The Value of Rituals
From the September 8, 2011, edition of the Memorial Business Journal.
Editor’s note: The following article written by Dr. Alan Wolfelt appeared in October 2001 edition of The Director magazine. As the United States prepared to mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this article underscores the value of the funeral and memorialization in the healing process.
Following the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, the Pentagon bombing and the hijacking and subsequent downing of four U.S. jetliners, a nation mourns. In expression of their grief, communities across the globe are finding the need to come together to light candles, to pray, to sing and to remember.
When words are inadequate, ceremony and ritual help us express our profound thoughts and feelings. Rituals are symbolic activities that help us, together with our families and friends, express our deepest thoughts and feelings about life’s most important events.
Rituals are typically public events. Families, friends, church members, villages, nations – any group with strong emotional or philosophical ties – may create and enact a ritual, which provides a support system for common beliefs and values. Rituals unite us. Today, we as a nation are participating in services at places of worship, gathering to march and lighting candles simultaneously across time zones. President Bush declared Friday, September 14, as a national day of prayer and remembrance – essentially a day of ritual. Rituals are also symbolic. Wedding rings, christening gowns, mortarboards and gold watches all symbolize important life transitions and commitments. In the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy, the American flag is being flown on light posts, front porches and vehicles in every neighborhood across the country. What words could we possibly utter right now that would express our feelings as well as the sight of Old Glory lilting in the breeze? In other words, the symbols of ritual provides us with a means to express our beliefs and feelings when words alone will not do those beliefs and feelings justice.
The Funerals That Will Follow
In the coming days and weeks, funerals will be held for the thousands of victims of the attack on America. The funeral ritual, too, is a public, traditional and symbolic means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about the death of someone loved. Rich in history and rife with symbolism, the funeral ceremony helps us acknowledge the reality of the death, gives testimony to the life of the deceased, encourages the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture’s values, provides support to mourners, allows for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death and offers continuity and hope for the living.
I cannot overemphasize how important these funerals will be to the families and friends of the victims. Each funeral will be an opportunity to honor, remember and mourn that unique individual. Yes, it seems that thousands of people died on Tuesday, September 11, but each one of these people was a unique human being and must be remembered in a personal, individual way. Funerals help survivors meet their emotional and spiritual needs – what I call the “reconciliation needs of mourning.” The reconciliation needs of mourning are the six needs I believe to be the most central to healing in grief.
As you read the remainder of this article, please keep in mind that a meaningful ceremony is but one of many elements that influence a bereaved person’s ability to have his or her grief needs met. Obviously, healing in grief is not an event but a process that will unfold for months and years after the funeral itself. The funeral is a ritual of ending, but it only marks the beginning of the healing process. Even so, a meaningful funeral can certainly begin to meet all six reconciliation needs, setting the tone for the grief journey to come.
Mourning Need 1: Acknowledge the Reality of the Death
When someone loved dies, we must openly acknowledge the reality and the finality of the death if we are to move forward with our grief. Typically, we embrace this reality in two phases. First we acknowledge the death with our minds; we are told that someone we loved has died and, intellectually at least, we understand the fact of the death. Over the course of the following days and weeks, and with the gentle understanding of those around us, we begin to acknowledge the reality of the death in our hearts.
Meaningful funeral ceremonies can serve as wonderful points of departure for “head understanding” of the death. Intellectually, funerals teach us that someone we loved is now dead, even though we may have denied this fact up until the funeral. When we contact the funeral home, set a time for the service, plan the ceremony, view the body and perhaps even choose clothing and jewelry for the body, we cannot avoid acknowledging that the person has died. When we see the casket being lowered into the ground, we are witnesses to death’s finality.
Mourning Need 2: Move Toward the Pain of the Loss
As our acknowledgment of the death progresses from what I call “head understanding” to “heart understanding,” we begin to embrace the pain of the loss, which is another need the bereaved must have met if they are to heal. Healthy grief means expressing our painful thoughts and feelings, and funeral ceremonies allow us to do just that.
People tend to cry, sob and even wail at funerals because funerals force us to concentrate on the fact of the death and our feelings, often excruciatingly painful, about that death. For at least an hour or two (longer for mourners who plan the ceremony or attend the visitation), those attending the funeral are not able to intellectualize or distance themselves from the pain of their grief. To their credit, funerals also provide us with an accepted venue for our painful feelings. They are perhaps the only time and place, in fact, during which we as a society condone such an openly outward expression of our sadness.
Mourning Need 3: Remember the Person Who Died
To heal in grief, we must shift our relationship with the person who died from one of physical presence to one of memory. The funeral encourages us to begin this shift by providing a natural time and place for us to think about the moments we shared, good and bad, with the person who died. Like no other time before or after the death, the funeral invites us to focus on our past relationship with that one, single person and to share those memories with others.
At traditional funerals, the eulogy attempts to highlight the major events in the life of the deceased and the characteristics he or she prominently displayed. This is helpful to mourners, for it tends to prompt more intimate, individualized memories. Later, after the ceremony itself, many mourners will informally share memories of the person who died. This, too, is meaningful.
Throughout our grief journeys, the more we are able “tell the story” of the death itself and of our memories of the person who died, the more likely we will be to reconcile our grief. Moreover, the sharing of memories at the funeral affirms the worth we have placed on the person who died, legitimizing our pain. Often, the memories others choose to share with us at the funeral are memories that we have not heard before. This teaches us about the dead person’s life apart from ours and allows us glimpses into that life that we may cherish forever.
Mourning Need 4: Develop a New Self-identity
Another primary reconciliation need of mourning is the development of a new self-identity. We are all social beings whose lives are given meaning in relation to the lives of those around us. For instance, I am not just Alan Wolfelt, but a son, a brother, a husband, a father and a friend. When someone close to me dies, my self-identity as defined in those ways changes.
The funeral helps us begin this difficult process of developing a new self-identity because it provides a social venue for public acknowledgment of our new roles. If you are a parent of a child and that child dies, the funeral marks the beginning of your life as a former parent (in the physical sense; you will always have that relationship through memory). Others attending the funeral are in effect saying, “We acknowledge your changed identity, and we want you to know we still care about you.”
Mourning Need 5: Search for Meaning
When someone loved dies, we naturally question the meaning of life and death. Why did this person have to die? Why now? Why this way? Why does it have to hurt so much? What happens after death? To heal in grief, we must explore these types of questions if we are to become reconciled to our grief. In fact, we must first ask these “why” questions to decide why we should go on living before we can ask ourselves how we will go on living. This does not mean we must find definitive answers but only that we need the opportunity to think (and feel) things through.
The funeral provides us with such an opportunity. For those who adhere to a specific religious faith, the meaningful funeral will reinforce that faith and provide comfort. Alternatively, it may prompt us to question our faith, which can be an enriching process as well. Whether you agree or disagree with the belief system upheld by a particular funeral service may not matter. What may matter more is that you have held up your heart to that belief system and struggled with the gap.
Funerals are a way in which we as individuals and as a community convey our beliefs and values about life and death. The very fact of a funeral demonstrates that death is important to us. For the living to go on living as fully and as healthily as possible, this is as it should be.
Mourning Need 6: Receive Ongoing Support From Others
As noted earlier, funerals are a public means of expressing our beliefs and feelings about the death of someone loved. In fact, funerals are the public venue for offering support to others and being supported in grief, both at the time of the funeral and into the future. Funerals make a social statement that says, “Come support me.”
People often attend funerals not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the primary mourners. For example, if a mother’s daughter was killed in the World Trade Center, the mother’s office colleagues attend the funeral to demonstrate their support, even though they did not know the girl. The mother feels grateful and, after her bereavement leave, will return to work knowing that her grief will be acknowledged. This public affirmation value of funerals cannot be overemphasized.
In addition, funerals let us physically demonstrate our support. Ours is not generally a demonstrative society, but at funerals, we are “allowed” to embrace, to touch and to comfort. Again, words are inadequate so we nonverbally demonstrate our support. This physical show of support is one of the most important healing aspects of meaningful funeral ceremonies.
Another one is the helping relationships that are established at funerals. Friends often seek out ways in which they can help the primary mourners by asking questions, such as, “May I bring the flowers back to the house?” “Would you like someone to watch little Susie for a few afternoons this week?” or “I’d like to make a few meals for your family. When might be a good time to bring them over?” Friends helping friends and strengthened relationships among the living are invaluable funeral offshoots.
Finally, and most simply, funerals serve as the central gathering place for mourners. When we care about someone who died, or his or her family members, we attend the funeral if at all possible. Our physical presence is our most important show of support for the living. By attending the funeral, we let everyone else there know that they are not alone in their grief.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is the author of numerous books related to the value of funeral ceremony, including Creating Meaningful Funerals: A Guide For Families. To receive a comprehensive catalog of his resources about the value of funerals, call the Center For Loss and Life Transition at 970-226-6050 or visit www.centerforloss.com.
If you have questions or would like to begin the process of pre planning the memorialization of yourself or a loved one, feel free to contact us at any time. In addition to the ways of reaching us listed on the ‘Contact Us’ page of this web site, you may also reach us by e-mail at: MMountain@centurytel.net, or MountainFuneralHome@yahoo.com.