Offbeat funerals: The right funeral is like the right wedding

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?

Comments on Offbeat funerals: The right funeral is like the right wedding

  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.

  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

  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.

    • 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.

  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.

    • 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!

  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.)

    • 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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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’.

  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.

  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 – 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.

  14. I am part Māori from New Zealand and our version of funerals are called tangi, a word transliterally meaning “weep” or “cry”. Our tangi are usually held at the Marae (Māori cultural/spiritual meeting house) or the family home where we have our deceassd loved one embalmed and laid out, the family closely gathered around them and visitors constantly coming and going. Tangi can last for days, even over a week depending on the mana or status of the deceased. The house is full of people and memories. Everyone pitches in to cook, clean, mourn and look after the kids that are all running around.
    My family is part Māori and part Pākehā (non-Māori and white usually of British or European descent) so we do our own version of things for funerals. We always have our loved one laid out at home. We sit with them and sleep with them and they are never left alone until after actual service when they are buried or cremated. This time spent with them and spent together helps us to remember them and grieve for them. For us, its a time for family, a time for laughter and a time for tears. Then, once everyone is here, we have the service and the party afterwards. When I say party, we feel that a subdued restrained affair isnt right for most members of our family who have passed away. So we celebrate. We celebrate their life, their part in our lives and the things that we loved about them. When my Koro (grandfather died) we celebrated him all night and drank port with him at the Urupa (cemetery) as the sun rose on his grave.
    I think that funerals can be an amazing part of the grieving process, if we allow them to be. And this can mean a short simple ceremony at home, a big loud celebratory party or anything in between, depending on what suits the deceased and their surviving loved ones.

  15. Oof, this one is complicated more than it might seem.

    Funerals are really two things in my mind — a way for your own community to have a finality in letting go of who you were in their lives, amd that community’s last way to enact something the way you would want.

    There really isn’t a right or wrong way to do it, but in not having a funeral, it can steal many people’s ability to have a closure on your passing. Some people can’t fully process the death until they have to look it in the eye and give the final goodbye. While it ultimately won’t make a difference to you, because you’ll have already died, it can make a big impact on the loves ones you will leave behind (even if you do believe that you will reunite at some other point).

    You may not want a traditional wake and funeral, but I would caution that scrapping the whole thing will leave people without the ritual to release their mourning, communally.

    There are many, many different ways to do a funeral and visitation. You can have a next of kin do a home wake, you can do something more jovial, more intimate, more public, your body doesn’t necessarily have to be there for folks to do a “wake” if that is something that is uncomfortable to you.

    For funerals, there are all sorts of options as well — traditional embalming and burial, no embalming and traditional burial, cremation, natural burial, donation to science, green burial, etc. If you are not keen on a traditional embalm-and-bury, you can look at other options, but they will, most likely, need to be prearranged.

    I say all this because I am starting to consider these things myself. My parents are making their final plans as they get to advanced age and it has me thinking about what I want for me and how I can balance my desires for my own corpse over what my family will need to mourn and feel closure.

    There is some commenting upthread about Caitlin Doughty’s organization “The Order of the Good Death” and I think it is a good place to start if you are not feeling it with traditional corpse and death care. It has helped me broaden my own knowledge in consideration of what I ultimately would like to do once I have my will drawn up in the near future.

  16. Death is what we talk about around the table on Holidays, to my sister in law’s horror. Many a discussion & joke has been made about my mother collecting the jars in which her ashes will be placed upon her death. These vessels sit on a shelf in her home where they can all be seen & admired, especially by my mother. Her take on it has airways been that she should be allowed to enjoy them before she is them.

    I’ve been aware of the cremation wishes of my immediate family since I was a kid, which is not the going practice of the extended family. Wake, Funeral mass & burial are the course of grief that my relatives follow. Dark parlors, a life time of photos, crying people, empty words from clergy. Topped off by an aunt that tried to insist on taking photos of the dead in the casket to send back to the old world, my 16 year old self protected my grandmother from this horrific polish/immigrant tradition. However this moment made me understand my parents wishes to be burned & have a non-traditional funeral. I’ve accepted that I will always have my mom with me & so will my brother, but we will also be able to spread her ashes in places she loved. I’ve concluded that I myself to be cremated & combine the ashes of my family & pets with me, I want a gathering in an Irish pub with photos, memory sharing, music, laughter & drinking. I want the bereaved to wake the next day with a memorable hangover thanks to me. Then everyone can let the ashes go in the wind…location tbd.

  17. Thanks for this interesting read about funerals. I like that you mentioned that it should fit the personality of the deceased. It seems like a great way to honor their memory and also celebrate the life that they led.

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