What are funerals for?

18 08 2011

In the dim and distant past I studied Zoology and I have retained an interest in what can broadly be described as sociobiology and in evolutionary psychology. I say this by way of background to this next statement, ” I know what funerals are for”.

At a very basic level it satisfies the hygiene need to dispose of dead bodies. Animals moving from one place to another as they follow their prey or the seasons can simply leave their dead behind.  As we became social animals, living in settled communities, the dead had to be removed from the community to prevent the spread of disease from flesh decaying in the African sun.

At a human level it is a ritual to denote the end of life. As a species we are inordinately fond of ritual; birthdays, marriages, coming of age ceremonies, rites of passage, funerals and the rest all mark transitions of different sorts.

So I know what funerals are for.

What I don’t understand is why they are the way they are.

Several years ago I attended a funeral for the infant son of a friend. Seeing a young father walk down the aisle carrying the tiny coffin of his baby son was the most heart-rending thing I have ever witnessed. The church service was followed by another service at the crematorium and agony was piled upon agony as the coffin disappeared beyond the curtains.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a friends mother. A death easier to come to terms with than the death of a child, perhaps, but still a day fraught with grief and despair. Agony as the hearse arrived at the house, heartbreak as we followed to the crematorium, further pain as the coffin was carried into the chapel and the final hurt as the curtains closed around it.

Why does this ritual have to have so many layers of suffering. It is as if we want to inflict pain on ourselves with these repeated stabs to the heart.

My question, therefore, is do we need to see the coffin at all?

Would it not be better to let the process of cremation run it’s course and take delivery of an urn? Or for a burial to take place, followed by a meeting at the graveside for loved ones? In either case only a single moment of hurt to cope with and each could be followed by a celebration of the life of the person lost to us?

Asking what funerals are for is a genuine question. Maybe a better one is who are funerals for?

Funerals are for those left behind.

I know that when I am dead I do not want any further suffering to be visited upon my family and friends. I don’t want them to have the pain upon pain of the various stages of the funeral process. I’d actually be happy for my body to be left on a hillside for the fox and the crow – for my body to be part of the circle of life when I am finished with it. Not ashes to ashes or dust to dust but flesh to flesh.  When my neighbours horse died it got taken to the local safari park to feed to the lions. Perfectly sensible and less expensive than a burial, cremation or the glue factory.

I suspect that those I leave behind will not be happy for that to happen. And the possibility of walkers coming across a half-eaten corpse probably makes it a non-starter. But why not? Why do those of us left feel the need to heap agony upon agony at the many different stages of the process?

Coming to terms with death is never going to be easy for those left behind but I really do not understand the need to inflict the further suffering that our present rituals deliver.

As I said, my question is a genuine one so your thoughts/comments will be appreciated.

Kx

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One response

18 08 2011
Rene

Funerals are for the surviving, providing them a final way of sharing time with their loved one, a farewell into the passage of the unknown.
In my opinion every loss is a difficult one and the loss of an infant or child is the worst as they hadn’t had the opportunity to live life to a ripe old age, to experience all those things we take for granted, that bring us pleasure, that we measure ourselves by.

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