Creating New Funeral Rituals
There are many factors which contribute to the uniqueness or individuality of a funeral. However, few have a more profound affect than the use of rituals.
What is a ritual? How does it relate to the loss of a loved one and the funeral service chosen? Let’s first consider the answer to these questions through some simple illustrations. We often read or hear about news events which specifically relate to loss of life. Whether this loss was due to an explosion, plane crash or a shooting, in the days that follow these tragedies there are a number of events that symbolize the need for ritual.
People will place flowers at the site where the loss of life occurred, others will wear black arm bands or lapel ribbons, flags will fly at half-mast, memorial services will be held or a monument may be erected with the names of all those who died. These are the rituals of death which offer people a chance to share their sympathy with those who have experienced a loss.
Rituals can come in many different forms and are limited only by the boundaries of one’s imagination. Some rituals may be personal, while others may be supportive. They not only provide a sense of continuity but are also very therapeutic for those mourning a loss.
While striving to plan a more personal and meaningful funeral, increasing numbers of families are choosing alternative funeral practices. To keep pace with change and satisfy emotional needs, churches and family members are creating new funeral rituals .
The Committal Service
The committal service, which may be either public or private, is traditionally conducted at graveside by a member of the clergy. It is where family and friends say their final good-byes. With cremation becoming more popular, particularly direct cremation where families are choosing scattering rather than burial of the cremated remains, some churches have recognized a need for a short committal service prior to the commencement of the cremation process. In Newfoundland and Labrador, where funeral homes are permitted to own and operate their own crematories, the Anglican Church introduced this new ritual in the early 90s. It is now referred to by funeral directors as the “committal to flame”.
Some funeral homes or crematories have an area adjacent to their crematorium where a short committal service can be held. Families are invited by the funeral director to attend the service but are not obligated to do so. The “committal to flame” is mandatory in the Newfoundland Anglican Church’s Eastern Diocese, and an Anglican clergy must be called to conduct the service regardless of whether the family is in attendance. It is optional in the United Church and will be held at the request of the family. As yet, it is not offered by other Christian faiths.
Families wishing to attend may choose to have the casket or cremation container placed in the retort out of sight or left in the committal area in full view of those in attendance. They may also be guided by the clergy’s preference. When placed outside the retort, family members may choose to carry out the same traditions performed at a graveside service such as placing flowers on the casket, taking them from the floral spray or touching the casket or container for the final time. It also allows the funeral director to perform the ritual of sprinkling sand over the casket or container when the actual committal is read by the clergy.
When the casket or container is placed in the crematorium, the door is usually closed. The family will still gather in the committal area with the clergy and funeral director for prayers and support. In either case, unless otherwise requested, the crematorium is not turned on until after the family has left the premises.
Both the Anglican and United Church have written a special liturgy for this service which includes a reference to the committal of the body to flame rather than earth.
This new ritual brings closure for family members and gives them a place to pay their final respects and say good-bye.
Variations to an already established ritual can also be made. As mentioned, at a graveside committal service funeral directors will sprinkle sand over the casket or urn. In most cases, the funeral director uses a small brass holder containing silica sand. On one occasion, just before the start of a funeral service, a funeral director was approached by the deceased man’s son who carried a small bottle of sand. The sand had come from his father’s birthplace, and he asked that it be used instead of the traditional shaker. The funeral director suggested that the son perform the ritual of sprinkling the special sand over his father’s casket. At the end of the service, after emptying the majority of the sand into the grave, the son kept a small portion as a symbol of the cherished memories of his father. This ritual meant a great deal to the son, but it also deeply moved those who attended the committal service. We learn rituals from others, and we share them as well.
This simple graveside ritual was seen again, on the national stage, at the tomb of the Unknown Canadian Soldier. When the casket had reached its final resting place, a representative from each Province, Territory and First Nations, symbolically poured a small amount of soil which came from their Province or Territory, into the open tomb.
A traditional funeral ritual in which families are considering other options, is the practise of holding the funeral ceremony in a church. Many families are choosing chapels over churches whether they are located in a funeral home, resident care facility, university or some other public institution.
Reasons for the increasing use of chapels include a migratory population who are not affiliated with a church and would prefer the neutrality of a chapel; long term residents of nursing or seniors’ homes who become detached from their local congregations and would rather use the chapel at the resident care facility to accommodate their close friends residing in the home; others prefer the more intimate and warm atmosphere of a chapel over the immensity of a church, particularly if the deceased was elderly and a low attendance was anticipated.
It is traditional in the Roman Catholic Church to celebrate mass as part of the funeral liturgy. Although the Liturgy of the Word is permissible and can be led by a lay representative in a chapel, mass has been prohibited in chapels. Although more Roman Catholics are choosing to hold funeral services in a chapel, many still prefer the traditional funeral liturgy with mass.
In addition to the new liturgy created for the “committal to flame” ritual, churches are also responding to new challenges presented by grieving families. The Anglican Church has instituted new liturgies for the burial of a stillborn child or those who do not profess to be Christian. The Roman Catholic Church has recognized the growth of cremation and has revised their funeral and burial liturgies to accommodate the cremated remains in their church and cemeteries.
The act of the funeral service respects and strengthens the cultural rituals dictated by a family’s nationality, religious affiliation, or beliefs. Every funeral service should respect the rituals and customs of those involved. Such rituals are the cornerstone of a funeral service and are essential to those who mourn. Their value cannot be underestimated.