To Have or Not to Have: Is it okay to not want a funeral?
More and more often, funeral directors are hearing that the deceased “didn’t want a funeral” or that the family would prefer to “celebrate her life” informally and skip all the mourning and other ceremonies of grief. But funerals have existed across millennia for a reason: they help the living, specifically the bereaved, to cope with death and loss and to avoid prolonged or complicated grief. So, if you find yourself asking, “Why should I have a funeral?” – or, “Are funerals really necessary?” – here are some facts you can and should share with your loved ones – as well as some advice for making a funeral or memorial service a reality.
Do we have to have a funeral?
Legally, no. Emotionally, many studies say yes. While no law or regulation requires you to have a funeral, the fact is that this millennia-old ritual plays a critical role in the process of grieving. So, if someone asks, “Is it wrong that I don’t want a funeral?”, share this: Multiple studies have shown that, when loved ones are able to create highly personalized funerals and memorials, they experience benefits to their mental and physical health. One study showed that loved ones who were closely involved in planning funerals, or who found the funeral “comforting,” had significantly fewer challenges with grief later on.
Does it hurt anybody if we choose not to have a funeral?
Yes, according to experts in grieving. Choosing not to have a funeral deprives loved ones of the opportunity to face and accept the loss, to grieve collectively, to share support and to draw strength from one another to help navigate the weeks and months ahead. In the words of a clinical psychologist specializing in grief, Harvard’s Christy Denckla, “Funerals are really fundamental to [. . .] how we mourn, to how we grieve, to how we reinforce social ties, to how we expand the social safety net in times of vulnerability and loss. And more fundamentally, they reflect what it means for us to be human.” Funerals exist because they serve several critical functions simultaneously, from giving us a time and place to feel and express our grief to providing a way to give and receive support and care. Funeral directors play an important role in explaining these factors when helping families decide what level of service they will need.
Click here to read or listen to the entire interview with Dr. Denckla for even more perspective.
What makes a funeral meaningful?
In a word, personalization. A 2021 study of the funeral industry from Sundale notes that “Baby boomers and seniors are seeking services that provide a connection to their loved one, as well as services that are a celebration of life.” Meaningful funerals are built on three pillars:
- Congregation – the gathering of loved ones, both in person and remote, to provide support and to draw strength from one another.
- A venue for quiet contemplation – where loved ones can openly express their grief in a non-judgmental environment.
- Personalized Touchpoints and Permission – such as photographs, tribute videos, and eulogies that put the life that was lost into context and permission to depart the service happier having had those memories than sad having had to say good-bye.
There are literally hundreds of ways to help make a funeral or memorial more custom and personalized. While you may be familiar with many of them, here are some websites that might give you some new ideas. We also recommend searching through Pinterest for new and trending practices:
General personalization ideas for indoor and outdoor ceremonies:
For funeral / memorial services only:
Quirky and creative ideas from the UK:
What if someone in the family wants to delay a funeral?
Often, when a family decides to delay a service, it never happens – and families are at risk for what one funeral director calls “unembarked grief.” He writes, “When no ceremony is held, mourning is never properly initiated. It can create a terrible, never-ending limbo for these families, especially the primary mourner . . . [They] have a much harder time fully acknowledging the reality of death, which is the linchpin need of mourning. They also don’t receive the crucial public affirmation and social support that a funeral provides.”
What are some considerations when planning a funeral?
- Identify the type of funeral or memorial your family prefers: Do you want a traditional funeral? Something less structured or more unique?
- Establish a date for the funeral or memorial as soon as possible: Funerals are most effective when held within the first two weeks after a loved one has passed away. Consider livestreaming the service for those who may not be able to be there in person. The TribuCast® Remote Attendance System™ has become the #1 family go-to for this purpose because it makes scheduling easier and provides a private and dignified way for loved ones to attend remotely.
- Establish an appropriate location: Determine where you would like the funeral to be held such as a church/place of worship, funeral home chapel or other suitable venue.
- Assign roles: Delegate responsibilities liberally. Doing so helps the primary planner and also those wishing to help as a way to cope with their loss. Who will lead the service? Do readings? Sing/play music? Give the eulogy? Collect photographs and written remembrances? Notify family, friends, and co-workers past and present? By sketching out these ideas and assigning potential roles on paper, the service begins to take on a more specific shape. This makes the ceremony easier to visualize and understand and helps everyone involved with grieving and loss, both in terms of creating a way to grieve – and to show support.
- Use existing knowledge: A service should reflect the interests and passions of your loved one. Music choices, readings, hobbies, awards – all can add meaningful context to the life that was lost.
In short, the answer to the questions “Do I need to have a funeral?” or “Are funerals really important” is, simply put, yes. Having a memorial service that is meaningful and personalized will greatly help bereaved loved ones to cope with their loss and to heal. When done correctly, funerals build a solid foundation necessary for effective management of grief in the weeks and months after a loss. It doesn’t matter whether families have a burial or a cremation. It also doesn’t matter whether the family wants a traditional funeral in church with all the attendant pomp and circumstance – or if they prefer a quiet outdoor ceremony featuring the scattering of ashes – or if they want a themed memorial featuring their favorite football team and its colors. What does matter is that funeral homes and other funeral service providers deliver highly personalized funerals and memorials that will truly celebrate the deceased – and comfort the bereaved – so that true healing can begin.