Why I Believe in Funeral or Memorial Services
I just read Alice Martin’s blog Funeral Week, and after commenting on it I decided to write a longer response here, since I have a different view. I think I’m qualified to comment, since I’ve planned four memorial services, spoken at five, and attended more than I can count. Of these, only a couple have been funerals, rather than memorial services. Some have been graveside only. I will only talk about those I’ve attended as an adult.
The first service that qualifies is my Dad’s. I had to help my mom at the mortuary with all the hard stuff. I’ve discussed the mortuary experience at length in How to Deal with Mortuaries. For me, it’s the mortuary experience that precedes any type of service, that is jarring.
Though you yourself may not see the use of having a memorial service for you, keep in mind it really is for those who remain — not the one who is gone. When you lose a loved one, especially a child, spouse, parent you were close to, or close friend, you want others to know how special that person was. You also might desire the companionship of others who knew and loved your special person when he or she dies. Grief is hard to get through. It’s even harder to bear alone. A grieving person is grateful that someone else is remembering her loved one along with her.
That’s ultimately what a memorial service is all about. It’s more about life than death. One does not need an open casket. A picture is fine — maybe a whole board of pictures and some scrapbooks for people to look at afterwards that show the person living and enjoying life. I remember a memorial service I attended in Santa Barbara in 2006, for someone I had served with in a previous church as a volunteer youth worker. He was younger than I, and we had all moved away from the area where the church was located. I knew he had married and was in some kind of probation work. Although we are two hours from Santa Barbara, my husband and I went, and we were glad we had gone. I did wind up saying a few impromptu words that I knew others from the old church (where we knew Paul as a high school and college student) were too intimidated by the crowd to get up and say. You see, Paul had grown way past what he was when we knew him. He had become head of the Los Angeles juvenile justice system. The mayor of Los Angeles and other officials spoke officially at his service. I had a chance at that service to help others who knew him only after he was married and well-known, to see the roots of what he became in what he had been. I also had a chance to see who he had become.
Let’s say you are not close to the departed, but are close to a family member. A memorial service is a good way for you to learn more about the person your friend is grieving, and having you there will be of comfort. It may also give you more to say when you send that sympathy card or note except just a signature.
Memorial services, especially those for people you don’t know well, can bring unexpected surprises. My adopted son died in 1991. Within a couple of years, his natural grandfather on his birth dad’s side died. Jason and his sister Sarah, who was on her own by this time had come to us first as foster children, and their dad’s parents had been very supportive of our adopting them. We had been grateful they cared enough about their grandchildren to visit them twice a year while in foster care, and after it became evident that we would be adopting the children, we just made them part of our extended family and we all got to know each other during those visits, usually at restaurants and /or parks. So, you could say we knew them, but not well. We decided to go to the memorial service, even though it was some distance from our home.
The service was a graveside service, and few people were there. There were probably less than 50 of us, if I remember correctly. As we were standing around talking before the service began, I discovered that one of the other mourners was Ray Bradbury, the science fiction author. I got to meet and talk with him in a way I would not have had opportunity to do at a book signing or other public event. I had no idea he had known John, because I had only known John as my children’s grandfather — not part of a larger world. After the service, Mr. Bradbury took all who could come out to lunch at a restaurant in Marina Del Rey and we all followed his limousine. I’m not guaranteeing that all such services have this kind of unexpected surprise, but you never know unless you go.
A memorial service is not just to remember what you know of a person. It is also an opportunity to expand your knowledge of the the one you lost. This was true even at Jason’s memorial service, and he was my son. But he had friends I had never met, and they talked to us during the service and afterwards. The 400 people who gathered in the courtyard of our church to remember him and try to find some meaning in his death at the age of 14, were a great comfort to us — then and in the days afterwards. The way our friends pitched in and helped with the service itself and with the details of the reception afterwards, showed us what true friends we had — and that Jason had. We also had opportunity to meet and talk to all of Jason’s birth family, including his mother, whom Sarah had found and brought.
If you love your friends and family, but don’t really like the idea of them having a memorial service for you, why not let them decide. Long before you ever expect to die, tell them how you feel, but leave them free to have a service if they need or want one. My mom, when she received notice she had only six weeks to live, helped us plan her service before she left.
When my daughter died very unexpectedly, everyone she had known was trying to deal with it. We had not seen her in 14 years. All of us were in shock. There was not only a need to have a graveside service, but also a need for the family to come together afterwards to share memories and try to piece together the life she lived after she left us. Both her half brother and her surviving grandmother, John’s wife, helped the rest of us with this task, as did a couple of long phone conversations with her common law husband, whom we’d not known or known about. I could have left Sarah in Texas, and let her husband have her cremated. But Sarah had told everyone (except us) that if she ever died, she wanted to be buried beside her brother in California. We knew that instinctively, but needed permission from her husband, who had to make the decision. He wanted her wishes fulfilled. He sent an entire box of pictures of Sarah’s adult life that we spent hours sharing with Sarah’s best friend and her family and our friends after the service. We were all trying to fill in the missing holes in what we knew of Sarah. The service gave us some needed closure in a long and difficult relationship with our troubled daughter. If you’ve not yet read Sarah’s story, it’s here: Sarah, the Suicide of a Child.
If you were close to neither the deceased or his family, you may have no real reason to go to a service unless, for some reason, you just want to. If you think your presence or absence will make a difference to the family, follow your heart. I know how touched we were that friends from our previous church who had never had opportunity to meet our children and get to know them, came to Jason’s service and to the house afterwards The time spent with them and the knowledge they cared enough to come, helped us get through a very difficult time. But if you are uncomfortable being around people who are expressing emotions and you hardly know the deceased person, stay home and send the family a card.
If you are the one left after the death of a loved one — the one who must make the arrangements — do as your heart directs if the deceased has not told you his wishes. If you don’t want a service, it’s up to you. But a service of some kind helps with closure, and if there is no type of memorial or graveside service, it might make your grieving work harder in the long run. The burial rituals and customs of various cultures have survived this long because they help loved ones say goodbye and then get on with their grief work and their lives. I would recommend you not deprive yourself of this opportunity.