Funerals are to respect the last wishes of the dead.
How many times have we heard or even spoken the phrase at a funeral, “He/she would have liked this”?
Funerals in America have long been about honoring the last wishes of those who have died. In many cases, that means burying the dead in the clothes they wanted or with a personal memento like a golf club or favorite needlepoint. Funerals conducted they way the deceased wished for can arguably enable mourners to see the person in the manner they wished to be remembered.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw demanded that when he died there be no type of religious funeral service and that his tombstone would "not take the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice.”
But last wishes can affect those attending the funeral as well. Charles Dickens, who died in 1870, specifically requested mourners “who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hatband, or other such revolting absurdity.”
In one case, wishes from the deceased affected everyone involved. A funeral home in Puerto Rico used a special embalming treatment to keep the body of 24-year-old boy standing upright for a three-day wake in his mother's San Juan home. The owner of the Funeral Home told The Associated Press that the boy’s mother had asked him to fulfill her dead son's last wish. "Angel wanted to be happy, standing."
As a clergyman and hospice chaplain for over 35 years, William Griffith has had to answer questions regarding the last wishes of those who have died. In his book, “More Than A Parting Prayer: Lessons in care giving for the dying,” Griffith emphasizes the importance of being with the dying and listening to what they desire as they face their final days.
“It is important to provide input into shaping the content of your own funeral, at such a time the person is able to do so.” People may choose the music to be played and/or sung, as well as those who will participate in the service. They may also choose whether they desire an in-ground burial or cremation.
Respecting the last wishes of the dead are important to the persons responsible for planning the funeral because it respects the person and is an opportunity for the living to do one last thing for the one who has died.
“In a recent funeral of a person I did not know” says Griffith, “the parents said their son requested a funeral without any religious forms; no prayers or scriptures or speaking about God. This was disappointing for the parents because of their own strong faith, but they honored their son’s wishes. At the conclusion they said, ‘It’s not what we wanted, but we can live with knowing we did what he asked.’
When final wishes are honored, the living not only pay respect to the deceased, but in a real way they can also find a comfort themselves in the mourning process.
Funerals are for the living to mourn how they need.
Most funerals are still planned by the nation’s 22,000 funeral homes, which work with families to provide what they often are guessing to be what the deceased would have wanted. But some families are beginning to think outside the box. Literally.
Caskets painted with designs such as flags, sport emblems, religious and animation scenes have become an ever-increasing business. There's even eco-friendly coffins and 'green' funerals.
The allure for some is the unique tributes are a last way to bid farewell. But do the deceased appreciate these gestures or is it more of a way for the living to contribute to their own, very important, mourning process?
The difficulty today in honoring the wishes of the dead is that many times, the living are not comfortable discussing any end of life issues. Such denial of the inevitable means at the time of the funeral those responsible for planning the funeral must guess at what should be shared. And often that means making decisions based more on what the living feel comfortable with than what the deceased may have wished for.
Willliam Griffith, author of “Tears In A Bottle: Learning how to grieve well”, says, “I’ve done my share of funerals of persons I’ve never met, and family members struggle to define the meaning of the person’s life. At such a time the content of the funeral appropriately focuses on the grief and loss of those who attend.”
People are often afraid they will “break down” and cry at a funeral, as if that is not to be expected when confronting death. Some often tell others in the family to ‘be strong’ and specifically ‘not to cry.’ However Griffith contends, “It is important to include in the funeral service words that help interpret the feelings of grief as normal so that persons will be assisted in their grief work.”
Funerals themselves have moved away from traditional settings like churches or funeral homes in a large effort to make those who mourn feel more comfortable to do so. Many funeral directors now offer more hospitality in comfort items like food, videos productions remembering the deceased and even letting outside ‘funeral concierges’ or ‘funeral planners’ come in to work with them.
So what’s the right emphasis on staying traditional or breaking way out from the funeral norm?
Griffith believes it’s different in almost every funeral, with almost every family. For example he says, “the focus would be different for a family who for six months has been dealing with the dying process in a hospice setting, compared to a family dealing with a sudden tragic accident or a child’s death.” He adds, “There is such a contrast in the emotional needs of those mourning that it is impossible to state just one view can fit every situation.”
Ideally, most believe the funeral ought to include both the last wishes of the deceased, but also provide support and comfort to the living.
The key to discerning may just be what is best for making the funeral plans, is having confidence in the person chosen to lead the funeral service, whether that be a Funeral Home Director, Clergy or even Funeral Planner.