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The Misconception of the Funeral as a Rite of Closure
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard that funeral ceremonies help you achieve “closure.”
It’s a common misconception. When someone we love dies, the death indeed ends—forever—our experience of live, bodily presence with that person. The body is dead. It’s true—something essential is finished. It is over. A door has closed.
But while that one door is closing, many others are opening. In the early days and weeks after the death—during the period in which a funeral or memorial service is commonly held—we grievers are just getting acquainted with our grief and the six needs of mourning.
This graphic shows the six needs of mourning in pyramid form, and they are the most essential reasons why we have had funerals since the beginning of time. From the bottom up, funerals help us:
- Acknowledge the reality of the death.
- Remember the person who died and share memories.
- Support one another in our grief.
- Outwardly express our inner thoughts and feelings.
- Contemplate the significance of the life that was lived and work toward finding meaning and purpose in continued living.
- Embrace the wonder of life and death and take a first step toward transcendence.
Notice that these “whys” of the funeral are not about endings but beginnings. For example, are we done acknowledging the reality of the death when the funeral is over? No. Typically it takes weeks and months for us to fully acknowledge the reality not only with our heads but our hearts. Are we done remembering the person who died or supporting one another? Of course not. Have we finished expressing our thoughts and feelings, searching for meaning, or reconciling and transcending the death? Absolutely not.
Instead of a rite of closure, the funeral is better understood as a rite of opening. It marks the formal, ritualized start of the time of grieving for those who love the person who died. Funerals that are timely, rich in elements, inclusive of many people, and highly personalized put grievers on the right path. Such funerals launch healthy mourning; they do not mark the end of it.
Yes, it’s true that the disposition of the body of the person who died is one aspect of closure during the funeral process. And it’s an important one. Caring for, spending time with, and honoring the body helps us with the bottommost layer of the pyramid, especially. When the body is finally laid to rest, we have completed a necessary task that assists with acknowledging the reality of the death—but still, we are not even close to being finished acknowledging the reality of the death.
Equating the completion of bodily disposition with “closure” only perpetuates the predominant, harmful notion that people should hurry up and “get over” their grief and return to normal as quickly as possible. After all, in grief, there is no such thing as closure. Like our love for someone who dies, our grief never ends. We don’t “get over it.” Instead, we learn to live with it as we find ways to live forward with meaning and purpose. So the funeral is not about closure. It’s about a healthy start.
So what does the funeral offer if not “closure”?
As I’ve said, funerals that are timely, rich in elements, inclusive of many people, and highly personalized help us in many ways. Here are a few.
Good funerals puts families on a good path.
Good funerals help families begin to heal.
Good funerals provide a time and place for people to support one another.
Good funerals—like weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, etc.—mark an important, once-in-a-lifetime transition.
When words are inadequate, we as humans have always, since the beginning of time, turned to ceremony and rituals to help us through.
Without a funeral, people typically struggle much more with their ongoing, necessary grief.
Good funerals open the door to hope and healing.
Good funerals help us embark in healthy ways on our grief journeys.
Good funerals provide an effective, time-honored starting point.
So the next time you hear someone promise that a funeral will provide closure, I hope you will remember our discussion in this article. In fact, you might offer this rejoinder: “Closure? I’m just getting started.”
About the Author
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School's Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.