Prevailing Cultural Trends

The Western culture appears headed towards either minimizing or even avoiding any rituals surrounding death.  The Cremation Association of North America (CANA) reports that in 1992, 19.11% of all people who died in the U.S. were cremated; and for the year end of 2012 surpassed 35%.  In Canada, the 1992 rates for cremation in the western provinces (B.C. – MB) were 50.71%, and by the end of 2012 reached *75.00%!

While families choose cremation for various reasons, including financial, the concern is they often also choose not to have any accompanying farewell service, thereby avoiding the funeral/memorial service altogether. For some, traditional funeral rituals have lost value and meaning; they are perceived as stale or too religious. For some, the family is scattered (or divided) across the continent making any farewell gathering complicated.

The chaplain and/or pastor to seniors plays a vital role in helping families say good bye well.

Why Have a Memorial?

Meaningful Funeral/Memorial Ceremonies help people to embrace the grief of separation and loss after the death of a loved one. The funeral or memorial greatly determines how the bereaved go on to find meaning and purpose in their continued living. Funerals usually include a casket and a more formal ceremony.

Memorial services include all other events at which the ashes, photos or other memorabilia are included, alongside either a formal or informal farewell. Both of these ceremonies can be very meaningful.

Rituals such as birthdays, baptisms, weddings and graduations help to express our deepest thoughts and feelings about life’s transitional events. The ritual of a funeral/memorial helps to acknowledge the reality of death, gives testimony to the life of the deceased and encourages the expression of grief in a way consistent with our values.  Funerals/memorials also provide support to the bereaved family and mourners alike; it allows for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death while offering continuity, comfort and hope for the living.

Helen Keller said, “The only way to get to the other side is to go through the door”. Meaningful funerals or memorial services are “doorways” to healing for the bereaved.  This article suggests practical ideas for chaplains and pastors-to-seniors in the creation of authentic, personalized, and meaningful funeral/memorial services.

Aids to Healing in Grief

Obviously complete recovery from grief will not emerge in any single event; but rather, grief represents a process that unfolds for weeks, months and even years after the funeral itself.  Thus, a meaningful farewell ceremony is but one of many elements that enable the bereaved to have needs met.  Grief is the internal thoughts and feeling of loss and pain, whereas mourning is the outward, public and shared expression of that grief. Mourning is public grief. The memorial/funeral is central to effectual mourning.

Six Grief Healing Aids

    • Acknowledge the reality of the death and finality of death helps us to move forward with our grief. As our knowing of the death progresses from “head understanding” to “heart understanding,” we begin to embrace the pain of loss. One family member observed, “We knew this would come, but we did not know how it would feel”. A public gathering helps us to acknowledge the death.
    • Remember the person who died – Mourning enables the family to shift their relationship with the person who died from one of physical presence to one of memory – the funeral aids in this shift.
    • Develop a new self-identity – Mourning begins the grief process of a new self-identity when someone close dies, my self-identity changes. Family dynamics change. “Mom was always at the center of our life. Now we have to reshape our family relationships”, reflected one family.
    • Search for meaning – The funeral reinforces one central fact: we will die; thus, the funeral helps us search for meaning in the life/death of the person who died as well as in our own lives and impending deaths.
    • Receive ongoing support – Funerals/memorials are the public venue for offering support in their grief. Although we might not be able to spend much time the family at other occasions, this gathering brings friends and family together


Qualities of the Effective Chaplain at a Funeral

Historically, funeral officiates have been clergy, however, there is a growing trend to use chaplains, family members, friends and funeral directors.  The traditional term “officiate” has changed to “facilitator” or “host.”

The willingness to learn – this may include setting aside some preconceptions and “standard” practices to address the unique needs of each bereaved family. Be sensitive to the traditions and patterns of the family, without compromising your own convictions. For example, some cultures mourn loudly and publically; the chaplain might need to adjust to this form of display.

The desire and ability to connect with the bereaved family: Effective memorials remain personalized. Learn the family members’ names and gain a sense of their internal relationships. Listen to conversations and watch for family dynamics. Learn the stories of the deceased.

The capacity for empathy: Effective chaplains breathe empathy, they seek to reach into the bereaved family’s world – actively listening to the grieving dynamics of the family – their words, gestures, and physical presence. The Bible urges, “Weep with those who weep.” Sympathy is primarily communicated nonverbally through acts of kindness, facial expressions, posture, gesture, and touch. And yet, remain professionally removed, because tomorrow- or even later today- you will be joyful in the presence of the living!

Be flexible in terms of what they want. Some families prefer an event outside of the church/seniors home at which the chaplain plays a small role. Others will want a memorial event in the church or seniors home where the chaplain plays a central role; while still others desire a very informal memorial tea or gathering. In some settings, a group memorial tea also brings several families together to share in their grief. If a chaplain does not feel comfortable in an aspect, suggest someone else, “ I suggest that you consider asking ____ who has done ____ more often.” Or, “ In my tradition we would _____."

The development of your personal dynamic of funeral facilitation: What do you see as your role in helping bereaved families; your own philosophy of funerals? When we have confidence that the deceased is with the Lord, share this hope with the family. However, when you simply do not know their eternal destiny, encourage the family with God’s comfort and the vivid memories and impact of the deceased. “… I remember and celebrate his commitment to his children and grandchildren.”

The desire to seek new knowledge about grief and facilitation: To be effective, the chaplain must be committed to ongoing education, new resources and training.

The ability to accept one’s personal power in caregiving: The chaplain’s self-confidence makes a profound difference in this setting. Exude confidence and calm.

Written by Rev. Keith Johnson