Funerals Are Vital Spaces for Emotional Learning

We dishonor a person’s memory and do ourselves a disservice when we don’t also acknowledge the dead person’s flaws, faults, or missteps — in other words, embrace their whole humanity. Whether we want it or not, funerals are spaces for emotional learning, not just grieving or reinforcing cultural norms.

His painted corpse lay in the casket, several relatives in the room whispered with each other, some laughing, most shushing others toward somber-ness. I took turns leaving my solitary church-chair in the corner to walk up to his viewing spot, to peer in at what remained of my father, a man who left behind a widow and six children. I didn’t say anything to anyone. Older relatives later commented on my silence, worried that I would explode at any minute. “You were just so quiet,” an aunt recounted, “we had no idea what was going on in your young head.” I stared into the closed eyelids of what remained of him.

I made several trips between my funerary perch and the centerpiece of the family gathering, observing the emotions on the faces of the adults and children near me. My older brother and younger sister were crying. I wanted to emote what I saw in their expressions, but the feelings delayed themselves. I saw what I was supposed to do, but the same compulsion didn’t overcome me. I’m not sure I had the words for what was happening, but I was at relative peace in a space where death demanded introspection.

“I made several trips between my funerary perch and the centerpiece of the family gathering, observing the emotions on the faces of the adults and children near me…I wanted to emote what I saw in their expressions, but the feelings delayed themselves.”

People praised him during the formal service, highlighting the rich life of service and dedication he had lived. A number of his students made appearances, testifying of his ability to inspire and inject humor into the classroom; he was a great teacher, or rather, he had a special ability to endear himself to young people. Some gave him credit for helping them graduate and get into college. His was a short but beautiful existence, 38 years here. At least, that’s what everybody told me then, and repeated to me for the following decades.

I hardly knew the man, and to this day the only image I have of him is a resplendent portrait of a figure with few flaws and many legacies. It’s not a tragedy for a child to carry such a dazzling vision of his father’s character with him throughout his life. Yet, many opportunities were missed, and not the this-boy-will-grow-up-without-a-father type, but the kind of moments where greater richness and meaning could have been mined when a family was visited by death. Death takes from us, but it gives as well, if we allow it.

“Death takes from us, but it gives as well, if we allow it.”

My mind is sprinkled with pleasant memories of my father (and his funeral). Whether these were original or planted in my mind by others, I do not know. However, my experiences leave me wondering about the something more that many of us miss when we choose to mourn in the conventional and half-human way. Are we misguided to exclude the less-flattering memories or details of somebody’s life from a funeral service or the social interactions surrounding it?

I’ve reflected on this question seasonally since he died. (I’ve chosen to use ‘dead’ and ‘died’ to provoke those among us who cower at death, who hide behind words like ‘passed away’ and ‘deceased’ because we think these euphemisms are more sensitive, but that debate is for another time.) Having recently attended a couple funerals, and unable to be present at my grandmother’s service last month, my perspective has clarified a bit. I’m beginning to think that we dishonor a person’s memory and do ourselves a disservice when we don’t also acknowledge the dead person’s flaws, faults, or missteps — in other words, embrace their whole humanity. By refusing to draw attention to the person’s entire humanity, we turn the person into an idea, a false memory of who they were. I appreciate the beauty of highlighting the shinier parts of the person we loved, but I question if this practice doesn’t have some downsides preventing us from accessing other worthwhile lessons.

Some considerations come to mind.

We Are Both Polished and Imperfect
By focusing only on the polished parts of the person, we implicitly communicate, particularly to younger minds, that the messier sides don’t exist, that they aren’t an essential part of being human. We give them a distorted standard as to what a well-lived life should look like.

At one funeral, a speaker mused about his dead friend claiming, “He never said a harsh word about another person, was slow to anger, made friends with every single person he met. Everybody loved him!” This hyperbole is common. If it is the only thing we celebrate, we erase the experiences of others who may have been on the receiving end of the dead man’s crueler moments, or the reality that he was selective with the people to whom he showed his patience, as most of us fellow humans are prone to do. Recognizing that other people experienced the dead man as an occasionally mean-spirited or emotionally-disinterested person doesn’t erase the speaker’s sentiments. It demonstrates the dead man’s complexity, his messy humanness.

Such fraudulent standards lead to the tragedies of idealism and perfectionism, whereby a trail of individuals are mired in mediocrity or self-loathing because they were too focused on a spurious Lodestar.

Grieving Requires Seeing the Whole Human
Not allowing the blighting parts of the person to be mentioned might also diminish an observer’s ability to fully grieve, and thus find closure, for the shiny person being celebrated was not the whole soul.

I reflect on the anger one friend expressed to me about her uncle’s death. He had been verbally and emotionally abusive to her and her cousins, and the fact that his faults were not mentioned festered frustration and indignation. They weren’t even contextualized as lessons to the observers. She felt like a monster for holding resentment toward a dead man so many people loved and celebrated. She wasn’t alone in her ire, though. For some years later, she discovered many of her cousins struggled with similar feelings toward their uncle. She likely would have found earlier solace among fellow victims had the family more openly acknowledged the meaner side of his otherwise lambent personality. The uncle didn’t need to be quartered and vilified. That’s not what she wanted either, for she had loved him, as well as resented him. She wanted this celebration of his life to reflect the person she knew, and to instruct others it’s okay to feel both.

The earlier a person can learn it’s possible, and even justifiable, to feel conflicting emotions toward another person, the better. Whether we want it or not, funerals are spaces for learning, not just grieving or reinforcing cultural norms. Why not take it as a chance to bolster the emotional intelligence of young hearts and nascent minds?

Relationships Are Damaged and Can Be Reconciled
I once attended the funeral of a woman who was extremely devout in her faith. Orthodox through and through. A few of her children, now grown-ups with children of their own, had transitioned away from the faith of their childhood. When this became known by the mother, a large chasm grew. For in the narrow absoluteness surrounding her faith, she found an eternal reason to rupture her relationship with her children They had “fallen away from God.” Her constantly nagging about “coming back to Jesus” discouraged them from wanting to continue their efforts toward a close relationship with her.

During the funeral service, they felt pressured to follow the family protocol: hold a highly religious service, play the part as “still-believing children,” and act like no schism ever existed within the family. I don’t use this example to launch a criticism at the religiously devout in general, but to emphasize a reality. Cracks exist in families (and among friends). Some people have very different relationships with the recently dead than other people. I also understand the importance of having a celebratory story arc for the dead, and the desire to constrain stories to themes consistent to the person’s character — or rather, imagined consistencies.

However, would it not be more meaningful, cathartic, and although difficult, a worthwhile learning experience to allow greater expanse for observers to talk about the existing gulf? Could it also offer a testament to the complexities of human relationships, that despite the rift between parent and child, that they still chose to celebrate their mother’s life?

Honesty Heals the Past, Prepares Us for the Future
In practical terms, I imagine these conversations or feelings expressed both in formal settings, such as a speech given during a funeral service, and amid more casual but communal settings like a family dinner table. It’s rare for families and friends to gather en masse, particularly large families like my own, and I see this as an opportunity for the community as a whole to speak what has been left unspoken, to share in collective sorrows or storms, as well as mutual joys and admiration. It provides a way to integrate both halves of the whole person, serving as a microcosm of the human experience that we all share in. If we neglect one half — disregard the shadow to only see the light — we suffer needlessly and miss out on the innumerable ecstasies of confronting life in its most emotional sphere.

“Sparing someone’s feelings” is too often an excuse we make to avoid entering this uncomfortable realm, where we must acknowledge — face to face, eye to eye — that we do each other harm (most often unintentionally) and that we can come through that harm together. We can pretend all we want that our families are like smooth lakes of glass, but that glossiness indicates shallow living. If a plane of water remains tranquil, that is only because it’s void of truly boisterous and jubilant activities above the surface, or ignores the truths which breathe beneath. It’s frightening, and contentious at times, but wouldn’t we rather explore deeper waters? I much prefer the sentiment expressed by the novelist Anais Nin: “I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”

“We can pretend all we want that our families are like smooth lakes of glass, but that glossiness indicates shallow living. If a plane of water remains tranquil, that is only because it’s void of truly boisterous and jubilant activities above the surface, or ignores the truths which breathe beneath.”

From what I recall about my father’s funeral, over 20 years ago, his service, the stories about him, and the full spread obituary in the newspaper, the opinions expressed were and have been heavily one-sided, shying away from the more philistine parts of his personality. Over the past few years, I have held conversations with my mother, and others who knew my father, which have revealed to me the more complete whole of his personhood. One uncovered a likely explanation for why I have few, if any original memories of him. He was an overworked high school teacher with several young children to provide for, a man who stayed late after school grading papers, coaching, and fulfilling demanding church service. All these things kept him away from his family. I was often in bed before he came home.

Imagine the healing and wisdom that quiet boy might have encountered had a funeral been treated as a vital space for emotional learning, and not only a tradition for mourning and tending to the dead. The dead are gone. Funerals are for tending to the living.

This is not the place to further air unflattering details about my father’s life. It’s to make a point. Learning more about his humanity didn’t taint his legacy in my eyes, but in fact, enabled me to better understand who I was and what a father means (in addition to what my step-father has taught me), as well as which standards are reasonable ones to which we should hold ourselves. This principle extends to how we perceive our roles as friends, romantic partners, coworkers, members of communities, artists, professionals, and as social animals. Death provides perspective. Let’s not shy away from it or hurry through this bittersweet opportunity to reflect more thoroughly on it.

“The dead are gone. Funerals are for tending to the living.”

I’m not calling for a bash-fest or for loved ones to hear others hurl criticisms or vitriolic attacks onto the dead people we celebrate. I’m merely envisioning a funeral as a rare chance for us to delve deeper into our psyches, our relationships, and to examine all the dimensions of what these wonderful and sometimes difficult people have meant to us. As the depth psychologist Carl Jung wrote, “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

Thankfully death doesn’t drop in as frequently as it once did, but let’s not take for granted that event when death does decide to pay us a visit.

(Image source: Francesco Corbisiero/Unsplash)

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