A Sorrow Shared Is a Sorrow Halved: Why We Need Funerals

A heartbreaking finale in a favorite television show left me, as well as the actors, sobbing. A father suffering from the results of a career as a miner slowly drifted from life to death, surrounded by his family. Particularly poignant to me because I’ve had several good friends tread this path recently.

But unlike the people in the program, I was unable to say goodbye to my friends. In every instance, the closest relatives decided to restrict visits. Certainly within their rights, but the reason sometimes was, “I don’t want you to remember her that way.” So I’m left with no memory of taking leave at all.

Funerals and memorial services also frequently seem to be dropped by the wayside these days. No chance to reminisce with others who knew the friend, no swapping of tales good or bad, no exchange of comfort. Just a blank where my friends used to be.

I’m not religious, and these deceased friends weren’t so inclined either. Yet I remember going to a number of services, formal or informal, to say a mental farewell to loved ones. More than that, to offer support to those they’ve left behind, create an emotional finale to a friendship, to ease my own grief. My dad didn’t want a service, so I created a little ceremony in my home for my kids, husband and myself, complete with matzos (my father was a nonpracticing Jew) and a few memories. I needed that.

Funerals and memorials have almost nothing to do with the deceased, but everything to do with the survivors. As humans, we must have rituals of some sort in order to move on or mark significant occurrences in our lives. Perhaps even more important, we require ways to judge, evaluate, measure. If we’re never poor, how do we value wealth? If we never know hate, how do we understand love? If we’re never young, how can we appreciate growing old? Without acknowledgement of the process of dying, where’s our growth in living?

In our contemporary era, everybody’s supposed to be happy happy happy all the time. Books, speeches, health professionals, friends give us advice on how to achieve this exalted state. But by eliminating farewell visits to the dying, along with funerals and memorials, we’re robbing ourselves and our nearest and dearest of an important process. The obese person who primarily gorges on sugar isn’t well. Isn’t this similarly true if we avoid and ignore sad times?

My husband and I have had some end-of-life conversations. He believes in leaving the decision about disposing of remains to survivors. “I won’t be around,” he says. But you can bet your bottom dollar if my husband is first to go, I’ll have some sort of observance, some acknowledgement this person existed, made a difference, and will be remembered.

I remember watching President Kennedy’s funeral on tv. His assassination wasn’t real to me until then. Unfortunately this is now a pattern for me. Death, disbelief, some sort of ritual, reality, then belief. Over and over. The Columbine school victims, 9/11, the dead Santa Fe students, Sandy Hook, victims of floods, fires, famine, and mankind’s evil. Now in my home state, yet another martyred student. I must mourn death and evil to survive them.

I need these aids, and so do many people. Nirvana and paradise are reserved for those who have completed their earthly existence, not for us now.

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