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Our experience of death through the ages has taught us that in order to come to terms with death, yet continue to live to our fullest potential, we must accomplish certain physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual tasks. These tasks ultimately become the vehicle by which we accept the reality of the death, thus embracing the reality of our own lives from that time forward.
The first thing that must be decided upon someone's death is what will happen to their body. Options are limited by physical realities. A body may be buried (in the earth, at sea or in a mausoleum) or cremated. But the inescapable fact is that something must be done. Whether the choice is to view the person's body in a casket while their friends and family visit and reminisce, or whether the choice is to cremate their body and carry the remains to unknown destinations, something must be done. It suits us as human beings to see the body. We instinctively understand when someone is lost in a plane crash how very, very difficult it is not to have the reality of the body present. We understand why great sums are spent searching and bringing back lost bodies. It is essential for us to deal with the idea of death by first dealing with our dead, the physical reality of an almost unfathomable idea.
Another essential task in mourning is making a transition in the relationship with the deceased person. The everyday reality of life with the deceased person must instead become a memory. Many people find it helpful to have a specific way to seal in their memory, often through memorial funds that are used to carry on work that was important to the deceased, or through planting a tree or a shrub that will live on, to name just two. Perhaps the most noticeable means of memorialization is through the tombstone, or monument to the deceased, where his/her name is literally engraved in stone.
The oldest customs around death center around the suspension of daily routines. It seems essential that, in a sense, time stops. We acknowledge that something very significant has happened by taking the time to recognize it, to show our respect for the one who died, and allow to others to join us. Custom gathers family and friends together, and religious, secular or humanistic rituals bring meaning and comfort to the mourners.
We all work out our greatest pain in our own ways, and we are all different. But the simple truth is that those differences don't have to isolate us from one another. Bereavement is a universal experience that touches all individuals who are connected to others. Grief, the feelings and emotional reactions related to bereavement, is expressed in crying, in restlessness, in dreams, and in feelings of pain and anguish. The bereaved have difficulty understanding and accepting the loss. When friends and family reach out in the context of remembering the decedent to hug the bereaved, to take their hand, to simply be present to the loss, the acknowledgement can help to keep the bereaved person's connection to the world and to other people, so that they may go on living.
For ideas and information to help create funeral experiences that honor a life and help to create a path to healing, visit: