What’s the point of a funeral? For many people, the answer seems obvious, but for others the ceremony of laying someone to rest seems like unnecessary fuss. Perhaps you’ve got a particularly bullish friend who’s been heard to say, “Don’t bother, just throw me out with the trash.”
Although a small number of people question if we need funerals at all, bereavement experts are still convinced that funerals have great value for everyone. Dr. Bill Hoy, a professor at Baylor University, Texas, and expert in funeral rituals and bereavement, believes that the funeral is important for the individual who has died, the bereaved family, and even the community at large.
Why funerals matter to the individual
In many cultures and ancient traditions around the world, the funeral is about ensuring that the dead will rest in peace. In some beliefs, the funeral is an opportunity to make provisions for the soul of the person who has died and perform the necessary rituals to ensure their place in heaven. Ancient Mayans, for example, would place maize in their loved ones’ mouths to feed them on their journey into the afterlife. Egyptians believed that proper funeral rituals were essential for the soul to return to the body when the time came.
In the modern Western world though, we’ve started to develop an understanding that the funeral is for those who are left behind – an opportunity to mourn and support each other. However, Dr. Hoy says that the funeral can benefit the dead, if we engage in conversation with them about it before they die.
“We not only fear death, but we but we also fear being forgotten. In my work with hospice patients that always seems to be one of the big concerns,” he explains.
Dr. Hoy is a clinical care professor of end of life care and bereavement, who’s worked in palliative care for 20 years. He’s also an expert in the importance of funeral rites in history and culture and says a deathbed fear of being forgotten is something that has troubled people throughout time.
“No one wants to be forgotten,” he says. “I think in that sense, the funeral serves the dead in advance, when they hear, ‘We’re going to have a funeral for you because you’ve touched our lives.’”
Some people – almost exclusively white, middle-class groups, Dr. Hoy says – are beginning to question the value of a funeral. You might hear these people say, “Don’t bother, throw me in a ditch,” or “I don’t care what happens, just get rid of me.” But Dr. Hoy is skeptical that this devil-may-care attitude is genuine.
“When people tell me that bodies are worthless, my response to them is, ‘So when was the last time you put one of your relatives in a dumpster and hauled them down to the curb for the trashman to pick up?’ Even if that were legal we wouldn’t do that. We don’t do that with companion animals, so why on earth would we do that for grandma?
“I have a sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of people who say, ‘When I’m dead, just throw me in a ditch’ are desperately hoping that someone will say, ‘No way, no how. You’ve had too big an influence on our community’,” he says. “I really believe that they want someone to help them articulate that they have some kind of purpose and they’re not just taking up space.”
According to Dr. Hoy, many contemporary Christians in the United States have bought into a ‘dualistic’ philosophy, where the body and spirit are separate, and when the spirit departs, the physical body left behind is essentially worthless.
“That’s neither a Christian notion nor a human psychological notion,” he argues. “You just don’t turn it off that quickly. After your mother dies, for example, that body is still your mother. It’s precious in death in a way that it wasn’t even in life, because this is your last opportunity to see the embodied presence of the woman who raised and nurtured you.”
He says that people who wonder if funerals really matter are simply “whistling past the cemetery” – almost literally in this case – hoping that bravado will drown out any fears about dying and being forgotten.
But it needn’t be that way, he says. “I plead with clergy that if they ever hear someone talking like that, ‘Throw me in a dumpster’, to say to them, ‘No, that’s not how we do things. You matter to us and we want to have a funeral for you when you go.’”
Talking openly about funerals means that those who are dying or coming to the end of their life are reassured: “It’s an opportunity to reassure them and let them know that they will be missed, that they did make a difference.”
Why funerals matter to the family
Although Dr. Hoy devotes much of his time to studying our attitudes to death, it isn’t a purely academic exercise. The death of his own mother and his father-in-law in the last year confirmed what his research had led him to believe: that funerals can be of great benefit to the family who are mourning their loved one.
“I’ve seen it a million times,” he says, “but what I learned very personally is that it is incredibly important for families to be surrounded by people who told stories, those people who said, ‘Here’s how your dad impacted my life’ or ‘I’ll never forget your mom doing this.’”
Funerals also help to ‘make the death real’, as Dr. Hoy puts it. If you’ve lost a loved one, you may have experienced that feeling of denial or disbelief, the thought of, “This can’t be happening.” The funeral, he says, can begin to help people accept that a death has happened.
“I do believe that denial has an important function,” he explains. “There is something very overwhelming about learning that your 17-year-old son died in car crash, for example, and that you will never see him alive or talk to him. Denial provides a cushion for the moment. However, from a purely psychological standpoint, it’s hard for us to go on pretending about something that is not true.
“It’s not that funerals make us get past our denial – my own mother taught me that when my dad died, fairly early in my career. Four to five months after he died, she said that she was sitting in the living room watching Jeopardy and she heard a door slam that sounded just like the door of dad’s truck. She was on her feet and headed to greet him when she realized.”
Many elements of the traditional funeral help the bereaved begin to understand that the death is real unlike anything else. For Dr. Hoy, that starts with the presence of the body of the person who has died.
“When the body is present, whether or not it is viewed, whether it’s in a closed casket or on an open air bier on the banks of the River Ganges – whatever we do with that body – its presence says very loudly , ‘Death has occurred. This is not a normal gathering.’
“In the same way that a white gown and a black tuxedo symbolizes that a wedding is happening, there is something very valuable in the props of the funeral, as it were, including a coffin. That horizontal box that we use for no other purpose, with their body lying within that box, communicates the reality of death.”
Although denial and disbelief comes in waves, as his mother’s experience proves, Dr. Hoy believes that the funeral can be an invaluable way of beginning that long and arduous journey to accepting, in our hearts, minds and souls, that a death has happened and our loved one is gone.
Why funerals matter to the community
There’s another group that is often overlooked but who benefits greatly from the ritual of the traditional funeral. The community of friends, neighbors, club members and acquaintances, needs the funeral to express their loss too.
“My mother was nearly 91 when she died and there were 55 or 60 people at her funeral,” says Dr. Hoy. “Half of them were family and extended family. The other half were friends, members of the community, friends of my brother. The funeral is for them too.
“There was a woman called Dorothy who stood at my mother’s casket and wept. She was my mother’s age, she’d been part of the bereavement support community when my dad died in 1993. There was a group of ladies who hung out together, who went for lunch after church on Sundays. Now Dorothy is the only one left.
“I realized that for us to have not had a funeral would have been a huge disservice to Dorothy and to others like her, because it will not have given her and people like her the opportunity to join together and say, ‘Yes, her life made a difference.’”
In this way, Dr. Hoy says, the impact of the funeral extends far beyond the closet family friends. “Certainly funerals help make the death real, but they do more than that. It’s an opportunity to rub shoulders, share tears and hugs.
“I think our communities feel the pain when we don’t do it. It’s hard to put a price on that, but we absolutely need it.”
Dr. Bill Hoy teaches at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. From 1985 to 1995 he served as a pastor in the Los Angeles area, and has over 20 years of clinical experience, having directed pastoral care and bereavement programs at two southern California hospices. In 2013 he published Do Funerals Matter: The Purposes and Practices of Death Rituals in Global Perspective, an exploration of funeral rituals around the world.