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Why funerals are important

When somebody we know dies, we usually feel that we should attend their funeral to pay our respects. There are certain rituals associated with this process and, assuming we’ve attended funerals previously, it feels familiar. We see their coffin, we listen to words about that person and we spend half an hour focusing on them and how we felt about them.

Afterwards there’s usually an opportunity to share our memories with friends and family; something which can bring comfort to not only us, but the people we are talking to.

The face of funerals is changing though and we’ve noticed that while our families usually want to mark the passing of their loved one with a service, it can be different when we talk to individuals about plans for their own funerals. We are hearing more and more that people don’t want a ‘fuss’ made.

Sometimes people don’t want to burden their family with organising a service and they want to alleviate their loved ones of having to attend such a sad or traumatic event. While this is generally well intentioned, it’s important to remember that rituals are part of life, they make us feel ‘safe’ and give us routine, something to focus on and some comfort.

The pandemic had a huge impact on how we carried out funerals and there are many family members who didn’t get to attend the funeral of a close family member because of a restriction on numbers or the inability to travel at that time. We are noticing a fall-out from that with some people telling us that they have found it harder to ‘move on’ because they didn’t attend the funeral.

While an individual might think they are doing their loved ones a favour by not having a funeral, there is an argument that the service is also about the people left behind. A funeral can help the people grieving feel that they are not alone and it gives the life of the person who has died ‘worth’. How often have you attended a funeral and said to somebody afterwards, ‘there were so many people there’ or how lovely it was to see an old neighbour or friend after so many years.

While we have our rituals surrounding death, every single culture across the world has their own particular rituals and gathering of communities after a death. It is central to our cultural practices.

Rituals are part of life and there are some we all observe. You might always have a birthday cake, have particular things you do as a family on Christmas Day or somewhere you pop in to pick up a coffee on the way to work each day.

Interestingly, there are examples of rituals surrounding death in the animal kingdom. Elephants may place dirt and branches over the dead, while ants, bees and termites have dedicated members of their societies who dispose of the dead.

Some earlier cultures, such as the Ancient Egyptians, are well known for their complex funeral rites, such as burying the body with valuable treasures, while the Mayans were often buried with maize in their mouths, as food for their onward journey.

Funerals have many rituals – whether it’s the way the coffin is brought to the chapel or simply the way everyone sits or stands at the same time. There are ways we behave at that time which are part of the ‘ritual’. Psychologists believe that these rituals help us in times of ‘chaos and disorder’. Having a set routine or certain rituals to perform helps people by bringing a sense of control and security.

Academic Jonathan Jong said: “Despite this wide diversity of practice, it seems our death rituals serve the same psychological functions: to make us feel less helpless in the face of our sorrow and terror.”

After somebody has died, we often decide to continue some of their rituals – perhaps by ordering their favourite flowers or tipple of choice on their birthday.

Embracing the rituals associated with a funeral and of a death itself are an important way of saying goodbye to the person you love and begin the long process of rebuilding your life.

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