Funerals are the most commonly recognized bereavement ritual linked to death loss. Bereavement rituals can prove helpful for individuals by offering a way to acknowledge the death, remember the deceased, or understand and openly express feelings. These rituals afford the opportunity to say goodbye and form a new relationship with the deceased.
Despite the many therapeutic aspects of bereavement rituals, some have recently argued that rituals have deteriorated in meaning, leading to inadequate grieving and insufficient grief resolution. Although rituals can initiate the grief process, they are not miraculous. Their positive impact comes from individuals’ ability to make meaning of these experiences.
Many grief researchers believe that funerals can be the most therapeutic ritual in managing grief adjustment if adequately planned and properly conducted. Irion’s multidimensional description of the funeral is the first and most extensive examination of funeral theory. He described funerals as consisting of four dimensions: cultural anthropological, social psychological, psychological, and theological.
The cultural anthropological dimension provides more of a historical, intangible perspective of the funeral. Anthropologists found that individuals attempted to shield themselves from death by controlling it through burial rituals. They appeared capable of body disposal and reorienting bereaved individuals, seemed to preserve and request certain values to be present during the funeral, likely experienced continued connection with the dead after attending funerals over time, and processed through three distinct phases, including separation, transition, and incorporation. The social psychological dimension focuses on the value of the funeral for individuals in the context of their societal group. From this perspective, the funeral involves a relational transition between the mourner and the deceased, during which the mourners undergo a period of isolation and, subsequently, final reunion with others. Unlike the social psychological dimension that focuses on mourners in the context of their social group, the psychological dimension concerns the needs of the individual. The funeral is psychologically necessary because it provides the opportunity for grief work needed to maintain emotional health and assists mourners by confronting them with the reality of the death to help them understand their various emotional responses. The theological dimension serves as an act of benediction by affirming the ending of an individual’s life while also emphasizing the love and respect for this individual. Although Irion concluded that the effectiveness of the funeral increases in direct proportion to the number of dimensions it contains, he explained that funerals containing fewer than all four of the dimensions can still be helpful.
Most of the research conducted on funerals has evaluated attitudes and participation of adults, children, and adolescents. Results suggested that adults value aspects of the funeral reflecting all four of Irion’s dimensions. Adults also attributed greater meaning to funerals when deaths were expected. Greater funeral participation by adults was shown to be related to greater closeness to the deceased and fewer negative symptoms.
In comparison, children and adolescents valued aspects of the funeral reflecting the social psychological and psychological dimensions. Regarding participation, children who attended funerals of unexpected deaths demonstrated more internalizing externalizing behaviors. Results also suggested that children and adolescents experience lower overall negative symptomatology as a function of their funeral attendance.
- Hayslip, , Ragow-O’Brien, D., & Guarnaccia, C. A. (1998–1999). The relationship of cause of death to attitudes toward funerals and bereavement adjustment. Omega, 38, 297–312.
- Weller, B., Weller, R. A., Stristad, M. A., Cain, S. E., & Bowes, J. M. (1988). Should children attend their parent’s funeral? Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 27, 559–562.