Essay: You should have a funeral

My kid and his cousin playing at a funeral home

I missed two funerals this winter. 

My uncle and godfather died, and so did his son, my first cousin, just days apart. I live several time zones away from most of my blood relatives; these weren’t the first funerals that I couldn’t attend. But these were different: I missed these funerals because they didn’t happen, per request of the deceased.

A week later, my husband and I spoke with a member of his family who told us that they didn’t want a funeral. Why not? I asked. You all live so far away, and it’s expensive and you’ll have too many other things to do, this person said.

Three people in two weeks who didn’t want a funeral. This felt curious to me. I attended dozens of funerals growing up in rural Midwest community, for both family and fellow church members. As a pastor, I’ve presided at a bunch more at churches and funeral homes, and led graveside services in cemeteries. I’ve led celebrations of life at the local university, the city museum and a park chalet. I keep hoping someone will ask me to lead one in a bar! However and wherever they happen, funerals and memorials are a space for storytelling, gratitude, support and healing. What happens when we don’t have one? Was this a trend?

I turned to the internet and plugged “are people not having funerals?” in the search box. Some unsurprising answers appeared: fewer adherents to organized religion, family members living farther apart, the rising costs of everything. There were comments about people not wanting a fuss or wanting privacy, even in death. Turns out people are having fewer funerals, on the whole, and those who do are less likely to choose a religious funeral.

To be clear, I don’t think people have to have a religious funeral or hold it at the church. It doesn’t even have to be called a funeral – call it a memorial, celebration of life, a wake or dinner together in honor of the one you love. Sometimes these have to happen weeks or months after a death because a loved one dies suddenly or relatives live far away. A cousin once removed died last year and her family held a gathering at a pizza place a year later, which was a wonderful time of storytelling and connecting, my mom reported. This essay is not to meant to shame anyone who has died and chosen not to have a funeral, nor should living relatives feel guilt now for not putting one on. This message is for you, the living: please have some sort of funeral, or give your loved ones permission to honor you in a way that they need.

Humans are social creatures who evolved to live in community. That’s the first reason to have a funeral. We need each other in good times and hard times. Do an internet search about the loneliness epidemic – it’s the new smoking. Our minds and bodies are wired for connection and we need other people, especially during the grief process. After my cousin’s death, I talked to another member of my extended family, who had hoped there would be a funeral. I just want to hug someone, she said. Human cultures have held funeral rituals, communally, for ages. Why would our culture be any different?

We’re in a death-denying culture. That’s the second reason to have a funeral. People used to die at home; everyone had seen a dead body or watched a loved one take a final breath. Family members bathed the body of the deceased, anointed it and wrapped it for burial. I heard an interview recently where a woman said she’d never seen a dead body until she was 24 years old. I bet that’s not uncommon and many see one much later. Years ago I flew solo across the country with my then 4-year-old and 23-month-old (do not recommend) to attend my aunt/godmother’s funeral with them (definitely do recommend). My 4-year-old noted that my aunt’s body felt cold lying in the casket, but we both held her hands anyway.

We need to grieve. That’s the third reason to have a funeral. The funeral isn’t for the dead, it’s for the living. This can be tricky, because no one wants to dishonor the one who has died. But you have to keep living and need to grieve, because grief denied and unprocessed always comes out sideways. Grief is essential for healing and while there’s no right way to do it, the wrong way is to pretend you are doing just fine. You can get a little creative about what your loved on wanted, though. When my husband’s family member informed us that they didn’t want a funeral, I countered with: well, what if the priest says a few words at the columbarium and then we all go out to nice dinner and make some toasts to you? Oh, they replied, that would be fine.

Another example: for my first funeral as a pastor, I got a call from the sister of the dead man (who had a slight connection to the church) asking for the funeral to be held at our church and conducted by a male pastor. I informed her there was no male pastor available so she could have me or do it elsewhere. She said they loved our church so it had to be there, but that the deceased was a “man’s man” and required a male pastor at his service. It was what he would have wanted. She asked if another male pastor in town could do it at our church. Nope, I said, not our policy. She asked if another male pastor could stand next to me up front while I did it. No way, I said (and how terrible is that?!) Then I said: Why don’t you come by and meet me and we’ll see? They came. They saw. They said nothing more about men’s men. I did the funeral a week later. Some things are a little flexible, in life and in death.

Funerals or memorials or the toast at the bar, give us a pattern for the work of grief. The rituals we enact in that space mimic the framework for the journey of grief. We give thanks for the life of the one who has died – maybe to God, maybe to their mother, maybe to the universe. We tell stories, because stories make meaning, make connection, bring us joy, help us frame the narrative arc of our loved one’s life. Then we let go, or we practice it anyway. At a Christian funeral we commend this soul back to the loving arms of God. At the bar, we eventually hug our friends, wipe our tears and go back to our regular lives. We let go, not to forget, and not all at one time, but to move toward acceptance and to continue our lives, changed forever perhaps, but still here.

Folks who don’t get to attend a funeral often do find ways to process their grief and make meaning again. There are many ways to do it. But it feels like we’re denying something deep in our humanity, perhaps losing sight of what it means to be truly human, when we don’t make space to be together for death. It’s weird: no one wants their loved one to die, but those who have been with a loved one when they take their last breath often describe it as a holy space, a thin space, a place they never wanted to be but would not have been anywhere else. The funeral, too, can be that holy space, that thin space, where we connect with God and others on a deeper level, where we remember what really matters.

Recently at a child’s birthday party, I ran into a woman I had met while planning a funeral. I was the pastor, she was a close friend of the woman whose husband had died, much too young. Something about that experience forged a warm connection, maybe also because we’re about the same age and both have three boys. At the birthday party she and I were enthusiastically chatting away when another mom said, how do you know each other? We both looked at each other: were we going to say it? From a funeral! I said. I started laughing, because it seemed so absurd. Then I looked over, worried that she might find my laughter disrespectful. Nope. She looked at me warmly, right in the eyes. From a funeral! she said. And she started laughing, too.


Popular Posts