Last week I attended a memorial service for a friend and former colleague. Sitting in the pew, participating in the liturgy, and reflecting on both the deceased’s and my grief, I wondered whether funerals and memorial services (and other customs that surround death) helpfully minister to the living. These grief rituals, with the possible exception of prayers for the deceased, can only the benefit the living, not the deceased.
Christianity has long taught that all people – the dead and the living – are connected. This claim is inherently unverifiable. But if one posits that God's love is deeper, broader, more far-reaching than any imaginable divide, then God's love reasonably embraces both the living and the dead. God's love may itself connect the living and the dead, or perhaps God, motivated by that unfathomable love, has created some other connection between the living and the dead.
In any case, prayers for the dead by the living certainly do not hurt the dead and may provide some benefit. At a minimum, praying for the dead affords God an opportunity to comfort the person who offers the prayer. Furthermore, praying for the dead presupposes no particular understanding of life after death and can even allow God to move in the life of a person who disbelieves in life after death.
More broadly, do our grief rituals actually benefit the grieving? Grief rituals and associated customs include: funeral, memorial, and interment/burial services; wakes or visitations; burial, cremation, casket, etc.; flowers, memorial donations, funds, etc.; and obituaries. Grief rituals have three possible benefits: comfort for the grieving, bringing closure to a chapter of one’s life, and movement toward beginning a new chapter.
Having conducted a great many funerals and memorial services, and attended a number of others as one of the mourners, the best I can answer is that some of our grief rituals sometimes comfort some people, help some to bring closure to a chapter of their life, and enable some people to move toward a new beginning. In other words, our funerals and memorial services, with their interlocking beliefs and social and religious, receive a decidedly mixed report.
Here are five suggestions for improving grief rituals and customs.
First, the deceased can best honor the grieving by encouraging them to do what seems most likely to bring comfort, closure, and a new beginning. A person preplanning the grief rituals she/he desires upon death may satisfy that person’s need to exercise control but too often minimizes the value of grief rituals for the bereaved. In many circumstances, preplanning that fully involves those closest to a person affords an opportunity to discuss the reality of death, give thanks for shared lives, and select grief rituals that seem likely to assist the bereaved. Death is a natural part of life, yet often is the metaphorical elephant in the room about which nobody really wants to discuss.
Second, every individual and every family is unique. Choose grief rituals that will aid you and those who grieve; ignore rituals and customs that feel wrong or likely to impose more emotional pain and spiritual stress than help and health. Freely adapt social customs to suit needs and preferences. For example, I remain astounded at the numbers of people who wish to conclude grief rituals with military honors. In most cases, playing taps completely undermines any salutary effort of celebrating the deceased’s life and religious affirmations. Winston Churchill famously remarked that he wanted reveille, not taps, played at his funeral.
Third, grief rituals may be as private or public as the bereaved find helpful. No requirement exists to make a public display of grief.
Fourth, money spent on grief rituals is often an extravagant waste. All coffins eventually return to the earth; bodies, even the best preserved, eventually return to the earth. Whatever life may follow death does not depend upon an expensive burial or embalming. The Egyptian pharaohs’ outrageously expensive mausoleums (i.e., the pyramids), elaborate entombments (i.e., with great wealth, servants, and everything else they thought helpful in another life), and careful embalming benefitted grave robbers and historians rather than the deceased. The modern American way of death, apart from being much cheaper and not requiring anyone’s death, is often little better.
Fifth, the best religious liturgies and rites allow the bereaved ample flexibility for adaptation. Take full advantage of that flexibility, with the assistance of caring clergy, to create grief rituals best suited for the bereaved.
Thinking and talking about death, unless it becomes an obsession, provide a unique opportunity for personal growth along with motivation for valuing each living moment as a precious gift. Death is inevitable. So make the most of it!