The Misconception of the
Funeral as a Rite of Closure

Closure as a common misconception

When someone we love dies, the death indeed ends—forever—our experience of life, and bodily presence with that person. The body is dead. It’s true—something essential is finished. It is over. A door has closed.

But while that one door is closing, many others are opening. In the early days and weeks after the death—when a funeral or memorial service is commonly held—we grievers are just getting acquainted with our grief and the six needs of mourning.

There are six needs that are the most essential reasons why we have had funerals since the beginning of time. From the bottom up, funerals help us:

  • Acknowledge the reality of death.
  • Remember the person who died and shares memories.
  • Support one another in our grief.
  • Outwardly express our inner thoughts and feelings.
  • Contemplate the significance of the lived life and work toward finding meaning and purpose in continued living.
  • Embrace the wonder of life and death and take a first step toward transcendence.

Notice that these “whys” of the funeral are not about endings but beginnings. For example, are we done acknowledging the reality of death when the funeral is over? No. Typically it takes weeks and months for us to fully acknowledge the reality with our heads and hearts. Are we done remembering the person who died or supporting one another? Of course not. Have we finished expressing our thoughts and feelings, searching for meaning, or reconciling and transcending death? Absolutely not.

Instead of a rite of closure, the funeral is better understood as a rite of opening. It marks the formal, ritualized start of the time of grieving for those who love the person who died. Funerals that are timely, rich in elements, inclusive of many people, and highly personalized put grievers on the right path. Such funerals launch healthy mourning; they do not mark the end of it.

Yes, the disposition of the person’s body is indeed one aspect of closure during the funeral process. And it’s an important one. Caring for, spending time with, and honoring the body helps us with the bottommost layer of the pyramid, especially. When the body is finally laid to rest, we have completed a necessary task that assists with acknowledging the reality of the death—but still, we are not even close to being finished acknowledging the reality of the death.

Equating the completion of bodily disposition with “closure” only perpetuates the predominant, harmful notion that people should hurry up, “get over” their grief, and return to normal as quickly as possible. After all, in grief, there is no such thing as closure. Like our love for someone who dies, our grief never ends. We don’t “get over it.” Instead, we learn to live with it as we find ways to live forward with meaning and purpose. So the funeral is not about closure. It’s about a healthy start.

So what does the funeral offer if not “closure”?

Timely funerals, rich in elements, inclusive of many people, and highly personalized, help us in many ways. Here are a few.

  • Good funerals put families on a good path.
  • Good funerals help families begin to heal.
  • Good funerals provide a time and place for people to support one another.
  • Good funerals—like weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, etc.—mark an important, once-in-a-lifetime transition.
  • When words are inadequate, we humans have always turned to ceremonies and rituals to help us through since the beginning of time.
  • People typically struggle much more with their ongoing, necessary grief without a funeral.
  • Good funerals open the door to hope and healing.
  • Good funerals help us embark in healthy ways on our grief journeys.
  • Good funerals provide a practical, time-honored starting point.

So the next time you hear someone promise that a funeral will provide closure, I hope you will remember our discussion in this article. In fact, you might offer this rejoinder: “Closure? I’m just getting started.”

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