What is a Funeral?
All we need to do is say the word "funeral" and within microseconds, you have an image in your mind of what a funeral looks like. This mental image comes from many sources: the geographical place, culture and society in which we live; our faith; our life experience. Obviously then, a funeral service in Borneo would look very different from one held in Tanzania; there are even significant differences between the funerals held in ethnically and/or geographically diverse regions of North America.
The needs and expectations of our families are changing and we've responded with funeral service options tailored to these new expectations. Two generations ago, traditional funerals (visitation, funeral service and service at the cemetery) were common. It was what everyone expected.
But, as the demand for cremation services increased, there has been a shift in the types of services available. Many more families are choosing cremation and holding a memorial service afterwards. Family members and friends still came together to pay their respects to the deceased and find emotional support but they did so in less formal ways.
Today, another funeral service option, the celebration-of-life service, has become quite popular because there are no limits to the how, where, and when the life of a loved one can be celebrated.
What Makes a Funeral?
No matter where it's held, a funeral is a structured ceremony, with a beginning, middle and end. Each is intended to engage the living participants in activities which will transform their status within the community, provide mourners with a collective grieving experience, and celebrate a life lived. It's a socially-acceptable way for members of a community to re-affirm and express their social attachments.
Anthropologists label a funeral as a rite of passage, which affects everyone involved–including the deceased. His or her social status changes dramatically, from a living contributing member of the community to one whose contributions are in the past, and relegated to memory. But the status of each of the survivors– the immediate family most especially– has also changed. In fact, the funeral service can be the start of a defined period of mourning for bereaved family members, marking this transition in a uniquely identifiable way.
It could be said then, the focus of a funeral - no matter where, no matter when - lies in acknowledging change. And without doubt, human beings (as individuals and as a community) have trouble dealing with profound changes like the death of an integral member of the group. When you take this perspective, it becomes easier to understand the importance of ceremonially acknowledging the tear in the social fabric and the symbolic restoration of its integrity.
3 Stages of a Funeral
It's not surprising funerals have been around for a very long time. Composed of three activities, the visitation, the funeral service, and the committal service, performed at the graveside; this funeral is the one we'd easily recognize from contemporary literature and film.
Held prior to the funeral, often the night before but sometimes on the same day, the visitation (or viewing) is a time when people come to support the family and, more importantly, pay their respects to the deceased. This often involves stepping up to the casket to view the body; either in the company of a member of the surviving family or on your own.
The Funeral Service
Commonly held in the funeral home or church, the traditional funeral service is led by an officiant of one kind or another; most commonly a pastor or the funeral director. This individual follows a very predictable funeral order of service which includes the singing of hymns; and invocations, Bible recitations, Scripture readings, and prayers led by the officiant.
The Committal Service
This takes place at the cemetery, after a slow and respectful automobile procession from the place where the funeral was held. The committal service ends when the casketed remains are lowered into the ground, and final prayers are said.
If you'd like to know more about the history of funerals in the United States, you may like to visit the website of the National Museum of Funeral History. But for now, it's enough to know that a funeral service traditionally has these three distinct components.
Funeral Services in Our Area
The arrangements you make will be influenced by the lifestyle of your deceased family member; the time of year, your budget, and the number of people in attendance. But you don't have to think about it all on your own; we're here to help. That's what we do; it's our passion to help families celebrate the life of their loved one. Just reach out to us; let us know what you'd like, and we'll tell you how we can assist you.
For families and individuals living in this region (as elsewhere in the nation), a funeral service can mean many things. Some fall back on what is commonly called a "traditional funeral"; others see that same traditional service as an emotionally unfulfilling event. Fortunately, thanks to a number of unique social forces, there are alternatives. Today, end-of-life commemorative services range from the traditional funeral, to a memorial service and the increasingly popular celebrations-of-life. If you have yet to realize the immense value of such a collective acknowledgement of loss, reach out to us. Call 718-845-5151 to discuss planning a funeral with one of our experienced professionals.
Huntington, Richard and Peter Metcalf, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual, Cambridge University Press, 1979.