Death is difficult to accept. When a loved one dies, we feel angry, confused or emotionally numb. We experience grief, which though painful, is a necessary part of the transition and healing process that allows us to separate ourselves from the deceased.
The funeral ritual helps survivors to begin healing by focusing their emotions and bringing meaning to the experience of death. A funeral gives mourners “permission” to express feelings of sadness and loss.
The funeral ritual has existed since the beginning of civilization, resulting in varying funeral customs worldwide. When someone dies, the family, the family’s clergyperson and funeral director and other mourners all have roles they are expected to fulfill.
The Family’s Role
After a death, the family’s first responsibility is to make phone calls. They need to immediately notify their doctor, if he or she isn’t already present, perhaps the medical examiner, and their funeral director. They may also want to call their clergyperson right away.
After the professional calls are made, the family must make sure friends and relatives are told of the death, although they need not make all the calls themselves. The people in the inner circle of the family—parents, grandparents, children and siblings of the deceased—should be notified personally. It isn’t practical for the family to call everyone. News of a death travels quickly, and friends or distant relatives will probably be told of the death before the immediate family can reach them.
After the calls are made, the family consults with the funeral director and clergy—person to plan the funeral, choose pallbearers and send out funeral notifications. These responsibilities serve an important purpose because they help confirm the reality of death.
The Role of a Funeral Director
From the hour of death until the deceased’s final disposition, the funeral director helps families through a difficult time. The funeral director serves as an adviser, an administrator, a supporter and a caregiver.
When the funeral director is called, one of his or her first responsibilities is to bring the deceased person’s body to the funeral home. The funeral director also secures information for the deceased person’s death certificate, which is then completed and filed with the proper legal authorities.
The funeral director meets with the family to discuss arrangements for a visitation, if the family requests one, and a funeral. In accordance with law, custom and especially the family’s wishes, the funeral director helps them choose the place, time and type of service, and any other funeral arrangements. The funeral director provides convenient access to a choice of casket or other burial container, a memorial stone or appropriate marker, and alternatives of final disposition—usually burial, cremation or entombment. He or she also offers other considerations from which the family may select, and explains these so that the family may select appropriately.
On the day of the funeral, the funeral director attends to a number of ceremonial and administrative details as well as to logistical matters such as transportation. Both before and after the service, the funeral director helps the family complete necessary paperwork, including obituary notices and claim forms for social security, veteran’s and union benefits and insurance. Because the emotional impact of death often makes it difficult to concentrate on the details of legal forms, the funeral director’s help in this area is especially appreciated by grieving families.
The funeral director can also answer questions about coping with death, recognize when a person is having difficulty accepting the loss of a loved one and recommend sources of professional counseling for those who need it.
The Clergyperson’s Role
The clergyperson also is responsible for the ritualistic dimension of the funeral. This varies a great deal from church to church as some churches have more prescribed funeral ceremonies than others. Clergy often work from denomination books of worship or may write more personalized services. In that case, the family is often asked if there are favorite hymns or scripture passages they want included.
If the family does not belong to a church but wants a religious funeral, the funeral director will recommend a pastor. The funeral director usually will get a clergyperson who best fits their needs. In this case, the clergyperson may not be notified until the actual funeral is being planned.
In either case, the clergyperson should be asked when his or her schedule would permit the funeral to be held. They should not be told the funeral is going to be held at a particular time and asked if he or she can officiate.
The Friends’ Role
Funerals bring families and friends together for mutual support. Your grieving friends may not have a chance to tell you, but your presence could mean more to them than you will ever realize.
Show them you care about them with a hug, a firm handshake or a gentle pat on the shoulder. Just say “I’m sorry,” don’t try to come up with profound statements about life and death. Don’t say, “I know how you feel,” because you don’t. The grief each person feels depends on the relationship he or she had with the deceased, and no two relationships are exactly alike.
If your friends are suffering through the death of a baby, don’t try to comfort them by telling them it may have been for the best and don’t say things like, “You can always have another baby.” They are feeling sad because they’ve lost this baby, and one child cannot replace another.
It is very important for your friend to talk about the death so he or she can accept it. Remember, your friend may show a variety of reactions to death—anger, guilt or depression. In any case, it is important to express emotions; this is one step in resolving grief. You as a friend can help the most by listening, not by changing the subject.
You can help in many ways. Grieving is hard work, and it can last a long time. Your friend is still under a great deal of pressure, and you can lighten the load by offering to do laundry, cook dinner or even baby-sit.
If your friend recently became a widow or widower, he or she may feel isolated. You can help by calling with an invitation to dinner or to some social functions. If your friend refuses this time, wait a few weeks and try again. Don’t wait for him or her to call you; your friend may feel too awkward to reach out to anyone.
Remember that the death of someone close can change a person. Your friend’s life has been torn apart, and putting it back together may mean finding a new role in life or a new way of looking at himself or herself. This can change the relationship you have with your friend. But what is most important is that the friendship remains.
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