My camping trip last week was book-ended by visits to a hospice. And while I was away, I read a book by Dr. Alan Wolfelt on the value and significance of funerals. I know it wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of a juicy read, but I found it fascinating. It talked about how our culture’s growing avoidance of pain has now moved into a denial of dying. More and more people are choosing direct cremation without any kind of ceremony to mark the passing from life to death. It’s like we want to maintain the illusion of invincibility and don’t want anything to ruin the dream. Even when we do have funerals, the goal seems be all about celebration without any recognition that death is our “enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26) and that the passing of our loved one is a painful separation. By failing to mourn, the pain of grief remains unresolved and can lead to deeper issues down the road. A funeral doesn’t bring closure to a mourner’s grief, but it does create what Dr. Wolfelt call a “meaningful beginning” where healing can begin. To do that, he says that funerals should seek to accomplish six things.
1. Acknowledge the reality of the death.
When someone we love dies, it’s often difficult for us to fully come to terms with what has happened. The writing of the obituary, the planning of the funeral, the viewing of the open casket and the lowering of the casket into the grave help mourners confront the reality of death. And until death’s reality is truly acknowledged, healing can’t begin.
2. Move toward the pain of the loss.
Everyone experiences grief when they lose someone. There is an internal sadness and pain that is natural when we consider what we miss about another person. Expressing that inward grief in outward mourning is a crucial means of release. Without it, the pain is suppressed and contained. Christians are often so eager to express their hope and the strength of their faith, that no place is given to acknowledge the pain they feel. But if Jesus wept at the death of a man he would resurrect the same day (John 11:35), it would seem strange that Christians should pretend to be immune to the place of tears and a recognition of sadness. Funerals can be a place where people can move toward the pain of their loss.
3. Remember the person who died.
Healing in grief comes as we begin to move from our enjoyment of a person’s presence to our appreciation of the person’s memory. A funeral is a time when precious memories are shared and celebrated. Mourners exchange memories and people walk away with valued thoughts about the one they lost and lessons they will carry with them.
4. Develop a new self-identity.
We all know that death brings the loss of a person, but we lose something of ourselves as well. We’re no longer their daughter, husband, sister, grandchild or friend. And the people that are dear to us often bring out a part of us that we only feel in their presence. A funeral is a place for people to affirm each other in their new identities. For example, a woman can express her care for her sister-in-law despite the loss of the brother/husband that previously united them.
5. Search for meaning.
Facing the death of a loved one forces us to confront our own frailty. As Dr. Wolfelt says, “Each funeral we attend serves as a sort of dress rehearsal for our own.” A funeral is an opportunity to consider questions of dying, God and the afterlife as well as life’s purpose and meaning.
6. Receive ongoing support from others.
Funerals provide a public invitation for support. They invite grieving people to gather and loved ones to offer their encouragement. Many people attend funerals for the sake of others and the symbolic demonstration of compassion they show is important in people’s healing and recovery.
Funerals are becoming passé. And even when they’re held, people can avoid many of the elements that make them so powerful. But they can serve an important purpose when we approach them intentionally and with the heart of Jesus who said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
In awe of Him,