Newswise — Why do we need to hold funeral services? To mark a loss? To recognize a death? To remember a life? To start healing?
Doug Manning, international grief expert and author, tackles these questions in his book The Funeral: A Chance to Touch, a Chance to Serve, a Chance to Heal.
Manning explains that "denial is always easier than reality" in the funeral process. If the service is generic and no tears are shed, we deny someone has really died so that the funeral itself is not hard at all. However, "to determine if this is truly easier on the family we must look beyond the service itself." In The Funeral, he reinforces that denial does not make it easier for the family to walk through the grieving process. Without a meaningful funeral service the family will face more difficulty in the days to follow.
Manning is convinced that "the funeral is a vital tool in the process of grief. I think the funeral, done right, is vital to the healing of broken hearts."
In fact, voices from around the country echo Manning's assertions about the important role of the funeral service in the healing process.
Ken Kuratko, Funeral Celebrant and owner of Grief Journey Consultants in Riverside, Illinois, says that the funeral has value because it creates a moment in our busy lives to pause and reflect on the meaning that this person's life has had for us.
"It has been said that every life has value and every life makes a contribution to the world. The funeral/memorial service is a testament to that truth. Everyone deserves a funeral because every life is valuable, every life deserves recognition, every life deserves that 'pause' in our busy day to celebrate that this person lived and contributed," Kuratko explained.
Funeral Director and Celebrant Bill Joyner of the Bright Funeral Home in Wake Forest, North Carolina, believes in the value of gathering together for a farewell.
"As a funeral director, I see how beneficial a funeral service is to grieving families. During and after a service I often see the support they receive from family and friends. Sometimes, I actually witness a sense of sadness replaced with reassurance and encouragement. Without this time of reflection and remembrance, I think they lose a real opportunity to begin the grieving process," Joyner said. "For me, it is a real privilege to have the opportunity to walk with family and friends in the midst of their sadness. Being a funeral director is a real calling of service to my community."
Barb Milton, Vice President of Community Relations and Funeral Celebrant of Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Centers in Indianapolis, Indiana, sees the value of funeral service every day.
"A memorial or funeral service provides a special time of honoring, reflection, and healing. When personal stories are reflected on and woven together they create a full picture of a life lived," Milton noted. "Shakespeare reflected that we each play several parts...child, husband, friend, mentor, but as we are playing the part we rarely stop to realize the harmony they have created."
In her personal experience, Milton has lost friends. One of those friends had a healing farewell and she experienced it first hand, as people learned more about him in the funeral service.
"My friend Jay was an avid dancer. He performed at nursing homes and throughout Indiana but his family never knew that side. He loved Star Trek and went to all the conventions but most of his dance friends didn't know that. He had an amazing voice that his co-workers never knew. He loved playing with his nieces and nephews who most of his friends had never met but heard a lot about. During his visitation there was an open dance floor and a DJ playing his favorite music. Behind the casket there were videos of his dance performances playing. Different groups were encouraged to bring in their scrapbooks of events and everyone enjoyed looking at them but particularly his family. In his preplanning, he had asked for special food to be served. We closed the evening with 'I Hope You'll Dance.' The next day the service had special stories shared by family. At the graveside, every woman received a red rose from the casket spray. He always gave ladies roses throughout his life. The service closed with the sign from Star Trek "¦'Live long and prosper,'" Milton remembered. "Everything about that service reflected Jay. You heard Jay in the music. You felt Jay on the dance floor. When eating certain foods, you knew how much he had enjoyed them. Jay's whole life was acknowledged. There were laughter and tears. Lots of hugs and honesty. New appreciation of talents. A new circle of relationships emerged. Jay was there in so many ways and his family realized they weren't alone in their grief...And that they had a lot to learn about him, too."
Milton believes in sharing each life story to truly reflect that person's journey.
"Dorothy had lived in the community out East for 65 years and she died in her 80s. The rules in their area were much more traditional, so creating something unique was more challenging. We sat as a group the evening before the service and ran through photos, selecting special memories along the way. As we did, there were a number of reoccurring photos that no one seemed to know who they were. So I encouraged the family to create a storyboard with just those images. Reluctantly they did, because their aunt had been a snippy old lady and they were trying desperately to come up with positive thoughts," Milton explained. "The visitation started very conventionally. Open casket, chapel seating, organ music. But as some of the older residents of the church and area came in, the unknown images took on a life of their own. The funeral director, as he adjusted a newly delivered arrangement, remarked on the picture of his dad in the army uniform. Another lady giggled that her mother hadn't approved of their (the aunt and the funeral director) relationship because he was in the 'funeral industry'! Another friend looked on sadly and said he was the reason her friend had never married."
Before the night was over, Milton said that the family realized there was a powerful love story that had been lost over the years.
"Their aunt, a relatively unpleasant spinster, had been suffering a broken heart all those years," Milton noted. "The director had died a few years earlier and now the assembled group remarked the couple was united after death. The funeral service the next day took a substantial turn. About not wasting love and the bitterness it brings to your future. How love, in the end, will find a way to bring people together. Dorothy has an entirely different legacy with her family."
Milton agrees that memories of a funeral stay with us.
"We, as professionals, need to stop...observe...listen...and share," Milton reminded because, "once someone has been part of a service like this you can't go back to 'Black.'"
Manning writes in his book The Funeral, "more and more funeral directors are providing funerals that are personalized and reflect the personality and life style of the deceased. When funerals are made into meaningful experiences people will want to have funerals. And when they do, they experience the beginning of healing."