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Creating Meaningful Funeral Experiences: A Guide for Caregivers

Creating Meaningful Funeral Experiences: A Guide for Caregivers

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Creating Meaningful Funeral Experiences: A Guide for Caregivers

206 pages
2 hours
Oct 1, 2003


Written in response to the current trend to deritualize death and funeral ceremonies, this book explores the ways in which caregivers and clergy can create heartfelt ceremonies that help the bereaved begin to heal. Explaining the purposes behind rituals, it reviews the many ways these have changed over the years and argues for a return to authentic, personalized, and meaningful funeral ceremonies. The qualities in caregivers that make them effective funeral planners are examined, and practical ideas for creating authentic, personalized, and meaningful funeral ceremonies are provided. Trends toward the prevalence of cremation are discussed, as are trends away from viewing and spending time with the body of the deceased. This replaces 1879651084.
Oct 1, 2003

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Creating Meaningful Funeral Experiences - Alan D. Wolfelt



(Ritual) is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance.

– C.S. Lewis

I have had the privilege of companioning thousands of mourners who have been willing to teach me about their grief journeys. I also have experienced how my own personal losses have changed my life forever. In these ways I have learned that meaningful funeral ceremonies are one of the most affirming means of helping our fellow human beings begin to embrace the pain of separation and loss after the death of someone loved.

Meaningful funeral ceremonies can and do make a significant difference in how grieving families channel their grief toward health and healing. During the funeral the community comes together and responds not only to the reality that someone has died, but also to the reality that those remaining will need support, compassion, love, hope, and understanding. More, an authentic funeral is often the beginning of the expression of grief. What happens at the funeral (and how it happens) greatly affects how the mourners go on to find meaning and purpose in their continued living.

Creating meaningful ceremonies when death impacts us can assist us with emotional, physical, and spiritual transformations. The death of someone we love often temporarily disconnects us from ourselves and the world around us. As we search for some sense of balance, we must make internal adaptations to our new outer reality: someone who has been physically present in our lives is gone. Participating in a meaningful funeral experience helps us begin to re-center ourselves, to make that painful but necessary transition from life before the death to life after the death.

Helen Keller provided us with a simple yet profound metaphor when she said, The only way to get to the other side is to go through the door. Meaningful funerals are doorways to healing for those who mourn. Some mourners, following the current North American trend away from funerals, are choosing never to enter the doorway. Many, unaware of the ways in which authentic funerals can help them, are blindly choosing doorways that lead nowhere. More families than ever before are using the words direct cremation and no service. But a lucky few are led through the very special doorways that open onto the many paths to grief’s reconciliation. You, the bereavement caregiver (whether you are a clergy person, funeral director, celebrant or grief counselor), have the opportunity to lead mourners through doorways that allow them to say hello on the pathway to goodbye through the use of meaningful funeral ceremonies.

Companioning the Bereaved

To companion the bereaved means to be an active participant in their healing. When you as a caregiver companion the bereaved, you allow yourself to learn from their unique experiences. You let the bereaved teach you instead of the other way around. You make the commitment to walk with them as they journey through grief.

Becoming an Educator on Meaningful Funerals

As a death educator and grief counselor, I wrote the first edition of Creating Meaningful Funeral Experiences in 1994 out of a deep concern that individuals, families and ultimately society as a whole would suffer if we did not reinvest ourselves in the funeral ritual. In 2003, I updated this book with an eye to the many signs of progress I had seen. The 2011 update of this book calls for industry leaders to become educators on meaningful funerals.

There is a vital need for those of us who recognize the value of meaningful funerals to serve as educators about that value. Why? Because many people, through no fault of their own, have not learned that when words are inadequate, have ceremony. Instead, more people than we have ever witnessed before are questioning the very value of funerals. Many confuse efficiency with effectiveness and move away from befriending their grief by saying, It will just be easier if…. They go on (unless we supportively teach them value) to eliminate elements of ceremony like visitations, music, symbols, readings, prayer, and sharing. The result fits with what T.S. Elliot observed: You can have an experience and miss the meaning. This calls for all of us concerned about the future of meaningful funerals to gently, yet firmly, teach our fellow human beings about the tremendous importance of getting off to a good start in grief through well-planned ceremony.

While it is tempting to think that your job is to create a celebration or a party when it’s requested, I urge you to pause for a moment and consider what’s best for the families you serve. We are witnessing, and I suggest even colluding with, a powerful trend toward celebrations and parties and away from meaningful funeral experiences. According to a 2010 survey by, 48 percent of 1643 respondents said they would want a celebration of life and only 11 percent would opt for a traditional funeral. A shocking 31 percent said they wanted no funeral at all.

I daresay that we as North Americans have become confused. Many of us now believe that having fun, feeling joy and surprise, and being entertained are what having an experience is all about. We have confused honoring with celebration and celebration with partying. And regretfully, we’ve transferred this idea onto funerals. To borrow a phrase from the musical group R.E.M., we shiny, happy people have forgotten that the purpose of a funeral is to mourn—to actively and outwardly embrace the death of someone we love.

The Latin word for celebrate is celebrare or to honor. The colloquial definition is to have a good time. Yet our true intention when someone loved dies is not to have a good time, but to honor our loved one. This is where the confusion lies. Therefore, when we simply go along with a family’s initial request to create a celebration for the person who died, we are not giving them what they truly, deep-down want and need.

What reinforces this desire for celebration is that mourning is painful and not something people readily sign up to do. We are too eager to praise mourners who stay strong and get over it and find closure quickly. Our society has become increasingly mourning-avoidant, and with that we have seen a shift toward celebrations. Yet in their attempt to celebrate, families often miss the ancient and still essential purpose of funerals, which is to create an invitation to mourn openly and honestly.

When people do not feel their feelings, they become unable to be changed by them. Instead of experiencing movement through loss, they become stuck. They experience chronic grief that affects all areas of their lives. Of course, meaningful funerals are not devoid of celebration and laughter. As you know, funny anecdotes about the person who died are often a welcome and necessary part of the experience. Authentic, meaningful funerals invite a full range of emotions, from deep sadness, to joy and laughter. This is where your role as an educator and ritual specialist comes into play. When families request celebrations, you can choose to gently guide them toward a funeral that will serve as a catalyst for their mourning, rather than as a tool to suppress it.

Some Good News

Addressing the growing trend toward cremation, some funeral homes have added cremation tribute centers that allow families to participate in the cremation ritual. Others have begun training staff members to plan and lead funeral ceremonies and have trained or hired celebrants, who add depth to funerals by getting to know the family and the person who died intimately and encouraging people to talk about him or her and share memories through stories, anecdotes, and pictures. Celebrants particularly serve those seeking a non-religious, yet spiritual, ceremony. This interfaces with the reality that many baby boomers and Xgeners are spiritual, but not necessarily religious. Some funeral homes have even recreated their funeral arranging process so that it focuses on the unique life of the person who died—not on the filling out of forms.

Throughout this third edition you will find examples of ways in which caregivers to those who mourn are reinvesting themselves in the funeral ritual. Many of the examples come from funeral directors and clergy, because I often have the privilege to speak with them in my travels across North America, but I hope that everyone reading this book will find them inspiring and useful. You will also find an introduction to the concept of creating not just meaningful funeral ceremonies, but meaningful funeral experiences. The experience economy is indeed upon us, and it offers an inspiring model for funeral service in the 21st century.

Tis the good reader that makes the book, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. That observation applies especially to this type of resource. This text, written for people willing to constantly strive to improve their skills in creating and leading authentic funeral rituals, will do little good if its messages are exiled to the reader’s mental bookshelves. Instead I challenge you to consider Creating Meaningful Funeral Experiences each time you plan a new funeral and to persistently and creatively strive to improve your ability to bring meaning to the funeral experiences of those you "walk

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