Let’s Keep the Funeral Tradition Alive

Trendy alternatives to this rite of passage are nice to think about, but they fail to satisfy our basic emotional needs.

A woman holding a rose in front of a casket at a funeral.
Fond farewell: A funeral offers a way both to relate to our own feelings about death and to give "testimony to the life of the person that has died." (Shutterstock)

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It’s understandable if you think traditional funerals are passé. We have been treated lately to stories about shooting a person’s ashes (or cremains, as we in the funeral business call them) into space and placing them into biodegradable burial pods from which trees can sprout. Others advocate eco-­friendly “green” burials, in which unembalmed, shrouded bodies are buried in wicker caskets.

These concepts may grab the attention of readers, but they are not the reality of funeral service. I know this because in my long career as a funeral director, I’ve had a front-row seat to the importance of funeral customs. “When words are inadequate, have a ceremony,” says grief counselor and educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt. “The elements of ceremony — music, symbols, words, actions — help us know what to do when we do not know what to do.”

In mortuary school, the importance of funerals was drilled into us. They “confirm the reality of death,” I recall one teacher saying.

“Without meaningful funeral rituals, the Department of Sanitation could do our job,” said another instructor.

But it was the sentiment of 19th-century British Prime Minister Sir William E. Gladstone that resonated with me the most: “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”

That rituals matter is a truth I have come to learn over the years in dealing with grieving families. The value of funerals was re­inforced to me in a deeply personal way as well. When my dearest friend Peter died, I respected his wish not to have a funeral. I’ve always felt that he — and I — had been shortchanged, that the absence of a funeral suggested that his life hadn’t mattered as much as the lives of others. But there was more: I didn’t get the opportunity to say goodbye. Without a funeral, “something is left hanging,” says Rabbi Alvin I. Kass, chief chaplain of the New York Police Department. “People lose the chance for one last time to come together and express their love and appreciation to a person who has played a pivotal role in their life.”

Those who are experimenting with new types of funerals may well believe they are keeping the ritual alive. But the value of ritual comes in part from the tradition — from the sense that the ceremony connects us to those who have come before us and who were honored in the same time-tested way. While people may now want to talk about funerals as “celebrations of life” — and they can be that — no one should lose sight of how much they are also recognition of an end.

“The elements of ceremony — music, symbols, words, actions — help us know what to do when we do not know what to do.”

“The funeral ritual is a public, traditional, symbolic means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about the death,” Wolfelt says. “It gives testimony to the life of the person that has died.”

Even the most elaborate of funerals, far removed from the small private family funerals that we often see, manage to embrace the traditions of our way of death. The 2013 funeral of former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch stays with me. It was a template for what a good funeral should and could be: a mix of tributes, tears, and laughter, with a body present. It all underscored what his life had meant to the city and how his death affected its citizenry. At the conclusion of the funeral service, as Koch’s casket was being shouldered down the long aisle of Fifth Avenue’s Temple Emanu-El to the strains of “New York, New York,” he was given a standing ovation by 2,500 mourners, many with tears in their eyes. It was a shared experience, both public and private, of mourning and healing among fellow New Yorkers.

Undoubtedly, funeral customs evolve. Visitation hours have gone from three days to one, and personalization abounds. Perhaps the biggest change has been in the increasing popularity of cremation. Around since the Stone Age, it is merely an alternative to burial or entombment. But the number of cremations has increased substantially. In a report released by the National Funeral Directors Association, cremation surpassed burial in 2015.

But even this practice has become the source of confusion. Many people opt for what is known as “direct cremation” without knowing what it is. With a direct cremation, no services are held. My clients often ask in surprise, “But aren’t we going to see him?” They are often left with the sense that something is missing. In my experience, there is an almost primal need for the chance to say goodbye.

“I see the funeral as a classroom, in that hearts and minds are more reflective,” says Rev. Frank I. Williams, senior pastor of Wake-Eden Community Baptist Church in the Bronx. “There is a proverb found in the Old Testament that states, ‘Sadness is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us.’ There are some lessons that can only be learned in the context of sadness, grief, and loss.”

At no time in recent memory was the meaning of a funeral more evident than in the aftermath of September 11. Families desperately sought the recovery of any part of their loved ones’ remains and were agonized by those left unidentified. Helen Martinez, from Queens, lost her husband Ed in the tragedy, but remains were recovered. “It meant the world to have a funeral,” Martinez said, stressing that “it was such a relief to have something to hold on to and a place to go.” Martinez kept in touch with a group of September 11 widows whose husbands’ remains were never found and described them as “going through hell.” Rabbi Kass, who spent months comforting families, said, “people want to hold on to every last shred of the life they loved, and remains clearly fulfill that need.”

I’ve been reminded over and over how much funerals mean to people as they pore over every detail, from the choice of clothing to that of a final resting place. It’s as if they are giving a final gift. All the elements that compose a funeral — memorial cards, photo montages, eulogies, the religious service, and the funeral procession — combine to make the funeral a tribute to a life well-lived.

It is for the survivors that funeral directors work hard to make the deceased presentable. Cynics might see this as artificial and a denial of death, but the memory that should remain is not of a person ravaged by illness or a catastrophic death. Countless times, I have seen the look of relief on the faces of mourners as they go up to the casket for the first time. It is from them I’ve heard, with gratitude, the words “she looks beautiful,” or “this is how we want to remember him.” That the deceased looked “so peaceful” was of immeasurable comfort to the survivors.

As Rev. Williams said, “Funerals are as much for the living as they are for the deceased. On the one hand, they offer us a space and time to honor the life of the now deceased, and on the other hand, they remind us of our own mortality — that one day life as we now know it will have a final chapter.”

Alexandra K. Mosca is a New York City funeral director who has contributed to Newsday, New York Daily News, and funeral industry publications. She’s the author of Grave Undertakings, Green-Wood Cemetery, and Gardens of Stone.

This article is featured in the January/February 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. My daughter and other family members have strict instructions to those who remain after we die: NO FUNERALS. We would prefer to preserve the money for the living who will need it.
    We will each me cremation, with our cremains fashioned into jewelry. And a huge FAMILY and INTIMATE FRIENDS only dinner at the most extravagant restaurant they know to remember each of us and celebrate.

    Sorry. Just how it is with us.

  2. As a practitioner for nearly 50 years, I still maintain a well presented remains and a ceremony is far best the way to say goodbye. Videos, personalization products, and the variety of funeral do-dads have their place, but the standard is having the remains present to say goodbye in a well organized setting. Thank you for writing the article, which is perfect.

  3. This article reminds of how we are connected. And that honoring that connection through ceremony (in whatever form that may take) is important. Thank you for your commitment to funeral service and to the families who have lost loved ones.

  4. The article is excellent. As a still practicing Funeral Director & Embalmer of almost 50 years I know only too well the demise of the “traditional” funeral. When one contemplates what has happened in our society over the years regarding morality, greed and basic disregard for human life you don’t have to look too far for explanations.

  5. Funerals are for the living. Death is a reminder that all our days are numbered. All references of comfort concerning the faith of the living are powerful reminders to the living that for futile and despairate mankind the perfect life and innocent death of Jesus is God’s gift, God’s payment to remove our guilt and is the only and complete assurance for eternal heavenly life. Having had 250 funerals in a period of over 40 years of ministry, “Jesus, Jesus only, can my heartfelt longing cure”.

  6. Aside from our Chrstian faith in life everlasting, I see a need for teaching over and over that your life is not a dress rehersal for another life to follow.
    I really feel sad for those who emphasize the reward for a good life that comes after death to the extent to justify depriving yourself of enjoying the life that we have now. Now is the life we have. Know that there will not be another on earth and we are not here to only suffer and sacrifice. Good is life..Life is good and I believe life is a gift from God, to be enjoyed and appreciated in the here and now. Open your senses and live and thank God for it.

  7. Ms. Mosca, your article IS excellent, from top to bottom. My sister and I had a traditional funeral for my Mom who passed away from Parkinson’s in December 2013.

    We chose to have a closed casket with flowers adorning the top as she wished. She was ready to ‘go’ throughout ’13 and we did most of our grieving while she was still alive, so we were very together at the funeral, to many people’s surprise.

    I saw her on Friday Dec. 13th at the Agoura senior home and thought she might go that evening. Though she didn’t know who I was (and hadn’t for several months) I did and said all the loving things I could to give herself permission to go, and was in tears. I promised her I’d be there with her when she’d slip away, but I wasn’t.

    I had a strange feeling Thursday evening the 19th it might happen. I should have driven over there but was so exhausted from the day I just didn’t. I got a call from the facility at 4 am she was gone. To this day I feel very guilty I wasn’t there.

    Anyhow, having a traditional funeral was a comforting thing for her friends and family. I wrote a eulogy the night before on a yellow legal pad, and read it at the funeral as is, no sentence restructuring, incorporating stories that spoke to nearly everyone there individually.

    It was a mix of tragedy, comedy and everything in between. I included (for example) how she contradicted herself in 1968 saying how she thought women wearing flowered mini-skirts and sandals looked ridiculous, only for her to buy both for herself very soon after that.

    The traditional funeral allowed the mourners to see my mother at her best as well. I had a beautiful 1964 8 x 10 sepia photo greatly enlarged and prominently displayed. Only a traditional funeral could let me do that. They got to see a broad spectrum of who she was, in a dignified manner. The laughter here and there was very respectful.

    We followed it up with a nice lunch at the up-in-the-sky Odyssey Restaurant in Granada Hills. I had the large framed photo moved into the banquet room lest anyone forget it was my mother’s luncheon.

  8. Excellent article. As a funeral director myself for 40 years, I concur totally and hope this article will resonate with the public. Celebrations or no funerals are not helpful.


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