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Opinion Grief can be unpredictable, so a good send-off for a departed loved one is essential

A funeral provides mourners a space to accept death and to safely explore their grief and loss.

THE MEMENTOS AT Albert Reynolds’ funeral this week, including a tin of dog food, a racing card and a copy of the Downing Street Declaration was a poignant display of the place that ritual holds in our modern society. In our cultural worship of busyness and speed where sometimes ‘I’m too busy to Comment so a Like will do’, many of our ancient rituals and rites of passage have all but disappeared. A spectrum of ceremonies around births and marriages initiate men and women into being godparents and spouses – but the space for consciously marking subtler transitions in life, like puberty, leaving home or becoming an elder, have largely disappeared.

However, there is still one ritual that strongly unites a community and invokes a collective response – the funeral. In spite of our increasingly de-ritualised society, this honouring of a life that has passed and the full acceptance of resulting grieving emotions remains an anchored aspect of our culture.

Navigating transition

Grief is a fierce and unpredictable emotion and with few opportunities to overtly express it, the environment of a funeral offers release for dormant grief or shadowy emotions. A funeral provides a space for the community to gather and offer support, assisting the living in navigating their transition from life with the deceased, to life without them. Through offering the mourners relief and assistance in accepting death, they can then safely explore their love and recent separation of that love, through the new lens of loss.

The spiritual ceremony also connects people with their previously deceased loved ones and, if needs be, gives them an arena to tie up any unfinished business with their faithful departed. The former Taoiseach’s life no doubt held different meanings for different people and the funeral gave his entire community an opportunity to honour not only the man himself, but also any personal loss they were processing. In a way, every funeral is a re-honouring of the community’s previous losses.

Celebrating life

‘Modernity sees death as an end whereas the traditional world sees death as a transition’ is how Malidoma Somé, author on grief and ritual, puts it. Seeing death as a transition, from one world to the next or simply from living to not-living, calls for celebration of the life lived in order to remember those passed at their best and send them on their way with appreciation and respect.

It can be bittersweet, often with solemn laughs and appreciative sighs when a eulogy refers to a favourite piece of music of the deceased, or their humorously annoying habit, or how long their family had lived in the local community or a moving insight into their private life. This posthumous view into the departed’s life can be terribly sad but also cathartic, sharing stories and hearing new ones helping mould the final memories.

The beauty of permission

Death provides a unique opportunity to unleash the incredible healing power of grieving, which although may not be comfortable, ultimately brings peace, acceptance and rejuvenation. Communal grieving creates a container greater than the sum of its parts, as the traditional Irish practice of keening used to illustrate. ‘Keening’ was where specific women in the community lead a vocal lament with weeping and wailing in order to invoke the emotions of grief in everyone present – a kind of ‘fake it till you make it’. The effect of the women infusing the funeral atmosphere with their professional grieving would be an awakening of mass grief, which then gave the mourners a permissive period of time to fully express themselves.

At the essence of what a funeral provides is permission: permission to engage with the darker emotions and not try to change them, permission to not feel good, permission to allow whatever is present inside a person’s heart to just be there.

On the death of Nelson Mandela last December, a friend living in London went to the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square to sign the book of remembrance. Despite thousands of mourners having passed through the embassy and the staff amidst their own grief at the loss of Madiba, the room was laid out immaculately with beautiful, fresh flowers on the table. She was spoken to attentively and invited to take a look around the office, sit down and feel free to take as much time as she needed. Humbled by the peace and care in that remembrance room, she is still moved by the dignity and appreciation that was given to her own grief.

An abundant send-off

Not everyone receives a letter from the Pope when they pass over, nor leaves an international legacy of peace and inspiration, but whatever the situation when the time comes to move from this life to the next, a good send-off is key. A funeral, abundant with ritual and community, gives all involved a graceful, permissive space within which to experience the beauty of this final transition.

Lydia Kiernan is a change catalyst, facilitator and founder of National Grieving Day – a day dedicated to hosting grieving events around the globe on November 22nd 2014. Check out

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