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Educate Yourself about Funerals

Confusing Honouring and Celebration with Partying

(from an article by Dr. Alan Wolfelt)

I daresay that we as a North American culture have become confused. Many of us now believe that having fun, feeling joy (and surprise), and being entertained are what having an experience is all about. And regretfully, we’ve transferred this idea onto funerals. To borrow a phrase from the musical group R.E.M., we “shiny, happy people” have forgotten that the purpose of a funeral is to mourn, to actively and outwardly embrace the death of someone we love.

We have confused honouring and celebration of life with partying.

What reinforces this desire for fun, entertainment, and festivity is that mourning is painful, and not something people readily sign up to do. There’s a perception that it is easier and better to party than to express the emotions of sadness and hurt. As our society has become increasingly “mourning-avoidant,” we have seen this shift toward revelry.

Simply having a shindig plays well into the idea that people need to be strong and get over it quickly. There’s no time to grieve or mourn; rather, families hear such messages as “Carry on,” “Keep your chin up,” “They’re in a better place,” and “You just need to let go.” Parties often deny the authentic suffering of the soul, whereas authentic funerals invite an encounter with the mystery.

In their attempt to only have a good time, families miss the ancient and still essential purpose of funerals, which is to create an invitation to mourn openly and honestly. Historically, funerals honoured the need for downward movement—going through grief rather than around it. Authentic mourning demands that we slow down, befriend dark emotions, and seek and accept support.

While families may be tempted to make swift, clean breaks from their loss, it does not ultimately serve them. When people do not feel their feelings, they become unable to be changed by them. Instead of experiencing movement through their loss, they become stuck. They experience chronic grief that affects all other areas of their lives, sometimes resulting in depression, anxiety, disconnection from others, substance abuse, and fatigue. This “carried grief” results in a muting of one’s spirit, or “divine spark.”

Of course, this is not to say that a meaningful funeral should be totally devoid of merriment and laughter. As you know, funny anecdotes about the person who died and jokes delivered during the eulogy are often a welcome and necessary part of the experience. When a loved dies, we feel many feelings, including the bittersweet joy of reliving favorite memories. Sharing those memories is part of the journey, too—one that gives us moments of relief even as we dose ourselves with the necessary sadness.

What I am emphasizing here is the increasingly essential need to differentiate between funeral experiences that encourage the full range of emotions, from deep sadness to moments of levity, and experiences what families today are calling “parties.” Many of these so-called “parties” are intentionally designed to merely skim the surface of our sadness—or ignore it altogether—and instead to focus on the thinking of happy thoughts.


Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is a respected author, educator, and consultant to funeral services.

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