Broken Hearts

Exploring myths and truths about grief, loss, and recovery.

The Primary Emotional Purposes of a Funeral or Memorial

To remember that person the way we knew them in life; and to say "goodbye."

An anonymous emailer recently asked us this question:

Do you think that in our society where people are treating their dead loved ones like a disposable commodity, with direct cremation without any service or acknowledgement of that person’s life, that more and more are at risk for mental health issues from unresolved grief?

 Our response might surprise you.

Dear Anon,

Thanks for your note and question.

Your question has more than one level, not just the surface issue of direct disposal. There is also the even deeper issue related to having no memorial of funeral service, the absence of which make no acknowledgement of that person’s life for those who survive that person. [Even though those survivors, in theory, might be the ones to organize a memorial or funeral.]

We can’t presume that having a formal memorial ritual, funeral, and burial, of themselves, will preclude the existence or accumulation of unresolved grief—much of which happens within time, before the death.

While there are many possible beneficial aspects of a memorial service, funeral, and earthen burial, those elements do no automatically create emotional completion for the surviving family members and friends of those who die.

The conclusionary ritual known as a funeral, carries with it a two-fold purpose: one is to remember that person the way we knew them in life; and two, is to say “goodbye” to their physical presence that no longer will be part of our lives.

When a memorial-funeral creates an accurate memory reflection or picture of the life that person lived, it allows each of us who survive to tap into our own memories of our relationship with that person, and also creates the possibility that we could resolve or complete what has been left emotionally unfinished for us at the time of the death. However, the possibility of recovery is not an automatic occurrence, triggered solely by the stimulus of the accurate memories at the services.

There are actions that need to be taken to complete what we discover might be unfinished for us. And obviously, those actions must be “indirect” since the other person in the equation is no longer alive. The purpose of any prescriptive grief recovery actions or method is to help people deal with the discoveries of unfinished or incomplete elements within their relationships—especially those that are stimulated by the accurate memories at those services.

The problem is that even when those services happen correctly, not everyone knows what to do with the accumulation of memories that naturally include things we wish had happened “differently, better, or more,” and unrealized “hopes, dreams, and expectations” about the future.

In addition to becoming aware of what might be emotionally unfinished for them, each griever must learn what actions will help them feel complete with what the death left incomplete for them.

 

Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute, and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, When Children Grieve, and Moving On.

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