Death, Ritual and the Funeral

It has been two months and ten days since my husband died. In five more days it will be two months since his funeral. When he died unexpectedly in Lima, Peru I was asked over and over again why I didn’t have him cremated and take his remains home in an urn. I never considered that idea. I had eight grown children at home who, in my mind at least, needed to see their father in his coffin and have an opportunity to say their goodbyes. And I am glad that I brought him home and that we had a funeral. As hard as it was it would have been unimaginably harder without a funeral.
As someone once said, “When words are inadequate, have a ritual.” What are rituals? Rituals are prescribed or established ceremonies, proceedings or services. But they are more than that; rituals are important and symbolic acts that give meaning to the incomprehensible and bring closure and healing. Rituals are symbolic events that help us express our deepest thoughts and feelings about life’s most important events. It is because of their symbolic nature that rituals endure.
So what is it that a funeral offers to the bereaved? Let me tell you what it meant to me. First, I cannot imagine having arrived home where I was met at the airport by six of my children plus spouses and grandchildren with nothing more to offer than, “Yep, dad died in Peru.”
The funeral provided a public, traditional and symbolic way to express our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about the death of our husband/father/friend. The funeral ceremony helped us *acknowledge the reality of his death and *share memories of his life. It encouraged the expression of *grief in a way consistent within our culture, *provided support to mourners inside and outside the family, *reinforced our beliefs about faith, life, and death, and *offered continuity and hope for the living. If this is what a funeral is supposed to do I believe my husband’s funeral was a real success.
*Acknowledge the reality of the death: Because we were so far away from family and friends when my husband died it was hard for those back home to mentally or emotionally accept the fact that Mike was dead. It was hard for me to acknowledge death’s reality, and I was right there. Up until the funeral we could in many ways deny this new reality to ourselves. My daughter who flew to Peru and was tasked with speaking with the coroner and identifying her father’s body in the morgue had a much more abrupt introduction to the reality of death. So did my son who worked with the mortuary in Arizona and accompanied the body from the airport to Nogales.
Those who had not seen their father needed an opportunity to say goodbye. Those of us who had dealt directly with his death needed a more supportive opportunity to say goodbye.
*Embrace the pain of the loss: As the understanding of what we’d lost moved from mental to emotional understanding the pain became very real. The funeral allowed those who loved Mike to grieve publicly without reproof. The funeral forced us to concentrate on our feelings of love and loss—painful feelings—and we could express those feelings without being asked to intellectualize or distance ourselves from the pain of our grief. The funeral may be for many people the only time and place where an open expression of sadness is not frowned on to some degree. But grieving is a good and natural part of loss, an acknowledgement of how much we love and will miss the one who is gone. Let us grieve.
*Remember the one who died: Part of acceptance is shifting our relationship from one of physical presence to one of memory. My oldest daughter delivered the eulogy for her father. She had to think about his life and distill those important pieces she would share. I asked all my children to speak at the funeral, to plan on three to five minutes and share memories specific to them and their father. I suggested that they not say, “My dad was the greatest, smartest, strongest, whatever,” but to think of specific events, moments, and actions that would illustrate what they wanted to say. It was not easy, but it helped each of us as we shifted our thoughts from the present loss to wonderful memories we all shared.
We also went through the tens of thousands of photos I have on the computer searching for just the right images to express who our husband/father was. We printed more than a dozen photos as 16 x 20 inch posters and put them up on easles in the front of the church, on the tables with the flowers and next to the pulpit. Looking at hundreds of pictures brought back many more memories than those contained in the photos we printed and displayed. And the posters added another dimension to the service.
Of course there were many more people with us than just immediate family. All seven of my brothers and sisters were there along with nieces and nephews. Neighbors, friends and members of our church were in attendance. They too had memories to share. The night before the funeral we held a dinner for the family with about sixty people in attendance. Part way through dinner my brother-in-law suggested we all share something we remembered about Mike. We shared, we laughed, and we embedded those happy memories into our own memories.
*Acknowledge our changed relationships: In Peru our taxi driver helped us in countless ways. I remember clearly a phone call he made for me to the detective assigned to investigate my husband’s cause of death. The detective asked Luis who he was and why he was calling. He replied, “I am a friend of the widow.” I physically pulled back from that title. It was not a part of my identity. I recognized my roles as daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend. There was no room for ‘widow’ in my understanding of who I am.
But the funeral allowed not only me but my family and friends to accept a new reality, to accept a new identity, a new role. Those attending the funeral affirm and acknowledge the changed identity and let us know they still love and care about us.
*Search for meaning: Death brings many questions. Why? Why now? Why here? Why did you leave me? How will I go on by myself? Will we be together again? Why didn’t I do more? How could I have prevented this? I think there is a lot of irrational guilt immediately following a death, but that too is a part of the search for understanding. And we have to figure out why we should go on living before we can address how we’ll go on. The funeral does not answer all our questions but it does give expression to some of them, giving us the opportunity to mentally and emotionally reconcile some of those questions and to leave others behind. The funeral gives meaning to life and death making our own future death a reality. At the funeral we are able to express our beliefs and values about life and death. The funeral affirms that death is an important part of life for us and this is as it should be. This was brought home forcefully to me when my aunt died and my cousins had no funeral, no burial, no announcement. When her younger sister called to tell me Tui had died I asked for the funeral details. Meryl sadly told me that Tui had died weeks earlier but she had just learned of her death. What a stark and cold message.
*Receive support from others: Funerals are designed so that family and friends can offer and receive support. At the funeral we hugged, we touched, we offered comfort. Walking on the arm of the Army Sergeant who presented me with my husband’s folded flag at the cemetery, I felt a sense of strength and continuity. Holding hands, embracing and being embraced by good friends said “Life goes on. We are here to support you.”
Finally for those of you who have not suffered a personal loss, your physical presence at the funeral is an important show of support to the living. Several friends told me it was too difficult emotionally for them to attend the funeral. Don’t say that to the widow. If I could be there to fill my assigned role and show my love for my husband I had little patience with those who told me it was too difficult for them to attend. Attend the funeral. Cry, be emotional. Let those you love know they are not alone in their grief. Hold on to your memories and go on with life.

(Thank you toAlan D Wolfelt for his excellent article on the funeral ritual in GriefWords. His six points served as the outline for much of what I wanted to express.)


About Karen Hopkins

Karen Hopkins (1949-) was born in Los Angeles and raised in Martinez, California. At seventeen she moved to Talcahuano, Chile. After completing her university degree she worked in London, England for Pan American Airlines and traveled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, and India. For twenty-six years Karen taught Spanish and English as a Second Language in a variety of settings including a private school in Panama, the "most remote school in the United States" in Ticaboo, Utah, the Navajo Reservation, and a teacher exchange in Hermosillo, Mexico. Karen and her husband traveled extensively throughout Mexico and Central America, spending many summers in the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala . Karen currently lives in Southern Arizona, near the Mexican border.
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One Response to Death, Ritual and the Funeral

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