Grief, Death and Funerals: For Those Left Behind

Two years ago, my uncle died. A beloved past-minister, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, son, and so on. He was well known in many communities of people. When I called my mother to ask about the funeral arrangements, she informed me there would not be one. I was really upset to hear this. It was because the family, with his knowledge, had felt that they did not want to do this. They didn’t want a bunch of commotion. I was furious with this but my words could not be heard because his family are people that when they make a decision, they are not detracted.

As a psychotherapist, who deals with death and dying quite frequently from survivors who come into my office, I know the importance of grief. A funeral is not for the dead, it is for the living. It is for the people who love the departed one and who need to come together in memorial of this person to “sing” their praises. When you deny a funeral from your loved one’s and those who knew of you, you are keeping them from being in congregation with one another and withholding their ability to have closure.

Endings are very important to me. I have lived a life of silent treatment, unapologetic men, sweep it under the rug, denial, abandonment, rejection and other types of emotional abuse that people have been able to get away with. As a person, I have spent years in therapy, workshops, and other self-awareness type activities to heal from these experiences. I know the value in coming together to say goodbye and how detrimental it is to someone’s mental health. When someone is kept from having a healthy farewell, with someone they love, it is just one more thing to have to go out and work on yourself over.

The other day, I met a woman who was talking about becoming a funeral “guide.” What the heck is that I wondered? It is a person who helps guide the family in the process of having a “home funeral.” People are now going back to the old ways of having a funeral in their home which can cost roughly $1K or less. This is a very intimate way to be with the one you love, privately, along with having others there to share in this love and remembrance.

I recall reading about Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, who’s body was exhumed several times for science. Her body has remained perfectly intact over the years and this is also part of why she was canonized by the church. When she would be removed from her crypt, it was the nuns from her convent that would take care of washing and dressing the body – again – to keep her protected. This was an intimate and probably spiritual gathering of women overseeing one of their own.

While I am of Irish heritage, the only Irish funeral I have ever known about is what I have seen in movies or listened to stories about at the Dublin Irish Festival, in Dublin, Ohio. The historical ways of conducting “wakes,” were to have the body laid out in the “parlor,” of the home. The family and loved ones would cherish their memory with food and drink. There are different customs that might take place in Ireland or other countries; as to what would be buried with the loved one.

We also see “Day of the Dead” celebrations that are curiously, in every single country, except the United States. These are special days around the 31st of October, and the first couple of days of November (each day is significant for a different age group), where the dead are honored each year. Mexicans call this “El Dia De Los Muertos,” and food and drink are taken to the cemeteries and they sing all night long. The children eat little sugar candies that look like skeletons and decorations follow suit. It is a really beautiful way of remembering those ancestors, little children that have been lost and those from the previous year.

In India, the dead are placed on a funeral pyre. The Vikings were known to put their dead on floating funeral pyres that went out to sea.

In a book that I read called “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” by Luis Alberto Urrea (who is the great-great nephew of Teresita), they talk about an in-home funeral. However, in this case, she was not dead after all. Not that time. Saint Teresita or the Saint of Cabora, is laid out to rest for quite a number of days but evidently, she was in a coma. She is adorned with roses and the rest of her life, leaves a scent of this wonderful perfume wherever she would go. Flowers at funerals were originally placed there because of the fact that there was not an embalming process at that time. Naturally, the body would begin to take on a different scent, other than roses, while having the in-home funeral and so the flowers were there to help disguise this other scent.

These types of funerals and day of the dead anniversaries are mentally healthy ways to grieve the dead. They are a way to honor the loved one by those who are still alive. It can also create a healthy way to think about death as well. Mortality is a scary thought to me. However, if I can imagine that my family and friends will be sitting next to me in my own home (though I quite like the Viking idea) and eating and drinking and telling funny stories (which I am sure there will be lots), what a nice way to go.

In fact, my very first and only time to be at the death of an animal (not being used for food) was my cat Emma who I had to euthanize about seven years ago. A female veterinarian and several female nurses were in attendance with me as the very beautiful ending took place. Afterward, I received a box with her ashes (I paid to make sure they were hers), which I took to my new home and buried under a tree in the backyard. Later, I would bury a lovely bird that hit my window nearby, so they can play together (ha ha) where ever their souls have gone to pass. In that euthanized experience of Emma, I recall thinking how lovely it would be to die like this. Not necessarily euthanized, although I will be flying to Switzerland or Canada should I become debilitated in some way, but with a very loving environment surrounding the person as they die.

Death is a part of life. Flowers and trees die and are reborn. Animals die. People die. It is going to happen sooner or later. It is important to honor that person, whether they want it or not, in some beautiful way, shape or form. Funerals are for the living, not for the dead. And yet, they are helping us to feel comfortable about dying as well. Endings of any kind, need to happen for mental, physical and spiritual growth.

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