The Purpose of Funerals

Funerals are designed for a number of purposes. The nature and manner in which funerals have been conducted have changed through the years. However, the general purposes of funerals have remained largely unchanged.

There are three overarching reasons funerals exist:

  • Provide a time for people to mourn the loss of a loved one
  • Provide a time for others to come together to grieve and show support
  • Provide a proper disposition of the remains

Religious or other rituals can be associated with funerals. A particular religion has rituals associated with the funeral and burial process. A government conducts a state funeral, with rituals to honor its leaders at the time of their demise. In the past 50 years, six state funerals were held, with former U.S. Presidents lying in state in the U.S. Capital.

Hierarchy of the Purposes of Funerals

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, has developed the Hierarchy of the Purposes of Funerals. There are six levels to this hierarchy, structured in a pyramidal fashion. These levels, from bottom to top, are:

  • Reality
  • Recall
  • Support
  • Expression
  • Meaning
  • Transcendence

Reality

A foundational purpose of funerals is to begin the process of acknowledging that a person has died.

Recall

Funerals are designed to encourage people to remember the individual who has died. This includes sharing unique experiences about that individual.

Support

Funerals are designed to bring people together to support one another. People are brought together in an atmosphere of love and caring.

Expression

Funerals provide an opportunity to express individual and even private or inner thoughts about life and death.

Meaning

Funerals identify purpose in the lives of those who passed on. They also are intended to identify meaning in the lives of those people who attended funerals, purpose in life going forward.

Transcendence

The ultimate objective of funerals is to embrace the wonder and majesty of life and death.

Funerals and the Pathway to Healing

A primary purpose of funerals is to get people on a pathway to healing. Some experts maintain that there are six milestones, or elements of, the pathway to healing following the death of a loved one.

The first step on the pathway is accepting and acknowledging the reality of death. The next step is moving towards the pain of loss, recognizing that experiencing pain is part of healthy grieving.

The third milestone along the pathway of healing is continuing a relationship with the deceased loved one through memories. The fourth milestone is focused on a person’s own identity. The reality is that an individual’s sense of self is interconnected with people in his or her life. The fourth stage of the pathway to healing involves the development of a new self-identity in the physical absence of the loved one who has passed on.

The fifth component of the pathway to healing associated with funerals is the search for meaning. The search for meaning includes trying to come to an understanding as to why a loved one dies. It also means coming to a broader understanding of the meaning of a mourner’s life and place in the world.

The final milestone associated with the pathway to healing as connected with funerals is to continue to receive support from others. The reality is that people grieve and heal in their own ways and at their own pace. Therefore, the need for support and encouragement doesn’t end at the conclusion of a funeral or memorial service. That need continues indefinitely.

Proper Disposition of the Dead

William Gladstone, who served 12 years the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the reign of Queen Victoria, succinctly summed up one of the primary reasons for funerals: to provide for the proper disposition of the dead. The Primer Minister wrote:

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”

Historians and sociologists are in agreement that no successful civilization has ever existed that didn’t provide some sort of proper, respectful disposition of the dead. Funerals in the western world can be traced by to 3000 BC in ancient Greece. With that said, specific traditions associated with the disposition of human remains can be traced even further back in time to at least 300,000 years ago. This predates homo sapiens and illustrates that Neanderthals had developed some sort of specific practices regarding the disposition of their dead.