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August 25, 2013 at 10:29 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Conflicted Feelings About Funerals

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend's husband. A while back, he retired from his business as a funeral director. While he was enjoying retirement, he reflected on a wonderful, fulfilling career. He told me that he missed funerals. This statement hung with me, and I found myself revisiting the concept of funerals and finding positive feelings in the face of death.

Willfully Going There

As a doctor, I enter into a more intimate relationship with life and death. I'm invited to this intimate dance with patients as they face sickness and often, their own mortality. These dances look completely different, some more graceful than others. I also find this reflected in their memorials.

The Good Funeral

There has been a run on death in my practice of late. Through this, I've attended a cluster of funerals. For the most part, these have been "good" funerals. By "good," I mean that closure was provided and that life was completed. The gathering was a celebration of life, with the underscore of death. The seeds of life were sown in fulfillment and legacy. I viewed picture boards as testament to this fact. I also saw the legacy of grand- and great-grandchildren running around the funeral parlor. People smiled, embraced one another, and reminisced. Often, a faithful sentiment was expressed with the belief that the person was in a better place than the aged shell in the casket. In turn, I left the gathering feeling complete. This helps me complete the cycle of care, and I believe that such funerals help loved ones complete the cycle of their earthly relationship with the deceased though meaningful memories, while the deceased legacy and genetics carry on.

The Painful, Difficult Funeral

In the face of finding positive things about the process of the funeral, however, I am constantly presented with the notion that death is "bad."  And, in many cases, it is. Death finds people at times suddenly, unexpectedly, or unwilling to go. 

Bad Funeral

Last week, my community tragically lost a recent high school grad along with two of his family members. Even standing on the perimeter of these events, it leaves me confused and angry. Many times at funerals, we lament with feelings that they were "taken before their time." Passing to death is especially difficult in these circumstances with tragedy and youth. Other such issues include unresolved strife, things left unsaid, and life regrets. On the other side of death, there is no going back. People often are left with no control over this fact. Amidst feelings of anger, regret, and a lack of control, the gathering can easily become more focused on the death as opposed to the life. Despite all this, as with a good funeral, the stories, memories, and genetics will live on, but it will require much more processing beyond the funeral. Time and love from the living can have a way of melting the negative feelings.

This notion of time leads me to believe that funerals often occur in haste, leaving feelings unprocessed. Such occurrences are the result of tradition, a tradition that has developed from the fact that, before embalming, things needed to be completed with burial within a few days before putrefaction sets in. Still, in these hasty gatherings within the haze of shock, the support of family and friends can lend comfort. However, I believe this leaves the need for a second period of reflection and gathering, one that occurs after the feelings process and some semblance of acceptance has taken place. Psychologists say that grieving takes about a year. I have found this to be quite variable, however.

In Conclusion

I remain conflicted about my feelings on death and the funeral process. This conflict may stem from the simple fact that death is indiscriminate. We may or may not know which day is the last for ourselves and our loved ones. Faith calms, but usually does not completely settle these feelings. Still, I am reminded every day, in the simple tasks with my family and my patients, that life is precious and a gift that should be appreciated while we have it.

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