In order to live well, we must learn to grieve well. Time spent on planet earth always involves experiencing loss. There are little losses like a day not going well or my favorite sports team not playing well. Then there are bigger losses like moving to a different city, losing a job, loss of a retirement fund or the loss of health and mobility. The there are the really big losses like the end of a relationship, the death of a spouse, parent, or child, or the experience of crime or betrayal. Every loss, big or small, must be grieved. Grieving well is a skill that has to be acquired with practice. It does not come naturally to us.

That is why most cultures have very set and structured funeral rituals. When we experience a loss, we are often at a loss. Tradition helps to guide us down the best path. Traditionally, the body of the deceased was washed and dressed by family members. Those same family members would then take turns sitting up with the body all night to make sure the deceased was not alone. In the morning, the body would be brought to church. For centuries a fancy black carriage carried the casket and the mourners walked behind. The priest would celebrate a solemn requiem Mass, or the preacher would offer prayers, scripture, and comforting hymns. Then the procession would continue to the cemetery for burial. After the men helped fill in the grave, a meal would be eaten together before the congregation dispersed.

In many cultures, the family continues to mourn for some time. They may dress in black or wear a black arm-band (you can see one in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life). Those in mourning would be exempt from certain social obligations and would not go out to parties or shows for a while. In Pakistan, where Fr. George is from, the one-month and one-year anniversaries of someone’s passing are important times to gather and remember. In Mexican culture, November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, is a national holiday. You can see the rituals and traditions in the Disney movie COCO.

Just because you have been to a funeral does not mean you have grieved well. One fellow I know sat in the pew at his Mom’s funeral Mass and imagined he was on a beach somewhere; the experience at the moment was just too painful. Those who grieve well still find that it isn’t “over” or “healed.” Grief isn’t really something you get over, but rather something you move through. It can build like a towering wave and threaten to overwhelm. But if you hang in there, letting it crash over you, it passes, leaving a sense of peace and gratitude in its wake. Grieving takes time and energy. Those willing to put in the work find that it as hard, but it is worth-while. Death leads to new life.

Beginning in the 1800’s, funeral homes began offering an alternative to laying out the body in the home of the deceased. Which is why they are called funeral homes. Relatives wanted time to gather so embalming became a routine practice. In more recent years, we have begun to associate the good life with a comfortable life. We try to avoid discomforts like exercise, hard work, difficult conversations like telling our children, “No,” and also the many negative feelings and emotions that are a natural part of life. The sad paradox is that the harder we try to be comfortable, the more uncomfortable we become both emotionally and even physically.

Don’t be afraid to talk to friends about your funeral plans. If you want a celebration of life, throw a party while you are still alive. Especially for those with terminal illnesses, this can be a brave and blessed experience before you pass. Once you have died, have a full visitation, funeral service, and burial. Christians bury our dead because we are preparing them for the Resurrection (see John 11, John 14:1-6, Acts 24:15, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15, Philippians 3:7-21, 1 Thessalonians 4, Revelation 20). Even those who are not religious will find that some form of prayer service will comfort friends and family. I don’t know anyone who regretted having the traditional three-stage funeral. Tradition knows what to do. Yes it’s hard, but it’s worth it. Make time to grieve your losses.

--Published in the Antigo Daily Journal, November 17, 2023

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