The concept of death and its aftermath as some kind of ‘passage’ from one world to another abounds throughout history and endures into the present day. The ancient Egyptians sent their dead off into the next world with many artefacts to ensure their new life would be comfortable. The ancient Greeks envisaged a boat crossing the River Styx (although it was customary to burn the actual body). The Norse men (we don’t know too much about the women) placed the dead in a boat, which was either burned or buried (we have archaeological evidence for this in the UK).
All these customs suggest that, regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof, we have a need to see funerals as a time when the dead move on from the world they and we know.
The concept of the funeral as a rite of passage seems to be as relevant to those who have little or no faith as to those who have a very strong belief system. While the exact ritual associated with a funeral will vary depending on this factor it has been observed in the context of rites of passage, that the funeral represents three distinct phases:
The funeral is the public declaration that the dead are dead. Even when there is no belief in an afterlife it marks the fact that a significant ending has taken place, an ending that may have been prolonged or sudden and traumatic. Wherever the dead now are, even if, for some people they are ‘nowhere’, they are no longer of this world and so the funeral is a marked moment of separation for the bereaved friends and relations.
This separation can also occur prior to the funeral itself. Until comparatively recently in the UK, the body was kept at home until the funeral and was sometimes taken to the church the night before. This happens very rarely now and the body is released to the funeral director soon after the death, unless there is a specific reason (in the care of the Coroner for example) for this not to happen. The funeral director can therefore be seen as an agent of separation as he/she will take the deceased from the home/nursing/care/residential home/ hospital in order to prepare for the funeral. This may be the time when it is realised fully that the person who was, no longer is and this can have a profound effect on those left behind. All that made the deceased who he or she was, is gone.
Making sure the bereaved remember the dignity with which this separation is managed, can contribute greatly to their comfort.
Just as separation can be seen as relevant to both the person who has died and to the bereaved people, so can the time which elapses between the death and the funeral itself. This is the time which we call transition. Once again the funeral professional can have an enormous effect on how this time is spent and on how it will be remembered.
Until the funeral, the funeral director is the guardian of the person who has died and the bereaved need to know that role is valued. The visits to and conversations with the bereaved person should be carefully timed. There needs to be reassurance that this sense of ‘taking care’ is honoured.
Some people are anxious about what is happening to the body and reassurance that the funeral director is a trustworthy custodian can be extremely helpful during this ‘in between’ period. Even for those who do not wish to view the body, the sense that it is being ‘kept safe’ during this time of transition is important.
This is also a transition time for the bereaved. Many bereaved people say that despite there being much to do at this time, it nevertheless feels as if time has stood still. The bereaved may experience ‘uncertainty and confusion’ – particularly about their new status as widow/ widower; orphan or single person, this may be especially acute if the death was sudden and unexpected. The increasingly longer life-span in the West often means that bereaved people have little or even no experience of arranging funerals and this may add to their uncertainty and confusion.
The funeral profession has a privileged role in helping to dispel some of this distress. The role needs to be carried out with care so the bereaved never feel they had no share in the arrangement. Walking a tightrope between discreet management of the funeral without ‘taking over’ takes patience and sensitivity.
The gathering after the funeral is the time when bereaved people are taken back into the community in their new status. Friends and family can be enormously supportive at this time. The value of this social aspect of the funeral seems to vary. Some people find it affirming that so many want to support them and to offer kind words or ways of helping. Others may find the gathering a terrible ordeal.
Within some cultures there is a very established structure to assist mourners and grieving. In others there is little guidance and this period after the funeral can be isolating for some bereaved people.