Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Practical Bereavement

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Practical Bereavement

Article excerpt


With around 130,000 annual deaths, an estimated six million Australians experience the loss of a family member each year. Many of these mourners contribute to around 33 million visits per annum to some 2,300 cemeteries (Bachelor 2002:11). On average, around 90,000 mourners visit Australian cemeteries each day. Some are visiting recently deceased friend's memorials, but the vast majority are attending graves of close family members. They mainly visit within o few years of the death to help control personal grief. Less than a quarter of all cemetery visits are to attend a funeral and very few visits are found to occur for other reasons, such as leisure or heritage interests.

Cemeteries are virtual hives of activity by the recently bereaved and are among the most visited places in Australia. Some large urban memorial parks, with over two million annual visitors, are evidently more popular than most major tourist attractions (Bachelor 2001:43; 2002:11). Though bereavement is well recognised as the most psychologically and socially significant life event that most people ever experience, little consideration has been given to cemetery visitation; perhaps the most significant practical bereavement behaviour of most mourners and what is revealed as a crucial component of satisfactorily working through grief for millions of bereaved Australians.

Throughout the 1990s, the author coordinated complementary quantitative demographic visitation studies at major cemeteries throughout Australia, conducted extensive naturalistic observations at Australia's largest and most visited cemetery, and undertook in-depth qualitative ethnographic investigation with diverse mourners. The research was supervised and conducted in association with Charles Sturt University's Johnstone Centre for Social and Biophysical Environmental Research, and was supported by the Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association and over a dozen participating cemetery authorities, which collectively hosted almost 30% of Australian funerals.

The quantitative study employed a highly structured questionnaire with some 3,000 respondents visiting major cemeteries in all States (and the Australian Capital Territory), while the Bereavement Study involved a series of semistructured in-depth interviews to reveal qualitative personal experiences from mourners of diverse social and cultural backgrounds, and representing various relationships. Naturalistic observations included unobtrusively observing the natural behaviours of thousands of visitors, recording the quantities of visitors of each sex visiting graves and memorials, the durations of these visits and numbers of mourners participating in funerals. Methodologies employed are detailed in Bachelor 2004.

The term 'grief work', first proposed by Freud (1917), remains an important concept in recent bereavement literature (Worden 1982; Attig 1996; Parkes 1996). And according to Worden, the first task of mourning is to accept the reality of the loss. In the Australian qualitative bereavement study, the funeral was reported by several informants as being of great importance in this respect. However, a significantly greater proportion of cemetery visitors evidently constitute mourners working through Worden's subsequent tasks (i.e. working through the pain of grief, adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing, and emotionally relocating the deceased and moving on with life). These tasks, at least in some cases, correlate to self-reported, initially-frequent then diminishing cemetery visitation.

Parkes also notes that grief work includes an attempt to make sense of the loss, to fit it into one's set of assumptions about the world (one's 'assumptive world) or to modify those assumptions if need be (Parkes 1996:78). He further suggests that attempts to make sense of what has happened 'would seem to be one way of restoring what is lost, by fitting its absence into some superordinate pattern'; but considers, if these attempts do not succeed 'then the preoccupation will increase and may indeed become obsessive' (Parkes 1996:78). …

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