Rethinking the Way We Do Funerals

March 4th, 2014

I’m going to be brutally honest here for the sake of improving some things, both in our practice and the way we think about funerals, death, and comforting the grieving.

I hate the visitation line at funerals.

I hate standing there next to a deceased loved one for over an hour.

I hate having to comfort other people when I can’t even comfort myself.

I hate having to endure people I barely know trying to “solve” my grief, as if some spiffy saying or cliché can take away the pain.

I hate the awkward things people say.

And most of all, I hate the cheap casket-side theology that comes out of people’s mouths.

Who in the world thought it was a good idea to put a grieving family three feet from their dead loved one and force them to publicly grieve for an hour before the funeral even starts?

I’m not a particularly private person—as my blog attests to over and over. I’m a pretty high extrovert. But when I’m grieving, I don’t want to be social, especially when the grief is at its worst. I don’t want to be forced to stand in line while a bunch of people—whether I know them or not—come by and say things to me. Even if they’re saying good things and not weird things, I just don’t think the visitation line is the best way for families to grieve.

If you love me and my family enough, you’ll come by and say weird things to me later. You’ll bring me a meal. You’ll pray for me at church.

But for goodness sake, we’ve got to stop making three feet from a dead body the central location of this kind of “compassion.” Because it’s not compassion for the grieving family—it’s torture. As if the family isn’t going through enough, now we’re going to torture them for an hour, too?

I don’t doubt that there are people who want to stand in the visitation line. I’m sure there are some people out there who disagree with me. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m the majority voice in this. Most people would rather grieve on their own or with the people with whom they choose to grieve.

I understand no one is physically forced to stand in a visitation line. I understand we make the choice to be there. But there is social and familial pressure to stand in that line, on top of the customary and tradition pressures. So while no one is physically forced to stand in in that line, there are other forces at work.

I think of the visitation line almost like rituals at church. We’ve been doing it for so long that we don’t even now why we do it anymore, but because of familial, social, customary, and traditional pressures, we don’t think we can abandon this practice. Maybe there was some older cultural reason why the visitation line was appropriate and desired. Maybe there was a time when certain rituals resonated deeply with people who were grieving. But that day is gone. And it’s time to rethink the visitation line, just as we have certain rituals at church.

At my mom’s funeral, I protested the idea of having a visitation line. I knew people were going to come talk to us, anyway. By not having a visitation line, I at least didn’t have to stand in one place and wait for it. I didn’t have to endure watching my siblings try to comfort other people while they held back their own tears. We could go hide, engage, cut the conversation short, or weep on a shoulder all in our own timing and need.

I know the community needs to grieve, but the community’s job should be to protect the family, not put them in the lion’s den. I would love to hear some of your ideas on how to rethink these things.

Have you been to a funeral where they didn’t do a visitation line? How might you rethink a funeral service to make it more healing for a hurting family? Do you like or dislike the visitation line? Why?

This post originally appeared on Tom's blog,

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