Today’s question came in as a comment from one of our readers who asked, “is it wrong not to have a funeral?”. Her concern was one I have heard echoed by many others, who are all worried that not having a funeral may hinder finding “closure”.
This is a complicated question, and the fact that we don’t have a whole lot of context for it makes it even more complex. First things first – let’s talk about what a funeral is and what it is not. Funerals are (often not always) a place to start the process of mourning with friends and family as our grief is first unfolding. Funerals are not a place to find ‘closure’ (I could insert a whole post-within-a-post here on why I hate the word closure, but I will restrain myself. I will keep it at this: we grieve forever in different ways. What we find looks a lot more like integration and a lot less like closure).
If one is considering not having a funeral it is often for one of two reasons:
1) The person who died expressly stated they didn’t want a funeral.
2) Someone (or multiple people) in the family does not want to have a funeral.
Let’s tackle the first reason first (because that seems logical). If your loved one expressly stated they didn’t want a funeral you may be feeling and one of a wide range of emotions, from fine with it, to downright furious that your loved one took this choice from you. If you are feeling fine with it (or just a little annoyed), but you’re worried extended family and friends will be resentful or won’t find ‘closure’, my suggestion is that you honor what your loved one wanted. Your last act on their behalf will be honoring a wish that was important enough that they shared it with others. If you and other family are still looking for a way to memorialize, there are plenty of other alternatives. With a little thoughtful planning, you can find some alternatives that will fill that need for a ritual to remember and grieve, without having a traditional funeral. We will be posting some alternatives in a follow up to this post, so keep an eye out.
If you are on the other end of the spectrum, all sorts of angry and bitter that your loved one is trying to slight you out of a funeral, you are not alone. There are plenty of grievers who have been frustrated by funeral wishes that they didn’t have in mind, from cremation instead of an open casket, to no funeral at all. I can’t offer you the perfect answer here, just a suggestion – think long and hard about whether you want to go against what your loved one wanted. Here is a little personal rant to demonstrate why this is important: I’ll be pissed if my family violates my wishes. I’ll be super pissed, in fact, since I’ve gone out of my way to make my wishes known. But let’s be real – I’ll be dead, so there won’t be much I can do about it. If they can live with violating my wishes without guilt, because it is really and truly the only thing they feel will work for them and their grief, that is on them. I sure hope they think long and hard about it first.
My suggestion to anyone standing on that treacherous ground is to really take the time to think it through – talk it over, give it a week or two, and don’t rush to make a decision. Once you have violated their wishes you can’t take it back, so be thoughtful. And keep in mind, if you’re thinking about wishes in an advanced directive, and organ donor designation, or signed paperwork for whole body donation, those are all legally binding and you can’t change those wishes even if you want to – so get used to them and start figuring out how to work them into a remembrance that will work for your own grief. There truly are dozens of ways to remember and honor a loved one that can be meaningful for you without violating what your loved one wanted, so make sure you have considered all those options before rushing to meet with a funeral director.
Now, you may be thinking of forgoing a funeral simply because you can’t face the reality of it – the reality of planning it, the reality of attending it, or the reality that it is happening at all. Don’t worry, when it comes to grief the “can’t I just bury my head in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening??” approach is not uncommon. I think every griever has wished they could do that at one time or another. Sadly, you can’t avoid it forever. This brings me back to what a funeral is – a funeral is a place to start your grieving with those who will be grieving with you in the weeks, months, and years to come. It can be a really important ritual and the first step for so many people, and as much as you may be dreading it, you may be surprised at the comfort you find in meeting people you may never have known were touched by your loved one in some way.
If you are dreading the whole concept of a funeral, keep in mind that a funeral will be whatever you make it. It does not need to look like a traditional funeral. If you don’t want it you don’t have to go the whole open casket, a formal mass, or traditional funeral home route. A funeral or memorial is something that can happen in whatever space and with whatever format works for you and your family. There is no need to rush to plan something, especially if some time will allow more people to attend and for friends and family to plan something especially meaningful.
If you are looking for some funeral inspiration, don’t miss this incredible video created by the Edmonds family after the loss of their son, Josh. If it is the stuffy-old-funeral-tradition that has got you dreading the prospect of a funeral, this may get you thinking outside the box.
In summary, is it wrong not to have a funeral? No! Will it prevent you from grieving in a healthy way? No, not if you are at peace with it and have an alternative ritual that works for you. Does this mean you shouldn’t have a funeral? No! It means, like with everything in grief, that you need to find what works for you.
We couldn’t cram everything into one to post, so subscribe to get our upcoming post on alternatives to a funeral. Leave a comment to share how you dealt with conflict about whether or not to have a funeral. Have another question you’d like us to tackle? Leave a comment or shoot us an email to let us know!