What Kind of Funeral? Identifying and Resolving Family Conflicts

Article excerpt

I recently reviewed a body of information about planning funerals (e.g., Funeral Directory, 2003; National Funeral Directors' Association, 2003). A frequent recommendation was to discuss options and document your wishes with a professional funeral director or estate planner. And, while many sources also cautioned readers to discuss their wishes with loved ones to prevent this information from being solely in the hands of a "stranger," it was equally common to find statements that noted the difficulties of raising this issue with those to whom one is personally close. Being a fan of Ogden Nash, I wondered if he had any words of wisdom to offer to people facing this challenging and important process. Consider:

One would be in less danger

From the wiles of a stranger

If one's own kin and kith

Were more fun to be with.

- Ogden Nash,

"Family Court"

"Fun" in the same discussion as "funeral"? Examples found in the popular press often portray quite the opposite. Consider this scenario from a "Dear Abby" column (Van Buren, 1997). "Devastated in Iowa" writes that because of a rift between her sister and her husband, her sister chose not to call her following the death of a beloved aunt. The aunt's funeral was held without "Devastated" even knowing of the death. She continues, "Abby, I could never do such a thing to anyone, and I don't understand how my sister could have been so cruel as to keep this from me. . . . Even if my sister had a problem with my husband, our aunt loved us both, and aren't her wishes the ones that should have been respected?"

We all know that dealing with issues having to do with a funeral following the death of a family member can be quite unpleasant and emotionally painful, particularly in cases of longstanding difficulties in relationships or differences of opinion about how to honor a person's life following the person's death. These situations raise a fundamental question: Who is a funeral for-the deceased or the living? Funerals serve multiple purposes that vary depending upon culture, spiritual or religious beliefs, other personal preferences, and much more (Pine, 1995; Corr, Nabe, and Corr, 2002; Kastenbaum, 2004; DeSpelder and Strickland, 2005). This article reviews factors that may contribute to differences of opinion about funerals and other commemorative rituals and suggests ways of working effectively with those who must plan these events for themselves or others.

INFLUENCES ON PREFERENCES AND PLANNING

Rando (1993) discusses three broad categories of influences on grief and mourning: psychological factors, physiological factors, and social factors, and how these are likely to influence an individual's thoughts about options for commemorating a death. Psychological factors include the qualities of the relationship with the deceased, characteristics of the deceased, and the roles that the deceased occupied in life. Characteristics of the death are also a strong influence. One of these is the "death surround" (Rando, 1993, p. 32), which refers to not only the cause of and reasons for a death, which may influence funeral options such as a public viewing, but also the degree of involvement of the mourners in the dying process if the death was not sudden. The degree of preparation for the death is significant. In the case of anticipated deaths, opportunities for the open discussion of wishes and desires of the person who is dying may be available. A sudden, untimely death may preclude such an opportunity.

Physiological factors include the decision maker's physical health and the degree to which the person is getting adequate rest and sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If these basic needs are not being met, resulting impairment of cognitive and emotional functioning could create additional challenges during an already difficult time.

In addition to the cultural, ethnic, and generational characteristics of the deceased and the mourners and their religious, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs, social factors also influence this process. …