Sunday, January 15, 2006


Consumerism has dominated much of the publicity about funerals ever since Jessica Mitford published The High Cost of Death some years ago and has produced a point of view that masks the important personal and social functions of funeral rituals. At the root, funerals are one of the major social ceremonies of life, and whether people acknowledge the similarity or not, funerals fall in the same class as the ceremonies that initiate children into the world (baptisms, namings, confirmations, Bar Mitzvahs, Bas Mitzvahs, etc.) and ceremonies that mark other important occasions, including weddings, birthday parties, and retirement events.
Like these, funerals provide a way of marking a transition in life that has important social as well as personal meaning. Probably the first record of some sort of a ceremony to compassionately and tenderly put someone to rest dates from some 50,000 years ago when a group of Neanderthal cave dwellers (a human group that may be ancestral to modern humans) scattered quantities of flowers over the body of a young man laid to rest in a shallow grave in the floor of a cave. Archeologists deduced that the flowers were spread over the body of the young man because an unexpectedly large quantity of flower pollen suffused the soil that surrounded the skeleton. While it is not certain just what sort of ceremony might have been involved, this evidence of interment along with the pollen suggests that people at the dawn of modern humanity had a way of marking the passage from life to death. Funerals provide people with a way to deal with death. Unlike other animals, the human species does not abandon its dead, but rather gives meaning to the life of a person in death. Humans memorialize the individual, providing an appropriate way to set the person to rest and to bid him or her farewell. By means of funeral and burial ceremonies, and the social events represented by wakes and visiting hours, people come together in a fashion that symbolizes their social continuity. By these means they overcome the finality of death--death may be an end, but through their celebrations and memorials it is a continuation and perhaps even a beginning of a new state of life. For the dying person, knowledge of funeral events can serve as a means for overcoming death by understanding-and sometimes personally arranging-the events surrounding their own passing. Individuals can anticipate and manage their own death by making a will to dispose of their property, purchase a cemetery plot, provide for the perpetual care of the surroundings in which they and their loved ones will rest, anticipate family visits to grave sites, select their own casket, clothing, and jewelry for their funeral, and even create the character and tone of their final ceremony by selecting prayers to be said, songs to be sung, and who will speak parting words.
Some individuals have even provided for the refreshment of their families and friends by prepaying the expenses of a meal. Often younger family members consider such preparations morbid, and discourage or even dismiss the subject of arrangements. Older family members, however, often initiate conversations about such matters with enthusiasm. In fact, anticipation of the final events of one's life can have the important function of making one psychologically comfortable about death. It also provides the possibility of remaining in control -- independent, autonomous, individualistic -- to the end. People who make their own funeral arrangements never become nonentities -- they remain in charge even in death. For family members, especially widows, widowers, and children, funerals provide a way of expressing and dealing with grief and bereavement. While they do not wipe these away, nor necessarily relieve a sense of loss, emptiness, loneliness, and despair that may accompany the death of a loved one, they provide a means for receiving support from family and friends and for confirming the presence of a social network that can make life bearable. Funerals and funeral ceremonies provide a structure, a plan action for what to do, a way of bringing a past relationship to a close, and beginning a transition to the future. At best they can provide comfort and a strong psychological support for those left behind by sanctifying the life and relationships of the one who has passed on.
Kalish, R. A. "The Social Context of Death and Dying," in Binstock, R. H., and Shanas, E., eds. Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985.
Kastenbaum, R. A. "Dying and Death: A Life- Span Approach," in Birren, J. E., and Schaie, K. W., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1985.


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