What Does 'Funerals Are for the Living' Mean?

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Many believe that funerals are for the living, not the dead—even those about to die. Indeed, a person who knows they're dying may even suggest that they want to keep things simple, not because they wouldn’t want the ceremony, but because they want to “keep things simple.” 

Yet, without a ceremony, those left behind often struggle not knowing how to say goodbye, leading to emotional confusion or feeling like something is unfinished.

Jump ahead to these sections:

Are you debating whether or not to hold a funeral for a loved one—even if it's needed at all? If so, keep reading. You may discover that the ceremony is vital to processing your grief and that the gesture of a ritual is necessary no matter if the funeral is for you or them.

Where Does 'Funerals Are for the Living' Come From?

Roelif Coe Brinkerhoff, a lawyer, editor, newspaper owner, and Union Army Colonel, wrote, "Funerals are for the living. If we have not done for the dead while they were yet in flesh, it is too late; let the matter pass at the grave. Day by day, we should live for those who are to die; and live so that we may die for those who are to live. Funerals are for the living."

What did Brinkerhoff mean?

  • That somehow, the funeral ceremony becomes a lost gesture if the love and considerations for a loved one aren’t offered while still alive. It’s one of those too little, too late scenarios. 
  • And rather than miss the opportunity, he suggested we act upon “kindnesses” daily. That way, loved ones understand how much they matter before heading to the grave, not once in it. 
  • Yet there’s also a shared and similar responsibility to live and love so well that the funeral doesn't become an homage to unfinished business on the part of the deceased.

Why Do Some People Believe That Funerals Are for the Living Instead of the Dead?

For those who believe that funerals are for the living instead of the dead, the funeral served a guiding purpose to support those left behind, providing an opportunity for the grieving to find community in their sadness. Funerals offer that last look or moment in the presence of a loved one which also gives the survivors a kind of truth at hand—that this person is truly gone.

A funeral is defined primarily as a ceremony, but it's what you include in the observance of your loved one that creates the distinctions, leaving memories for those in attendance.

Planning the funeral

When planning the funeral for a loved one, you have to be very involved in the process. From selecting a space to planning music, readings, and speakers, the funeral itself is quite an event. Luckily, funeral directors support the journey, facilitating many of the requests. 

Though far from conclusive, this short list gives you a quick and basic indication of some things you will have to consider:

  • The venue, including the date and time most reasonable to allow for family, friends, and travel plans
  • A theme of music to support the overall structure of the funeral, including any musicians or digital downloads.
  • The program and photos, including whether you would like a memorial slideshow to play before and after the service.
  • Because they are often extensions of your thoughts, funeral readings have personal meaning to the deceased or result from one’s religion.
  • Speakers who convey their thoughts well help attendees take away additional memories from the ceremony.
  • The celebrant, so that you have someone to lead and guide the service for you. 

Anything additional you choose to include in a ceremony or afterward is entirely up to you, including whether or not you'll have a later scattering of ashes or a sit-down meal at a restaurant.

The venue

If your loved one was religious, then the choice of venue is an obvious one. But what if your loved one was fonder of nature? In that case, and as a matter of respect, the place should reflect their interests more than yours. 

That way, the funeral offers a moment where mourners and other attendees can gather in a space that helps them realize the finality of the event. The venue eventually serves an additional purpose as a gathering place for memory, conversations, and healing.

The music

Choosing the right or most appropriate music is yet another way to reflect the interests of your loved one. It's also a chance to invite people into that headspace or personality, exposing them for being eclectic or pragmatic.

In many cases, you find that the person's musical choices were perfectly suited to them, too, enabling anyone attending to return to a song they heard anytime they need to feel closer to their lost loved one.

The program and photos

Many funeral service providers have a team of professionals to create programs and photo videos for you. Many online applications will have templates if you're making these by yourself.

Funeral readings

When we think of funeral readings, many imagine prayers from religious books because of the countless articles on spiritual readings. But what if your loved one was not religious? Take a look at these short readings for a non-religious funeral:

"Death Is Nothing at All" by Henry Scott-Holland

In Holland's poem, the speaker reassures their loved ones that nothing else has changed though they may be gone. One can still frequent the same rooms, speak to them at any opportunity, and laugh at old jokes. 

The absence, he writes, is just a mere moment. One that will be cured by a meeting not so long down the road.

"Afterglow" by INXS

Here, the idea is about letting go but longing to be in his love's presence again. He sings that there is a sacrifice to living until they are reunited. 

What's important about this example is realizing that you can find funeral readings in nontraditional places, even songs.

Speakers at a funeral

The eulogy offers just one occasion for one person to speak at a funeral. But many funerals will open the floor to anyone who has a memory to offer. If you plan on allowing time for others to have a moment to voice an experience, leave a notice of that in the funeral announcement. 

Many people arrive ready to share something special about their experiences with a lost loved one, yet most expect to do so at the reception. But allotting time during the funeral ceremony helps everyone recognize the full extent of love and caring. 

As an extension, memorial websites work well for anyone unable to share their thoughts at that designated time or for those unable to attend. 

The celebrant

When we think of a typical, traditional funeral, we often imagine a priest or other religious figure leading the funeral service of a loved one. But there are non-denominational celebrants as well, ones who will conduct the funeral based on the wishes of the deceased or their family members. 

Why Would Some People Believe That Funerals Are for the Dead?

If you saw James Brown’s funeral, you’d certainly believe that his funeral was for the dead, even though everyone in attendance was benefitting from the days-long ceremony. But apart from the multiple outfit changes, many people already plan their funerals well in advance. 

Live your eulogy

Most, if not all of us can control very little after we’re dead. You can't stop people from grieving or gathering people to mourn you—or even the absence of mourners in general. However, you can control the life you live now. So, live your life and let others attend the ceremony, whether you believe the funeral is for them or you.

Plan your funeral

Wrapping one’s head around how to plan their own funeral is a stretch for some, but it’s not that uncommon anymore. Many funeral directors assist people in “Pre-Need” or “Pre-Planning,” which lets you settle all aspects of your funeral ahead of time.

Why Would You Want to Pre-Plan?

Here are several reasons why you might consider pre-planning for your funeral and end-of-life arrangements.

Prearrangements alleviate the family burden

Not everyone has a family that gets along well, and not every family agrees on a person’s final disposition or wishes, no matter how often they’ve repeated them. That’s why a Pre-Need works well because it’ll take all the questions (and arguments) off the table.

Your final wishes matter to you

Whether it’s the disposition of your remains or how a funeral ceremony is carried out, including music and readings—you have specific requests for your funeral. In that case, a funeral plan will let you make all the necessary decisions so that others won’t need to.

You feel responsible for the cost

If your company already has funeral costs in its benefits package, then there’s not much to settle. But if you feel responsible for the potential burden of a funeral cost, then selecting a pre-planned funeral is a good idea.

You think your family will benefit by having a ceremony

You know the funeral will help your family heal and that they’ll benefit by having family and friends nearby. Not only is it forward-thinking, but it’s also incredibly kind to consider the grieving needs of your family before you die.

You’re self-reliant

You’re the kind of person who wants to make things easier on everyone, including your funeral needs. In that case, pre-planning one’s funeral falls right in line with all the things you can do to make sure your loved ones are well-cared for even after you’re gone.

A Funeral’s Purpose: Grief and Mourning

Grief and mourning are distinct from each other. Grief is an emotional expression of loss, accompanied by emotions and deep sorrow, whereas mourning is the physical expression of loss; it's wearing black and holding a ceremony where people gather in support. Indeed, grief can turn into mourning, but when words seem insufficient, the tradition of a funeral becomes the guide.

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