“An ethical dilemma”: Who is a funeral for?

A priest and a girl aged about 8 at the end of a coffin that has been placed in a hearse.

Who is a funeral for? Is it the deceased, the family, or their community? I heard this question posed to Dr Tim Dean, a Senior Philosopher at the Ethics Centre on ABC Radio recently.

For example: If a husband declares his wishes to his wife for a small farewell, but he has a large extended family with lots of past and present friends and colleagues, what type of funeral should the wife organise? Should the man be honoured as he wanted, or should there be a large funeral gathering for everyone else?

This scenario was posed to Dr Tim Dean by ABC radio presenter Renee Krosch.

He said, “The funeral looks like it’s for the dead and it is, yet it’s also a cultural construct and every culture has rituals around this: to help the living deal and grieve together and share that grief so that they can then move on with their lives.

“It’s easy to see a funeral as being a celebration of the individual who has died. We speak of their life, we speak of their family and their accomplishments, and we mourn their loss. But really, they have already departed … it is us who attend the funeral and we are there to share our feelings, our experiences, and our grief together.”

Dr Tim Dean, Senior Philosopher
Ethics Centre (photo: ethics.org.au)

It wasn’t all about them

Dr Tim continued: “I remember when I attended a funeral quite young when one of my grandparents died.  The experience was remarkable because I thought it was going to be all about them, but then I realised that, around me, everyone was given permission to grieve openly.

“Everyone was given permission to share stories and weep and express their loss, express their love and their compassion, not just for the individual who had passed, but also for the family and the friends who are still around.

Dr Tim says ritual is important.
(Funeral photography: Mel Noonan Creative)

“And it made me realise how important, as a ritual, a funeral is to allow us to deal with mortality, and to allow us to reinforce our bonds as the living.”

The “ethical dilemma”

Ethics is about how humans conduct themselves and involves engaging in conversations to understand different perspectives and ways in which we can approach the world around us.  

“On the one hand, we want to respect the wishes of the person who has died, particularly if they’ve left them very clearly and explicitly while they were alive. We want to respect those, but we also want to respect the feelings of those who are grieving. We want to respect the wishes of the community. We want to respect the idea that some people may be suffering from their grief, and they need a way to resolve it.

So, when we respect two things that arrive at contradictory conclusions, we have an ethical dilemma.”

Dr Tim Dean.

Community grieving

There’s also something very comforting about being able to carry out the wishes of your person, knowing that’s what they wanted.

And yes, grieving as a community can be cathartic, knowing that you’re not alone in feeling the way you do. But this doesn’t always have to happen in the form of a conventional funeral.

For example, as I discuss in The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan, the number of people choosing not to have a funeral is on the rise. Instead, non-attended cremations are gaining popularity (and sometimes a non-attended burial). Then, once the body has been taken care of, a memorial or two or three, a get-together, party, pub crawl, or whatever can be organised at a later date.  

As Dr Tim says, “There’s nothing stopping any individual or group from gathering together, to hold a celebration in the memory of someone who has passed.”

There are no rules when it comes to farewells.
Source: The Bottom Drawer Book

Angie the funeral celebrant: “write down what you want”

A caller to the ABC program was a NSW funeral celebrant called Angie. She’s seen a lot of family arguments about what a funeral should and shouldn’t be.

“The disagreements are quite distressing because people are on different pages and this is where it comes into whether it’s for the deceased or whether it’s for the families. It can become very fractious with families,” she said.

Angie’s advice is to write down your wishes.

“I tell this to everybody: All you have to do is write down how you would like to be buried, if you’d like to be cremated, if you do want to have a service, if you don’t want to have a service, if there is a song you want. This only has to be done once. You only have to tell your family where your wishes are and then you don’t need to talk about it anymore. When the time comes, the family knows where it is,” said celebrant Angie.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Angie and I are very much on the same page. Tell your people what you want. Write it down. That’s what The Bottom Drawer Book is for.

Caller Sarah: respecting the needs of the immediate family

Sarah from Bombaderry (Nowra, NSW) called in to the program too.

“We’ve just navigated this in our family earlier this year. My husband lost his eldest brother, and the way the family got around this ethical dilemma was in two stages. There was a very private ceremony, for the committal of the body, for immediate family only.

“And then a week to the day later, there was a public ceremony where extended family, friends, community members, and others that had known the individual, we could all come together.

“This gave the broader community and extended family the chance to grieve celebrate and mourn while also respecting the intimate grieving needs of the immediate family.”

Caller to the ABC NSW Drive program, Sue

So, what’s the answer?

Grief is unpredictable and we all grieve differently. Throw conflict into the mix and that will often amplify the grief and confusion.

Any perceived dilemma may be avoided by open communication and discussion, so write down what you want and how you’d like to be farewelled. Tell your family. Give your family permission not to spend a fortune on the coffin, let them know you’re happy with beers down the pub instead of expensive catering, tell them if you do or don’t want a conventional funeral.

If you think your family won’t like your ideas and plans, talk to them and will allow them to express their opinions, their concerns or their support. Perhaps some compromises could be made, or a discussion about the reasons behind your plans would making them more accepting of them.

And yes, unfortunately not all families are open to this. I get lots of emails like Susan’s:

“I keep talking about what I want at the end but my sons aren’t ready to hear it or deal with it, but I want to make my intentions very clear.

And that’s why I wrote The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death plan.

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and audio producer, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$11.99 on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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