Arranging the funeral for a person you love is one of life’s most challenging experiences. Yet it’s a process that plenty of us have considered - our research showed that 91% of Brits have attended a funeral, while 41% regularly spend time thinking about the type of funeral they would like.
And while these ceremonies might follow different cultural or religious customs, they all represent a significant ritual marking the end of someone’s physical presence in the world.
Here is a look at the crucial role funerals play in the grieving process and in providing a meaningful goodbye to the people we love.
A universal experience
From the Ancient Egyptian’s complex mummification process through to the Mongolian Sky burial (leaving a deceased’s remains to be devoured by carrion birds), burial practices throughout history are as diverse as humanity itself. Nearly every documented civilisation has displayed some form of funeral ritual or burial practice.
Many of these have spiritual or religious roots, with an emphasis on preparing a person for the afterlife. But what links these experiences even more fundamentally is an experience of mourning and ultimately release for bereaved people.
Here in the UK, funerals are usually associated with the traditional Victorian burial - black mourning attire, formal procession and prescribed services. However, the last decade has seen a significant shift away from this ‘one size fits all’ approach, and a much bigger focus on personalised, unique ceremonies. Whether you want a funeral procession featuring a tank, or an environmentally friendly burial option, funerals today place an emphasis on the passions and interests of the deceased person.
Starting the mourning process
Families often busy themselves with funeral arrangements in the days after a death. But this busy time isn’t just a welcome distraction. Organising and taking part in the ceremony provides a ritualistic experience that allows families to acknowledge that someone close to them has died.
The performance of rituals has been linked with a reduction in anxiety for those who perform them, particularly during times of stress. These processes and acts are different for different people - but whether it’s laying flowers at a grave or wearing rainbow trousers to celebrate a life, these processes are symbols that allow us to begin grieving.
It is also the last time families will be in the physical presence of their loved one, and marks the start of life without them. The grief a family feels when saying goodbye to a loved one will last a lot longer than the funeral service, but the funeral is often the first step in the mourning process.
Creating a supportive atmosphere
In addition to respecting the life of the dead, the funeral is an opportunity for families to feel supported by a wider circle of friends and relatives. This sense of collectivism can be incredibly helpful for bereaved people.
When a group of people are together, there is a change in dynamic which helps them feel united. This sense of community brings families together in a supportive atmosphere, which is incredibly powerful.
According to our recent research, 43% of people in the UK feel social pressure to show a brave face after the death of a loved one.
We Brits are known for our stiff upper lips, but the funeral provides an invaluable opportunity to share inner thoughts and feelings about the dead. This can be delivered in a range of ways - be it a eulogy, notes written in a memory book or in any other way that feels appropriate to the family.
In recent years, there has been an increasing desire amongst families to celebrate the life of their loved one at the funeral. This means there is often a lot of laughter, with guests swapping stories and sharing memories. But it’s important to remember is that alongside celebrating life – funerals are also a time to feel sadness. There’s nothing wrong with shedding a tear, and the sadness of loss is one of the things people come to terms with during the days, weeks and months after someone dies.
Tackle the taboo
Funerals represent an opportunity to pay tribute to the life of your loved one and mark the significance of their loss.
Yet our research tells us that less than a quarter of people (21%) have shared their wishes about how they would like to be remembered after death.
This lack of communication and openness means there is a real risk of families being left in the dark. This can cause further upset when arranging a funeral. In some cases, families may not even know basic information about their loved one’s last wishes.
It is important to overcome this reluctance to talk about death, and recognise that planning for death should be a part of life. This will allow families the reassurance of knowing the ceremony is in the line with their loved one’s wishes, and to feel involved in the plans. An open discussion will help you to create a plan that also allows your loved ones to process and make sense of their grief. As an organisation, we are seeking to encourage people to share not just their funeral wishes, but also their feelings with those closest to them.