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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

What makes a funeral great? The good, the bad, and the gaudy of saying goodbye.

Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but I find myself at more funerals lately — and I’ve started to rate them. No, I’m not evaluating how much money was spent on the spread, flowers, casket, or urn. Let’s be honest, whether you had it catered or cajoled your friends into helping, egg salad sandwiches are egg salad sandwiches. I’ve never attended a funeral for the food. The thing I’m rating is whether the event gives me and those closest to the departed the opportunity to grieve.

I’m not looking for a maudlin affair, nor am I trying to make myself sadder. I just want to feel like I can say goodbye and perhaps learn a thing or two about the person who passed.

I expect funerals to be as diverse as the dead. Some are formal affairs with participants sharing whispered conversation in church pews. Others are more casual gatherings held in a pub while images of the departed run in a loop meant to recall happier times. Still others change locations, churches, gravesides, or pubs as the rituals of death are played out according to the desires of the departed or those left behind.

Ire and brimstone
I don’t have a preference, really. The activity just needs to do what it should to help people grieve. What doesn’t impress me is when things unrelated to the process of saying goodbye take centre stage. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve showed up for a funeral service only to find myself in the middle of sales pitch on the benefits of going to church. (The word “eternal” is used a lot.)

Don’t get me wrong. We’re a captive audience and I can see the appeal of making such an appeal. I also have no objections to a religious service. But I am repulsed when the official takes the opportunity to dominate the moment, make a political pitch, heap guilt on the unfaithful, chastise the living for their lack of attendance or, in one instance, silence family members who wanted to say a few words of farewell.

funeral

Low scores also happen when the business of funerals becomes too apparent. A good example is when the officiant hasn’t taken the time to learn the name of the departed and either mispronounces or forgets it all together. Those are jarring experiences that pull mourners out of the moment and force them to consider the transactional nature of the event.

Sometimes, of course, things go horribly wrong, like when the dearly departed gets misplaced or the wrong body is cremated. In one funeral I heard about, instead of the usual photos of the loved one running in the background, mourners were accidentally shown four minutes of porn. Give that funeral a zero.

An out-of-the-box affair
If I’m being fair, the failure is not always the down to the officials. Quite often, the mourners or attendees make the event one to remember for all the wrong reasons. I’ve yet to take a selfie at a funeral, but apparently that’s an increasingly popular activity. Then there are the brawlers and catcallers who see the funeral as a great place to start a fight or settle a score, because who doesn’t go to a funeral to catch a boxing match — the end point in some decades-long petty pileup of grievances between estranged family members?

In China, exotic dancers at funerals became so problematic that some cities had to intervene. If you’re wondering how this came about, it’s based on the idea that large crowds at funerals are a sign of good luck for the deceased in the afterlife. So, to draw more people, some organizers started to bring in dancers. Since children also attend these funerals, the whole thing is just hard to justify.

Sometimes I want to ask if they could take that somewhere else or save it for after the funeral. Unlike weddings, there is no dress rehearsal. That means people are often emotionally raw, numb, or overwhelmed. Grief is also very personal and has different outlets for different people. Some cry, some don’t. Some yell, and some sink into themselves. People grieve for a few weeks, months, or years, and different cultures, personalities, loved ones, or stages in life will also affect how and how long we grieve.

No matter what your grief “tenure” is, the funeral is often the start, and it’s frequently where people remind themselves of their social safety net. While a 2022 mixed methods review of the effect funeral practices have on bereaved relatives’ mental health and bereavement outcomes was inconclusive, qualitative research provides additional insight: the benefit of after-death rituals, including funerals, depends on the ability of the bereaved to shape those rituals and say goodbye in a way that is meaningful for them. Findings also highlight the important role of funeral officiants during the pandemic.

Funerals can be a tangible way to show support for the living. They may provide companionship during a difficult time and can be a fundamental part of how we mourn. But they should help us to process the loss and actualize a person’s death. If the thing I’m discussing as I drive away is the officiant’s fail or the fight out front, then the funeral is a flop. I don’t go for dinner and a show. I’m not trying to be converted. I go to get and give support.

Author: has not planned her own funeral but knows there will be no selfie stations.

Debra Yearwood, CHE, made a conscious rap playlist after researching this story. Her work appears regularly in The Catalyst.

Illustration: Holly Craib

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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