Why have a formal funeral or memorial service?

Posted on January 21, 2021 by Rev. Pam Reidy under grief, loss, mourning
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Tom was a devout Catholic until old age limited his church attendance. He died recently of natural causes.  When I asked his son if there would be a funeral, he said, “No we don’t go to church, but my dad ate at Arby’s every Thursday night, so Thursday night we are gathering at Arby’s to celebrate him and tell stories. We’d love to have you join us.”

To be sure, the way we memorialize people has changed dramatically during recent years, and the required COVID Pandemic restrictions have further cemented the idea for some that church or funeral home services, memorials or graveside gatherings are not necessary and may even be a thing of the past.  Before we throw the baby out with the bath water, it might be good to reflect on the value of having a formal service.

In  last week’s blog, I wrote “Rituals involve traditions and rites that celebrate life’s transitions, and humans need ritual to enable the human heart to celebrate, mourn and endure life’s deepest moments.”  These two ideas are the cornerstone for why we ceremoniously memorialize a life. Whether a prescribed ritual in a church setting, a memorial service at a funeral home or an informal gathering at a restaurant, the passing of a loved one is one of life’s most sacred times. Our psychological and spiritual well-being need ritual to acknowledge and heal from a loss.

A memorial service, like a funeral in a church, is designed to help those who mourn acknowledge the reality of a life ended and move from the first stage of loss to the next stage of grief.  When I meet with families to plan a service, my most important goal is to listen. I ask them to tell me about their loved one, sometimes I listen for an hour, sometimes two. Active listening is healing and as the most essential element of grief work, it begins with the preparations for a formal funeral. Hearing the story of a deceased’s life, I am always moved by the distinctive way each life is lived. Above all, a funeral service reflects and honors a life as it has been experienced by an individual.

The content of a service helps achieve some of the initial work of grief. Welcoming those in attendance, we gather the common energy and love into a single space. This is typically followed by reflecting on the philosophy or creedal beliefs of the deceased and survivors. Such a reflection in the form of a reading, story, prayer or poem lays a path for the journey to understanding and acceptance. Next the person is eulogized through one or more reflections by those who knew and loved him or her. A private moment in our hearts to say good-bye and a chance to establish our ongoing relationship with the deceased is included in any type of funeral or graveside gathering. These two movements, saying goodbye and beginning anew, are done in a way that best reflect the deceased and comforts those who mourn. Within a church setting, the prescribed liturgy includes many of these elements. It might be a song, prayer, poem, silence, lighting a candle or holding an object. Any service is generally concluded with a blessing of peace and love for those who have gathered. I like to offer a final word from the deceased.  It is sometimes a quote, a poem, words that he or she said in the past, or words I have written. Depending on a family’s belief, prayer is interwoven throughout.

I have planned and conducted many services including those in church, in the funeral home, at the graveside and even at the family’s home. Each was unique, but all had the same purpose – to honor a life, to heal and give comfort. I am a firm believer in rituals that honor a life and comfort the bereaved.

I was Tom’s minister for the last two years of his life as he lived in the nursing home where I am chaplain.  I am sure Tom wanted a Catholic Mass for his funeral, as sure as I am that in heaven he now enjoys the fullness of what that Mass celebrates. I am not faulting his son; each family has both the right and duty to honor their deceased loved ones as they deem best, but before we discard either the baby or bath water, we need to be clear about what we are disposing.

The word “ritual” comes from the Latin ritus, from the Greek hroe, meaning “to flow, run, rush, or stream.” Ritual literally places you in the flow of things.

The Shadow in America, Jeremiah Abrams, editor

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