Offbeat funerals: The right funeral is like the right wedding

February 8 | Guest post by Zooey
Hearse brooch from Etsy seller LittleMortJewels
No disrespect to the deceased or to bereaved family members and friends, whether I love them or not, but I just don't see the point in a funeral. It doesn't seem as much like a comforting cultural tradition as a spendy weird event vended by funeral homes. The bereaved have to be coached by funeral staff through the stage fright of acting their part in a strange ritual. They must participate or else they'd feel guilty that they've done something awful. It doesn't seem right when they're dealing with the death of a loved one already.

Do people really find comfort in funerals and I'm the only one that sees it as creepy? Does anyone know a better way to show support for family and friends? -Kathy

When you are recently bereaved, it can be difficult to know what to do and how to behave. Bereavement will upset a lot of things in your life and force you to make a lot of decisions you didn't have to before.

I think the traditional rituals are more comforting if they are more familiar. I think for many people the fact that there is a set ritual to go through is helpful. The funeral rituals give you a set of things to do — you don't have to decide for yourself. For example, if you're raised Catholic and familiar with the Catholic mass, it may well be comforting to go through a full funeral mass. If you're not Catholic, or not really practicing, it may be more alienating.

That said, I recently went to a wonderful offbeat funeral that was great… A close family friend died after a long illness. He wasn't religious, and nor was his spouse. My father and uncle offered to organize the funeral, and although they initially considered getting a humanist minister, they eventually decided that they wanted to just do it themselves. They ran the whole service, giving really personal memories of their friend, and inviting other people to contribute their memories. They finished the service by reading from an old letter their friend had sent. It was incredibly moving and personal.

What I took from it is that the right funeral is like the right wedding…

It should just fit the deceased's personality. Some people want "traditional" funerals just the same as some people want the big white wedding. And if that's what feels right to them, that's great. Other people don't feel that the traditional/formal model is right for them. And if so there are many other ways to do it.

Also like weddings, you have to consider the needs and feelings of other people involved. But you also have to accept that it won't be right for everyone. (To do a direct parallel, in both scenarios the wife's wishes might be paramount, whether she's marrying her husband or burying him, but it's usually also very important that his parents, siblings, close friends feel included and respected.)

Much like how people can't attend weddings, I don't think it's "bad" not to attend a funeral — especially if there would be significant costs to you (financial or otherwise). My one question would always be: How much would my absence make a difference to the other mourners? I don't believe it makes a difference to the person who has died — either they won't know. Or (if there is some kind of afterlife where they can see what happens) they will be able to see or appreciate your private mourning regardless of where you are.

What are your thoughts on traditional v offbeat funerals?

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  1. I totally see the point of funerals and exactly like weddings I’ve been to ones that felt more authentic to the people involved and others that seemed very generic and unpersonal. Also like weddings, no matter whether offbeat or traditional, the elements are the same, ceremony/ritual and followed by some kind of gathering with special food and drink.

    We said goodbye to my beautiful dad in 2015 and we called the event a celebration of his life. It was held at the crematorium and a friend of the family officiated and I spoke and my uncles spoke but basically we did what you do in a church funeral, you gather to remember the dead person and say goodbye through a ritual. Me and my brothers and sisters carried him in a willow coffin (it’s kind of like a big long basket with a lid, made from willow grown where he grew up in Somerset in the UK) and then gathered up the picked spring flowers people had bought with them and put them in a glorious messy heap on top. At the end we didn’t have his coffin disappear between curtains but it stayed there as we left and instead of music to play at this point we had recordings of the dawn chorus, the morning bird song recorded near where he grew up. The whole thing was just so my dad it made it really meaningful and whilst we were totally heartbroken it was lovely and healing.

    I do think though that funerals are for the living, I feel we honoured my dad and did right by him but the main thing that it achieves is helping our grief. My dad died from an utterly unexpected and aggressive cancer but in the few shocked weeks we had with him before he died we got to talk to him about what he wanted and he just said that we should do what felt right for us because it was for us (he was an amazing soul and I miss him every day). I found it so helpful to see other people who loved him that day, at the party afterwards (it was a proper celebration) I was genuinely happy to be surrounded by it. We were kind of coached through it by the undertakers we used (I don’t know how this works in the US but the crematorium and the people who looked after my dad’s body were two separate companies) but I was grateful to be, you don’t know your own name by that point and but you do have to get it together to make a load of decisions so some helpful advice is great.

    It is hard and upsetting though to go to an inauthentic funeral, I went to one of a friend who had died from complications of Aids and it was held by his mother in a church and his lover was never mentioned nor was his sexuality or cause of death. A small group of us huddled together at the wake afterwards shell shocked and telling each other the stories that weren’t told at the service. It wasn’t the goodbye I wanted but it was a goodbye. I personally just find it helpful to take whatever goodbye is on offer, even if it’s not my style or that of the person I love who has died, it’s a ritual and I’ll take it and make it meaningful for me and my memory of that person, which in the end nothing can change.

    13 agree
  2. Having just had to bury my grandfather who I was closed to these are just my thoughts from my experience…
    – the visitation is really more important to go to (at least here in the south) – it shows the family that is left behind that you are supporting them and there for them if they should need something, and if you don't plan to attend the funeral, then this is a way to say goodbye to the deceased… usually more people attend the visitation than the funeral
    – the funeral is for closure for the loved ones, its a chance to say goodbye and to honor the person that was… around here, its common to share good stories of the deceased at the funeral (and that be about 80% of it while the religious stuff (bible belt and all) be the rest of it), and really let their life and legacy and the type of person they were shine

    I think its perfectly fine to have an offbeat funeral if that's how you feel would best respect the life of the deceased and that's what they would have chosen….and the loved ones still get to say goodbye…. just my 2 cents though

    1 agrees
  3. I agree that funerals or memorials are for the living. It is a time to say goodbye and find some closure to the relationship. It is also a time to show understanding and support to the family. There is a reason in some places attending a funeral is called, "paying your respects". Attending honors the dead, but it also honors the family. I have attended funerals of people who I have never met in order to show love and support to a family member of the deceased.

    I was an only child and even though I was estranged from my mother for the last 15 years of her life, I felt it was important to have a funeral. It was a time for the extended family and her friends to grieve for her loss and a final time for me to grieve the loss of a mother-daughter relationship that could never be. Yes, it was difficult to keep a calm face to a couple of her well-meaning friends who had never met me and felt the need to lecture. However, I believe I found a level of closure that I would not have had, if there had not been a funeral. I really do not understand the trend of no acknowledgement at all or having a memorial a year later. By then, it seems moot. All that said, I don't think there is any one way to have a memorial. My father-in-law's memorial was a lively celebration with much laughter through tears. Even if it is just a toast at the person's favorite hang out spot, sharing grief can and should bring people closer together.

    2 agree
    • I think as well that sometimes that closure doesn't happen at the funeral (or whatever you choose to call it) but later, sometimes much later, with the funeral turning out to have been an important part of what made the closure happen. My mother didn't go to her father's funeral when she was a rebellious teenager in the 60's as she felt it was hypocritical as she didn't want to be a Catholic anymore and you should celebrate life not mourn death etc etc. It's not the defining moment of her life but she'd change it if she could.

      1 agrees
  4. Due to (in hindsight) rather weird circumstances, my husband and I didn't hold a funeral/wake/celebration of life when his father passed away. We don't regret it in the least.
    My father-in-law had very little family and fewer friends, and the few he *did* have were pretty much estranged from him at the end. We (more specifically me) cared for him in his last year or so of life; we certainly didn't need to host a "death party" when he died. We simply made sure all the proper paperwork was filled out and filed, and quietly readjusted to life without a long-time ill person in the house.

    I'm making the whole thing sound rather cold and heartless, and I guess in a way it was; but he wasn't a sentimental person and frankly he didn't care what happened after his death; he was far more annoyed that it was coming at all and that it was causing him a fair amount of inconvenience in the form of loss of independence and autonomy.
    We *did* care though, don't get me wrong; we were just really burned out at that point in caring for him.

    Though we have strong connections within our community and a wonderful network of friends (thank heavens!), none of them had any connections to him, so putting together an end-of-life ritual wouldn't have served the purpose those type of gatherings usually fulfill. It would have just been one more thing that we would have had to coordinate and organize. And that we certainly didn't have the energy for right then.

    6 agree
    • I relate so much about that burned out thing, we were exhausted when my dad died. My stepmother felt like this especially and would have happily not had a funeral for my dad (she did it for us kids) and she didn't come to the ash scattering. I'm glad you did what was right for you and your situation, even though my description above is very different I totally get it!

      3 agree
  5. Drawing on my 20-year-old little-used masters in anthropology: funerals, like weddings, are rites of passage. They mark a cultural/social transition from one state of being to another, and prepare individuals for new roles. Not just for the deceased transitioning from "active member of the community" to "ancestor", but for the survivors as well: in the eyes of the greater society a wife becomes a widow, a child becomes the head of the family, and so on. I think that's really what that nebulous (to me) statement of "sense of closure" is all about: it's the mark of definitively leaving one role behind and stepping into a new one. Many people don't need a public ceremony to mark this transition for themselves or others, but many others do, and not getting that step leaves them feeling unfinished or unfulfilled. (I'm a ceremony person, myself, but my husband isn't. We do our best to support each other's choices.)

    8 agree
    • Thank you for bringing this point to the discussion. In the past ten years I've transformed my understanding of death from feeling like an ending to an ending/beginning (transition) as part of a cycle.

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  6. I highly recommend the book American Way of Death: Revisited by Jessica Mitford. It isn't so much about offbeat funerals, but it looks deep into the American funeral home business practices. It will sicken you, and may well change how you wish to have your remains dealt with when you're gone.

    4 agree
  7. As an aside, I would totally read a new Offbeat Funeral blog. I know that's not in the cards, but now that I've had an Offbeat wedding and helped organize an Offbeat funeral, they felt similar in scope and really, really important for bringing family together and re-establishing the community and the values we all share.

    3 agree
  8. When my dad was dying from cancer, he had some time to plan his memorial service. It gave him an incredible sense of control in a situation that was otherwise horrifically out of his control. He planned everything down to the date (which ended up being about 2 months after he passed). Despite being easily one of the hardest days of my life, it objectively was a really great party. We're Irish, and Dad wanted a fun wake. We had a whiskey bar set up as you walked in, and people were encouraged to take a shot and toast to Dad. He had hand-picked a playlist of his favorite music, and when it came time for people to speak, he picked out a few poems and other readings that were meaningful to him and had approached people ahead of time to read them. A friend of his wrote a song about him and played it, and we also gave people a chance to just get up and share their favorite stories about him. People sat around until late in the night chatting and reminiscing (and drinking lots and lots of Dad's favorite wine and whiskey). It was perfect, and had very few vestiges of a typical "funeral." Just go with what feels right for both you and the person you're remembering.

    10 agree
  9. I haven't been to many funerals in my life (which I guess makes me really lucky). I'm terrible at funerals. It seems like I deal with death by fixating on something really small that makes me laugh hysterically. Examples: My husband's uncle Brian passed away and during the eulogy the priest kept saying "The Life of Brian" and every time he said it I lost my shit thinking about the Monty Python movie. I was seriously sitting there staring at my lap shaking with uncontrollable laughter. When my own uncle passed away I cracked up at the cemetery because he'd been cremated but was also getting buried so there was tiny little box suspended above this tiny little hole and I was thinking about a funeral I'd held for my hamster when I was eleven and again, uncontrollable laughter.
    Point is, I really hate the doom and gloom that come with most funerals I've been to. Even though I always hear the phrase "celebration of life" at them NONE have actually felt like a celebration or have felt like they truly reflected the personalities of the deceased. My husband actually asked me the other night "At what age can I declare that I will no longer attend funerals?" and I told him any age he wants. They're not for everyone. They don't provide comfort or closure for everyone and in some cases can make the death even more traumatic.

    8 agree
  10. Poignant timing. I attended 2 funerals last week.
    The first one, my Dad's, I arranged. It was small, quiet, and fairly traditional for a civil ceremony. I spent 2 days working on a slideshow of his life and that was the highlight, lots of funny moments. There is definitely a Funeral Industrial Complex.
    I wanted a box for Dad. A plain wood box that I wanted to cover in photos and flowers from his own garden – not an option.
    Cheapest coffin was $2000 and so ugly and with too much bling, my Dad had simple tastes. Went with it anyway, the grieving don't necessarily have enough energy to fight those kind of battles. We did what we could in the confines of the funeral home, I think Dad would have understood.

    The second funeral was for my friend and band leader, and was truly offbeat. There were about 150 people there, it was at a beach hotel and we (the band) played loud and proud.

    At the end of the ceremony we sent Paul off with a cacophony of noise, dancing and celebration that he would have been proud of. Everyone wore red.

    It was an amazing and stark contrast. My Dad lived his own life and followed his own adventure, 15 people came to say goodbye and many of them came for me.

    Paul inspired people, taught people, lived an unconventional life. His funeral was a celebration of that. I don't think the living get as much choice as you would think. Your send off ends up is designed by the people you loved and inspired.

    5 agree
  11. I actually think that there is an art to the American funeral. The pace is pretty cleverly honed to cater to the needs of the immediate family. Generally following a night's sleep, the funeral home process starts. It's a series of questions and decisions that can feel meaningless, but it's a task that is very much within the bereaved person's control. Then, after another good sleep, the visitations and wakes. This is kind of a "soft" funeral: you're in the room with the body, but you're also surrounded by people who aren't yet in ~funeral mode~. There's usually laughter, well-wishes, support, memories shared. And there are still some decisions to go through. After two or three days of this, the funeral. Again, there's an order. More visitation, speakers, carrying the casket to the hearse, the graveside service, then eating after. It's all airbrakes for grief.

    The problem, of course, is that not everyone has the same needs following the death of a loved one. Increasingly, the "immediate family" aren't necessarily the people who need Very Big Comfort the most. And not everyone wants to mourn in an orderly fashion.

    I went to a lot of Southern funerals as a kid. Think pimiento spread on white bread, cut into neat triangles, piled high on platters. Meat trays, vegetable trays, who brought a casserole? Then there's dinner after the service, more casseroles, more finger sandwiches. I think food is the thing I most associate with funerals. There are dishes some people only trot out when they find out somebody's in the funeral home. In my mind, one does not properly grieve unless one is full of home cookin'.

    4 agree
  12. My father wanted to be cremated, and said not to "waste money" on a funeral. The night before he died of cancer, my mom called the funeral home to ask about plain boxes for cremation, and they wanted $250. "What if we have our own box?" "Uh… if he fits and it'll burn, sure!" He'd made a box a decade prior, out of wooden doors he got out of the garbage, and used it to transport model airplanes. We'd always called it "the coffin" because of its size. Dad thought it was hilarious and fully endorsed it, and the home happily used it.

    We used the funeral home for a few key things like placing the obit, and arranging the cremation. But we rented a hall – a rural community centre he and his buddies used to fly their model planes beside – and held the service there. My sister and I made a 10 minute slideshow, and one of the songs used was a recordings of his own singing from when he was a choirboy. My sister, mom, and I all spoke. Mom's church friends provided sandwiches. Dad's flying friends had reluctantly brought planes to fly (at our request – they didn't think it would be appropriate), but after the ceremony they realized it felt right and did a couple of flights.

    The funniest part to us is, we got $2500 from CPP toward his funeral but our total costs were $2350, which meant technically we made $150. As an extremely thrifty guy, Dad would have found that HILARIOUS.

    Saying goodbye was awful, but it was going to be awful no matter what, and the service was extremely fitting to his personality and to our family. It did take a little longer to plan (happened exactly a week after his death) but the cremation meant we could set our own time line.

    2 agree
  13. My husband and I attended the funerals of nine close and extended family members in 2015 including those of both my parents. For me, funerals are overrated. My family is somewhat Catholic and my husband's is very Catholic, and watching my husband's family have to decide the minutia of the funerary mass was exhausting and frustrating not to mention the expenses. I had no idea about all the little fiddly bits that went into a traditional funeral, the casket, the honorariums to all the different participants, keeping track of who brought what dish over to the family (we're southern, we grieve with food) etc., etc., etc. The funerals of my husbands relatives went over ten thousand to fourteen thousand dollars for a simple, not terribly memorable funeral – and just the funeral – the after funeral meal was donated by the Catholic Daughters Society!
    My parents had the foresight to join the Neptune Society (and to give my husband and I memberships – https://www.neptunesociety.com/) and all my sister and I had to do was plan the services and buy a headstone and a suitable dress to attend in. My father had gone so far as to write out his own obituary and leave instructions for donations in lieu of flowers. And my grandparents already had the family plot. From being pronounced dead to receiving my parents cremains took about two weeks with no hidden expenses other than the initial two grand membership fee. The actual funeral mass for them was more for their friends to say goodbye than it was for my sister and I. The real bonding/healing took place after the service when extended family sat together and told stories and shared memories about the lost loved ones. I've decided I want to skip the service all together when it's my time, and just have the banquet for my friends and relatives to remember me without all the fallderall of my kids having to pick out reading, songs, and find folks to perform them. It's never too early to get all the pre-planning out of the way.

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