A service for the dead

In my life, I have attended a number of funerals; and I have also officiated at funerals. A perspective I quickly gained was that funerals were not so much for the deceased as they were for the living. A person I held in great respect told me this, shortly before he died; and the sentiment stayed with me. With time, this perspective shifted, somewhat, to a point where I would say that a funeral is for the deceased primarily to the extent that they would wish to know there would be a point for their loved ones to come together to say good-bye, and to be comforted by one another – it is a rite of passage that can bring healing as well as closure, one I think most of us would wish those who survive us to be able to go through without any undue burden. Beyond this, I still believe that funerals are a service for the living. In modern Western society, however (going with the example with which I’m most familiar), I feel like we are often doing a great disservice to the dead and their survivors ….

There was a time, among our forebears, when funeral arrangements (to include financial costs) were handled by the community. While property may have been inherited and awarded upon one’s death, funerary arrangements were a community event, with members of the community doing what was necessary and, in some cases, also contributing to items sacrificed to the grave, so as to help the soul’s passage and station in the afterlife to be more comfortable. I bring this last point up not as a suggestion that this is what we should be doing now; but rather as a contrast to the amounts of money that are charged to the estate of the deceased or to the survivors. As people age, this becomes a genuine worry – the desire to be able to provide for one’s loved ones up to the funeral and distribution of estate can become a source of enormous stress.

I find it worrisome, that funerals cost as much as they do; and that there seem to be more and more reports of abuse and deception taking place in what is in some cases referred to as a ‘market’ – that it is even referred to as such, in my opinion, already demonstrates that something has gone very wrong with how we handle one another. Although I am not a great fan of politics, I will not hesitate to say that I wish the State would be more involved in this process, providing a good funeral service at no personal cost. This would include someone to officiate the funeral – which would in this case be no more of a State sponsoring religion than would be the chaplain services offered through the military branches; and might even be a different approach by which more marginal religious perspectives might gain access to the same services and privileges that the more mainstream religions enjoy. This would insure that religious considerations would be represented and observed. That the cost would come from the community (by form of tax payer money) would also mean that this financial stress would not burden anyone as they approach death – it would be a service provided by the community, for living and deceased alike – and could also be regulated in a way to maintain a quality of services without ‘market exploitation,’ to reduce the financial burden on the community. To some extent, this does already happen … a cremation and an unmarked grave are nice enough for those who want no more than this; but I think there should be more options available for those who might desire them. Then I think funerals would become a greater service for the dead – one of the things many people fear most about dying would be removed – and it would be a greater comfort to friends and loved ones left behind.

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6 responses to “A service for the dead

  1. Agreed. Funerals and wakes are more for the living than for the dead – and it is amazing at how much they cost. People are already stressed enough by the death of a loved one – they shouldn’t bear the extra burden of unreasonably high costs of caskets, funeral arrangements, viewing, etc.

    Excellent post.

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    • I’m glad you liked this post, it is something I think is important, that has sort of gotten away from us (speaking collectively). I think the way a society treats its dead is a reflection of how that society treats its people in general. It used to be better, and I’d like to see us get back to that and move forward from there.

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  2. I agree with many of the points that you make concerning who is served by funeral services. I believe that a funeral is a necessary cultural event for both the community and the deceased.
    I also agree that the cost of a funeral is outrageously high, and I am disturbed by the ‘funeral industry’ as well as the ‘service process’ that has sprung up in the last 50 years. I am not ashamed to admit that I would prefer not to have a funeral in its present ‘traditional’ incarnation simply because of the expense, and in that, I do hope that I have some time to think about -if not save up for – the eventuality of my death.

    I do like your suggestion that funeral expenses could (and perhaps should) become a taxpayer-supported expense, as I agree that doing so would do the double duty of putting the care of the death back into the hands of the community (where it culturally belongs IMHO) as well as easing the financial burden to the grieving. Death is enough of a difficult emotional event for our loved ones to process, and I certainly believe that addition of a possibly heavy financial burden to that process is a disturbing and unnecessary.

    Though, I must say that I highly doubt that the concept of funerals becoming a state/community funded process could ever find much support in our present society simply because of the religious and politically charged environment that we live in. Combine death and taxes? Death is such a personal and terrifying topic for most people, and before progress could be made, I think that a honest assessment of our societal attitudes about death would be required. Hel, to recognize that we as a society need to get over our attitude that death is somehow a topic that shouldn’t ever be discussed until it happens would have to occur…and I believe that we as a society are a LONG way from that.

    Shit. I wrote a book up there.

    As you might imagine, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about death, dying, and societal attitudes toward both. As a matter of fact, my first entry for July concerned some personal thoughts that I have concerning how death has figured into my personal spiritual path, but as often happens, I don’t think that they were relevant to much since I have absolutely no academic/career background in social work, psychology or end-of-life care.

    But maybe I should work on that. It wouldn’t be the first time that I felt strongly about end-of-life care.

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    • Long comments are always welcome here – I thoroughly enjoy discussion, and would be happy if readers would engage one another in lengthy and thought-out discussions, either here in comments, or in each other’s blogs as new posts, etc. :-)

      You raise a good point about society’s current views toward death and religion being a sticking point in bringing funerary services back to the responsibility of the community. In my mind, I think it possible that this issue could actually be used to help bring society to a greater degree of consensus than it currently enjoys. One of the other problems I see, closely related to your observation, is that our society is so obsessed with prolonging life beyond its natural boundaries, that we (collectively) are borderline phobic when it comes to dying. As such, for many people, it might be easier to ignore this issue as much as possible, and resent taking any share in the responsibility for the deceased. But I also feel like things need to change; and this kind of change has to start somewhere. It’s still much to think about; but that you are already talking about exploring this issue further is a welcome sign that such changes might someday come to be!

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  3. I became very aware of the “market” when my father died. What an array of packages the funeral home offered! It was the same feeling as shopping in a department store – the same barely concealed eye rolls reminiscent of pushy sales girls. Nauseating.

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    • This comment brings to my mind the thought that another reason why I disapprove of our current approach to funerary services is because – like so much else that has been glossed over with marketing gimmicks – it removes some of the human element from the process.

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