Why Have a Service

Why Is the Funeral Ritual Important?

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

"When words are inadequate, have a ritual." - Author Unknown

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. Baptism celebrates the birth of a child and that child’s acceptance into the church family. Birthday parties honor the passing of another year in the life of someone we love. Weddings publicly affirm the private love shared by two people.

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.

Unfortunately, our mourning-avoiding culture has to a large extent forgotten these crucial purposes of the meaningful funeral. As a death educator and grief counselor, I am deeply concerned that individuals, families and ultimately society as a whole will suffer if we do not reinvest ourselves in the funeral ritual. This article explores the grief-healing benefits of meaningful funerals—benefits we are losing to the deritualization trend.

I have discovered that a helpful way to teach about the purposes of authentic funeral ceremonies is to frame them up in the context of the “reconciliation needs of mourning”—my twist on what other author’s have called the “tasks of mourning.”

The reconciliation needs of mourning are the six needs that I believe to be the most central to healing in grief. In other words, bereaved people who have these needs met, through their own grief work and through the love and compassion of those around them, are most often able to reconcile their grief and go on to find continued meaning in life and living.

How the authentic funeral helps meet the six reconciliation needs of mourning

Mourning need #1: Acknowledge the reality of the death

Mourning need #2: Move toward the pain of the loss

Mourning need #3: Remember the person who died

Mourning need #4: Develop a new self-identity

Mourning need #5: Search for meaning

Mourning need #6: Receive ongoing support from others