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I am not a funeral director, nor am I writing this article to defend the funeral Industry.
I have been a minister for forty years, and I am the author of books on grief and grief recovery. My Purpose here is to defend the funeral itself, I fear the funeral will be the victim of these attacks, and when we lose the funeral we lose something very healing and healthy for families in grief.
Written articles and television expose often deal with the cost of the funeral. They never ask whether or not there is any value to the funeral. They seem to start with the premise that these are rather primitive and silly exercises in morbidity, and any cost is far to much. These kinds of exposes leave there impression that funeral directors should do this work for free, or else they are rip-off artists of the worst kind.
If cost is what determines the value of our ceremonies, then maybe we should look at weddings. No one writes major articles on the exorbitant cost of weddings. The cost of funerals has not increased in any proportion to the cost of weddings. I have officiated at weddings that cost over $25,000, and the ceremony lasts less than thirty minutes. The marriage lasted less than two years. Why don’t we jump on florists and caterers and those folks who rip us off on the cost of a rental tuxedos ? We do not do so because we see value in wedding ceremonies. Somehow we fail to see the value of the funeral.
I think it is important for our society to maintain the funeral and hold it in high esteem. How the society treats its dead is indicative of how it will treat its living.
When it does not matter whether or not a person is memorialized or remembered. We are not far from a society where life is cheap and someone’s death is nothing.
As a grief counselor, I think the funeral is needed to help family members face the loss and learn to cope. The value of the funeral is based on the healthy impact a funeral can have on our emotional and mental health. Rightly done, a funeral is therapeutic.
When bad things happen to us, the first thing we want to do is establish the significance of the event. If a little boy falls down and hurts his hand, he comes to his mother in tears. She may clean the hand and find there is nothing wrong but he wants a bandage on the place. Then he will show everyone his boo-boo. After everyone has seen his boo-boo the bandage can be removed and the event forgotten.
That is human nature. What do we do after surgery ? Show the Scar. If we can’t show the scar then we tell anyone we see - Strangers or not - about the surgery. We need to establish the significance of the event. If we can establish the significance, we can move on. If not, we tend to come to a halt, and the event becomes an obsession to us.
I have just completed a book on long-term and grudges. Grudges happen because someone was hurt, and no one would let them establish the significance of that hurt.
When a loved one dies we need to establish the significance of that loss and the significance of the loved one. The first step in the process is to establish the personal significance of the person. It is almost as if we must inventory the loss before we can grieve. We need to talk about the person. We need times of remembering who the person was and what they meant to us. We do not know what we have lost until it is gone. Then it comes in waves and it comes in ripples. These remembrances hurt and yet they heal, for they are establishing significance so we can move on.
Then we need to know the social significance of our loved one. We need to know that the person had value to others. I like flowers at funerals. I give to charity at other times, but for a funeral I send flowers say the person had significance to me, and the family needs to know what the person meant to friends. That is what a funeral is supposed to be.
We gather together to establish the significance of a life. Granted, not all funerals are done right or well. Instead of dismissing the whole funeral process in an effort to escape the reality of death, we should be working to make the funeral as meaningful and healing as possible.
Almost everything about a funeral has the potential to heal, even the tough parts that seem hard on the family. I think is important for the family to view the body of a loved one. I recognize this is seen as morbid and plastic by those who would try to be too sophisticated to indulge in such emotional experiences.
Viewing the body is the best way for a family to face reality and begin the process of closure. It may sound like a terrible ordeal. But in most every case the experience proves the very first step in establishing the significance of the person and the loss.
We instinctively know the value of seeing our loved ones. If the body does not matter, why did we dig so desperately trying to find the bodies at the Oklahoma City bombing long after we knew no one was still alive ? Why was I asked to write special materials for the families who would not receive a body ? In the first days after the bombing we thought as many as fifty families would be deprived of a body, and we knew this would deepen their loss. Why do we drag oceans and swamps until every possible body part has been recovered after a plane crash ? We do so because we know it matters!
I have believed in viewing loved ones for many years, but I did not know how vital it was until as employee in my company suffered the death of a son by suicide. About a year after the suicide she said she was going to the police to get the pictures they took at the scene of her son’s death . When I protested that those pictures were really tough to look at, she said, " Those pictures cannot possibly be as bad as I picture the scene in my imagination. I have heard whispers in the hall that my son blew his head off, and I can’t live with the images in my mind. I must see" She got the pictures. And she and her husband together looked at them, and then I looked at them with her. I waited for a few months and then asked her what seeing the pictures had done for her. She said " I can’t tell you what a relief they were. He was so much better than I imagined. I am so much better now " Since that time I have encouraged many other mothers to view the pictures of scenes no one would let them see at the time. Avoidance leads to painful imaginings. The things we leave to imagination come back to haunt us.
The funeral ceremony, is also vital. Ceremony can speak for us when we have no words to say, when we are to upset to speak, we need ceremonies to speak for us. I read the account of one on the recovery workers in Oklahoma City bombing. He said the thing he will remember the most was a certain teddy bear . The families of the victims would gather at a chain-link fence that was erected to keep unauthorized personnel away from the danger. They wanted to be as close as possible to their loved ones. The workers felt the presence of the families and wanted some kind of contact - some means of comfort. One teddy bear was chosen, and every time a worker came out of the building he or she would hug that teddy bear. At certain times each day that teddy bear was taken outside the fence so the families could also give it a hug. In that simple ceremony they found comfort and connection with their loved ones. Ceremonies matter. Ceremonies heal.
There is a real danger of losing the funeral as we know it. In many areas a growing percentage of families are choosing to have their loved one removed and instantly cremated. No one is allowed to view the body. A few days later they may have a brief memorial service and that is all. There are those who say this is a more sophisticated way of dealing with death of a loved one. This is also seen as being less stressful on the family. The result is denial of death and a loss of the healing process of the funeral.
What should a funeral cost? It certainly should be within the family’s ability to pay. It should fit into the lifestyle. The funeral director, like any other business person, should and must make a profit. I am glad these dedicated men and women are there when we need them. That means they must have employees on call around the clock every day of the year. That means they must have enough employees all of the time to meet the needs of their busiest times. That means they must have enough equipment and automobiles and overhead every day. When they ask me for a fair return on that investment, I have not flinched and I will not do so in the future. They perform a very valuable Service. The funeral may bring some pain to the surface, but it heals much more than it hurts.