Maybe you don’t care what people will do to honor you after your death. After all, you won’t be around to enjoy the party. But the people who love you care deeply.
My friend Gary, a confirmed bachelor in his sixties with no immediate family in the area, says that he doesn’t want a funeral when he dies. To his way of thinking, he’s not religious, doesn’t like ceremonies or rituals, and wouldn’t want people to make a fuss. But so many of his friends will miss him and his generosity, warm wit, deep intellect, incredible guitar playing, and appreciation of fine wine. Those who know him and call him a friend will want to honor his life, even though Gary pooh-poohs the idea.
My brother Mitch had a life partner named Wes who died from liver cancer in 2007. Within days, my brother and I, along with family and friends, planned a moving memorial service that reflected the many unique aspects of Wes’s life and character. “Wes explicitly said he didn’t want a memorial service,” said Mitch. “But we didn’t do it for him; we did it for us.”
Funerals, or memorial services if the body isn’t present at the event, are not really for the person who has passed on (and who may or may not be observing the proceedings). These rituals provide the opportunity for family and friends to come together in support, remember and share stories about the dearly departed, and celebrate his or her character and contributions. Dispatching ceremonies provide an appropriate closing chapter in the book of that person’s life.
“We need rituals, not just for the dead but for those of us who aren’t yet dead, as well. I am weary of sweeping up the pieces for those family members who would not recognize a loss with a ritual,” said Dr. William G. Hoy, a grief counselor and death educator.
He explained, “Very often — with those who don’t stop and ritualize the death — six months later, these families are in my office, having a harder time with grieving and healing. My clinical experience matches fairly closely the experience I hear from colleagues. We need rituals to celebrate the life, to be sure, but also to socially acknowledge the death.”
The bereavement process starts with the recognition and realization that someone has died. The funeral or memorial service provides an opportunity to remember and tell stories about the person, to come to terms with the reality of death, to reaffirm beliefs, and to release the spirit of the deceased. Remembering and reaffirming generate stories and laughter; realizing and releasing prompt healing tears and goodbyes.
Psychologists note a number of reasons why these rituals matter. They make the dead “safely dead,” dispatched with proper ceremony to rest in peace. They confirm that the deceased and their survivors matter, and that the community will continue. They provide structure in the midst of chaos and disorder, and assure communal support for survivors during a stressful time.
I’ve been attending and blogging about a funeral or memorial service every day since October 30, as part of my personal “30 Funerals in 30 Days Challenge.” At every single event – whether a traditional religious service or creative celebration of life – those who knew the deceased came together to express their love, and find comfort in community. You can help those whom you care about by giving them some idea of how you’d like your life to be celebrated.
Gail Rubin speaks to groups about funerals and memorial services and gets the conversation going. Her “30 Funerals in 30 Days Challenge” is chronicled on The Family Plot Blog (http://TheFamilyPlot.wordpress.com). She’s also the author of the forthcoming book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die (http://www.AGoodGoodbye.com).
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American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
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