What is a funeral and why do we have them?

4 min read

The meaning of the funeral ceremony

  • Funeral and memorial service customs vary widely among different religions and cultures around the world.

  • However they define the funeral, they all recognize the need for collective mourning to begin grieving.

  • Funerals offer connection and community during a time of heartbreak, as well as a way to find meaning in devastating loss.

  • Through a funeral, memorial, or celebration of life service, we can also begin to acknowledge the death of the person we loved and confront the difficult reality together.

Funerals are a part of life. Most likely, you’ve attended at least one of them before, and will probably attend more as life goes on. The main point of a funeral is to say our final goodbye to a loved one, but across cultures, the funeral ceremony serves other important functions. 

We know that funeral rites of some kind have been practiced by humans since the beginning of recorded history. Saying goodbye in this way is an innate part of what makes us human.

Different religions and cultures have their own customs and traditions, and their own views on the meaning of the funeral. But what unites them all is the fact that collective mourning is necessary for us, as humans, to begin to deal with the complicated emotions of grief. 

Finding meaning in death

When someone dear to us dies, it is only natural for us to feel that we need to find meaning in their passing.

People often experience shock and denial in the early stages of grief, and question why and how this could have happened.

Loss is not easy to accept. One aspect of the funeral ceremony is to help incorporate meaning into a loss, so that those who are grieving may begin to accept it and start healing. 

While each faith has its own set of customs for funeral ceremonies, one commonality that unites them is that they all provide some framework for finding meaning in loss—and these beliefs are often invoked in the funeral ceremony.

No matter what kind of ceremony it is, the funeral pushes everyone to confront the reality of loss together. 

For example, the simple act of adorning the body or casket with objects, which is shared by many religious practices, symbolizes the spirit’s safe and bountiful passage into the next life.

Whether or not you subscribe to any such belief system, the act of ritual in itself is a way to create meaning around loss. 

The recitation of hymns, prayers, or sermons is another common trait of funeral ceremonies across religions that serves both a spiritual and emotional purpose.

In many religions, the reciting of sacred texts during the funeral ceremony is meant, symbolically, to help guide the spirit of the deceased, as well as provide a sense of comfort and community to the audience.

For example, Tibetan Buddhists may read from the Bardo Thodol (sometimes referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) to the spirit of the deceased, which is meant to help them navigate their death and guide them through Bardo, the state between death and rebirth. 

Confronting painful truth 

While religion provides a framework for confronting death, of course, not all families subscribe to a religion or choose to have a religious funeral.

Whether religious or not, all funerals provide guests with a collective way to confront the painful experience of loss.

While our first instinct after the death of someone we love might be to avoid confronting the pain head-on, acknowledging the loss is an important part of the grieving process.

No matter what kind of ceremony it is, the funeral pushes everyone to confront the reality of loss together. 

Grief is not all about sadness, though. The funeral also allows us to come together, express our love for the person who passed, and reflect on the joyful moments of their life.

Honoring the life of the person who died is just as important as mourning the fact that they are no longer with us.

At a funeral, we affirm collective values around death, but also around life and what it means to go on living—offering hope and meaning while honoring the loved one who passed.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.