are words “well said.” Crafted by master wordsmiths, they capture what we ourselves feel inside but are usually incapable of expressing so eloquently.
Another way to think about readings at funerals is that they are the counterpoint to music. While music appeals deeply and directly to the emotions and the spirit, readings reach the emotions and spirit by way of the mind. Everyone absorbs information differently, but especially for the “word people” in attendance at the funeral, the readings are an effective element.
Religious funeral ceremonies typically contain a number of standard readings or prayers from the faith’s body of literature. Since books like the Judeo- Christian Bible are believed to contain God’s own words about matters of life and death, it’s crystal clear why readings from these books are the centrepiece of many religious funerals.
The secular ceremonies can also include readings, such as poems, that do a wonderful job of helping friends and families move forward in their mourning. For starters, readings that specifically mention death help mourners acknowledge the REALITY and finality of death and come to terms with it. What’s more, readings that help mourners embrace their pain and move towards its EXPRESSION are so appropriate at funerals. Families may also consider readings that capture the unique life and philosophies of the person who died. Favourite passages, poems and sayings can be used. Each of these personalized readings can be prefaced with a few words about the reading’s place in the person’s life. This helps funeral attendees remember the person who died – in other words RECALL.
What’s more, appropriate readings are one of the most important funeral vehicles for the mourners’ search for MEANING. Religious and secular readings alike typically place the death in a larger context of meaning and thus offer comfort to mourners.
Inviting several different people to do readings is a good way to involve a number of primary mourners in the funeral ceremony. Their involvement helps them as well as others. Responsive or group readings can also demonstrate social bonds and evoke community SUPPORT.
Readings are essential elements that make every funeral tapestry richer and more meaningful.
Throughout many important moments and settings in life, we turn to music to help set the tone and establish context. Can you imagine the holidays without music? What would a great film be without its soundtrack? And what about birthdays and weddings?
At the funeral, music is one way that we let friends and family know that their normal and necessary emotions of grief, which music tends to draw forth, are welcome. Music is also universal, unifying medium that joins mourners and speaks for them when words are inadequate.
Quiet reflection during musical interludes often stimulates acknowledgment of the REALITY of the death. Music often helps us move from knowing something in our heads to knowing something in our hearts. What’s more, music is often very moving to mourners and can provide effective moments in which to think about their loss and embrace and move them toward EXPRESSION of their pain.
Another purpose of the funeral is RECALL. Music can help us with this. Songs that represent or were meaningful to him or her draw forth our memories. Music associated with special times we shared with the person who has died as well as lyrics that seem to capture his or her elicit memories we may not even have known were there.
Though music is very individualistic, and people often bring their own unique meanings to any given piece, certain pieces of music speak to a body of faith or, more generally, to spirituality and often brings mourners meaning. Hymns are an obvious example, but classical music, pop songs, and other musical genres can be just as effective at helping mourners search for MEANING.
Of course, the timeless themes and messages of music can often bring us to places of TRANSCENDENCE during a funeral, even in the midst of our grief.
In Victoria there is no current legal requirement for Funeral Directors to be licensed. There is no regulation in place regarding funeral care, nor are there any legislated standards of premises, facilities, equipment or financial security.
So how do you choose a funeral home that will inspire confidence and trust?
Mulqueen Family Funeral Directors is a member of the Australian Funeral Directors Association (AFDA) the peak national body of Funeral Directors in Australia.
Recognised Funeral Industry Associations are the only form of watchdog in the funeral industry, and membership is a sign of a trusted and well-equipped funeral home that has pledged compliance with the association standards.
As a member of the AFDA, we are required to comply with strict codes of ethics and conduct, provide a high standard of facilities, vehicles, equipment, service and training, and complete regular ongoing professional development. To maintain full accreditation, our facilities, vehicles and equipment are inspected on a regular basis. It should not be assumed that all funeral providers are members of the AFDA or compliant with their standards. Their code is a reassurance to the community of sincere care and professional service at a difficult time. AFDA member firms are chosen by 60% of Australian families to provide funeral arrangements for their loved ones.
Symbols are objects that represent so much more than they appear to. In the funeral ceremony, symbols provide points of focus for mourners.
Furthermore, symbols such as these provide the comfort of tradition. Their continuity and timelessness ground mourners at a time when all seems chaotic.
Some families like to provide those who attend the funeral with a small symbolic gift reflecting the life of the person who died, e.g., if she was a gardener, a packet of her favourite seeds; a golfer, a golf ball; a car person, a small model car, etc.
Keep in mind that some funeral symbols are primarily social. They represent SUPPORT and love. Even
the tradition of wearing black clothes to a funeral is socially symbolic. It says to others: Ï am bereaved (‘torn apart’). Please give me your consideration and support.
The actions of a funeral provide movement for bereaved friends and family. Mourners often don’t know what to do with their grief. Finding that everyday words are inadequate, they turn to the rituals of the funeral ceremony. And funerals are made up of a number of ritualistic physical actions, all of which give mourners a way to literally move through the funeral process (and thus through this difficult time of their grief).
Physical actions during the ceremony – such as receiving friends and standing together, give a form and shape to the event. This helps everyone feel secure and comfortable. It also helps them feel that they’ve participated in something important and with meaning.
Also, when ‘special” mourners are recognised by being invited to play a special role in the funeral service – such as pallbearers, soloists, and readers – they complete actions during the ceremony that can help make the funeral feel very meaningful for them.
The procession (or cortege, which means “to pay honour”) from the funeral to the cemetery is a significant action that everyone can participate in. While a number of people argue that the procession is a useless inconvenience, the truth is that it is a profoundly meaningful funeral element.
Often, the last thing we can do for someone we love is accompany him or her to the grave. Also, the procession is intended to activate community SUPPORT.
Final words said at the graveside also help mourners RECALL the person who died, give EXPRESSION to their grief, and consider the MEANING of this person’s unique life. Because they are spoken last, the committal readings, prayers, or messages may also be those that participants carry with them long into the future.
“Closing” music may also be played at the committal, such as “Taps” or bagpipes, lending an air of finality to both the life and the funeral.
Finally, the committal provides a physical conclusion to the formal funeral ceremony. Without it, mourners – whether they’re conscious of it or not – may find themselves at a loose end about the person who died. Where is he? What happened to him in the end?
The moment at which attendees are invited to attend the wake or similar also marks the transition to the informal part of the funeral.
The eulogy – which comes from the Greek eulogia, meaning “praise; good or fine language”- acknowledges the unique life of the person who died and affirms the significance of that life for all who shared in it. Without a eulogy and/or other personalised means of acknowledging this particular life and death, the funeral often becomes an empty, cookie-cutter formality. What’s worse, it implies that this unique and precious person’s life story just wasn’t worth gathering and sharing.
For mourners, telling the story is central to their healing. In the context of the funeral ceremony, the eulogy is the grand, public telling of the story that unites all the mourners present.
In addition to helping them RECALL the person who died, the eulogy also usually addresses the mourner’s search for MEANING. What did this person’s life mean? What value did it bring to those who it touched? Through the stories that it tells, the eulogy often suggests possible answers to these kinds of existential questions and can help begin to move those in attendance closer to a sense of peace.
Of course, the very fact that a eulogy is being given doses family members and friends in attendance at the funeral with the REALITY that the person has died. At the gathering after the funeral, the eulogy often fosters conversation among those same family members and friends, giving them a common lifeline to hold onto as they SUPPORT one another and give EXPRESSION to their thoughts and feelings.
Reviewing the person’s unique life history during the eulogy is a special and final – once-in-a-lifetime – way to honour him or her. Done well, the eulogy can be the most memory filled moment in the funeral. Whoever writes the eulogy can be encouraged to gather memories and thoughts from others to include in the remembrance, so the story is as rich and comprehensive as possible.
Families often say that the eulogy was the most meaningful part of the funeral ceremony they held – but only in cases in which it was truly personalised. Keep in mind that the eulogy doesn’t have to be delivered by the person leading the service. Only
if the clergyperson, officiant, or celebrant knows
the family well and can speak personally about the person who died (or does a good and thorough job of gathering life history and memories from others) is this appropriate. If the officiant didn’t know the person who died, it’s usually much more meaningful to have a family member or friend of the family give the eulogy. If a loved one will be delivering the eulogy, however, make sure that it’s typed up and that there’s a back-up plan in place so that if the person becomes too emotional to speak, the appointed understudy can seamlessly step in and finish.
The eulogy is the primary means of honouring and looking back, and without it, the funeral is like a book with the best chapter missing.
Most funerals formally come to an end when the mourners gather to share a bite to eat, and to talk about the person who died. As you know, these gatherings can take place anywhere, including the funeral home function centre, a church meeting room, a restaurant, or a home of a friend or family member.
Mulqueen Family Funeral Directors has a function centre that caters for up to 120 people which is fully catered for a family’s convenience.
At the gathering, a natural “telling of the stories” of the person’s life and death takes place. This helps mourners once again acknowledge the REALITY and finality of death and RECALL the person who died.
Giving EXPRESSION to the pain of the loss is another central need of mourning that the gathering helps facilitate. In fact, all thoughts and feelings are welcome at the gathering. People often laugh and hug one another, offering each other SUPPORT. While there are often some tears of sadness, the mood may begin to evolve into a sense of peace and a soothing of souls, imbuing the funeral with MEANING. In fact, you may notice that people
look different at the gathering than they did during the other parts of the funeral. They are often more relaxed, less tense. They may even seem joyful and be able to glimpse TRANSCENDENCE.
Memory tables at the gathering also aid RECALL. They help capture the personality of the person who died and the unique relationships he or she had. Some families enjoy continuing to show PowerPoint slide shows or memory videos. This is another way to personalise the gathering and often inspires reflection on the life of the person who died. Special food items may be served to recognise and share the culture, traditions, or simply the favourite food of the person who died.
Before they leave the gathering, mourners often make plans to see each other again or to reach out in various ways to help the primary mourners. This helps extend the social SUPPORT value of the funeral and reminds people of the need to continue to be present to each other in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
Sometimes families are reticent to have a gathering after the funeral because they are concerned about additional costs or unsure whether anyone will come.
Mulqueen Family Funeral Directors caters to all budgets when families are considering the use of their function facility.
Information on this page is courtesy of Dr Alan D. Wolfelt PHD.
Dr. Wolfelt is a respected author, educator and consultant to funeral service and serves as the Director for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado.
He advocates for the value of meaningful funeral experiences across North America each year.
Visit www.centerforloss.com for more information about Dr. Wolfelt, his workshops, and resources on healing and grief.