Surprisingly, not only do humans practice funerary rites, but so do some animals. Obviously, in our species these rites have a greater elaboration and variety than in others. However, this fact already suggests the importance that these rituals have.
Scientific evidence tells us that death is an absolute and determining fact. As much as it is a natural event, it nonetheless constitutes a mystery. In turn, everything mysterious often has a sacred connotation, to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore, in all cultures and at all times, since human beings are human, there are funerary rites.
Likewise, death opens the door to the infinite. It represents such a radical transformation that we can not accept it as a common fact (even if it is the most common of the facts). For that we need the funeral rites: to accept death, to process the feelings that originate us and to stage a point of change.
“A man can live a good life, be honorable, be charitable… but in the end, the number of people going to his funeral depends, in general, on the weather.”
Funeral rites and acceptance
Funeral rites are a very important part of the grieving process. Basically they constitute a pause in the routine to begin the acceptance process, one of the most difficult and disconcerting of the duel. They help the existence of a loss, both collectively and individually, to be admitted.
Part of that acceptance process involves a last contact with that person who died. Although we know that he is dead, we probably feel the need to approach that person to thank him, recognize his good deeds or to get at peace with him in some way.
In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud points out that very often the dead become a persecutory presence. Our child’s unconscious and some religious or popular beliefs, would lead us to think that they went to an unknown plane and acquired powers over the world of the living. They could “go back” to “settle accounts”. Seeing it from this current of thought, that is why we would like to be at peace with them.
Death and the persecuting ghost
In one way or another, every deceased person persecutes us. Whether or not we believe in the spiritual world, every dead person “returns” to our lives. Very often we experience guilt when a person dies. Guilt because he is dead and this immerses him in a kind of solitude that we do not know completely.
He also blames us because we have “the advantage of life” over him. And, obviously, guilt for what “we should say and did not say”, for what “we should have done and we did not do”. We easily begin to take inventory of all the alleged mistakes we made with that person and we can no longer repair them.
That guilt is “the deceased person, pointing us out”. Chasing us. The funeral rites also serve to moderate and manage those persecutory feelings that take hold of us when someone dies. They give us an opportunity to start that process of putting us in peace with the one who left and with ourselves.
The rite and the expression
Funeral rites also give us a very valuable opportunity: to manifest our pain in a loud voice, without being judged by it. In these rituals there is a kind of social “permission” to cry, to be sad and even to experience a certain lack of control. Outside of these rituals, these types of behaviors become somewhat suspicious.
The fact that pain is lived collectively also gives comfort. Although everyone experiences suffering in a particular way, in funeral rituals pain is shared and this comforts. Its effect is very positive, especially in that initial moment where the stupor prevails and the temptation to deny reality gains strength.
The company of others provides the opportunity to externalize the feelings that are experienced by the person who left. Talking about that person and giving feedback to each other is something that qualifies the pain. In that sense, it also plays a clearly effective therapeutic role in these situations.
Funerary rituals, finally, are also a way to honor the memory of the one who left. It is an act of consideration and respect. It may not serve the deceased person much, but the living do allow them to configure gestures of affection and lavish them. Posthumous expressions that at least leave the feeling of “having loved” for the last time. That fact alone gives meaning to the farewell rituals.