The Basics of Funeral Service

The Basics of Funeral Service


 Curtis D. Rostad, CFSP


History of Funeral Customs

History of Embalming

The Psychology of Death

The Purpose of the Funeral



A football? Why is there a football in the intro? What does that have to do with funeral service? 

It comes from a story about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers. 

Each year he would gather his players for training camp. In front of him sat some of the best athletes in the world. They had played football since they were children. They were some of the highest paid athletes of their day and some of them are now in the Football Hall of Fame. 

And the coach would stand up in front of them, hold up a football, and say, "Gentlemen, this is a football." 

He certainly did not have to tell these men what this object was. He was not trying to demean or belittle them. He was simply making the point that they were going to go back to the basics. 

And that is my intent. Go back to the basics. 

This book contains nothing about laws, regulations, government compliance issues, pre-arrangement, merchandising, business management, etc. While these are valid concerns of the modern funeral director, they go beyond the scope of what is intended here. 

This book talks only about the funeral. 

This book is written especially for funeral directors, clergy, and pre-arrangement counselors. 

It is meant to be a learning tool and as a reminder of why we do what we do.

History of Funeral Customs 

 I. Early Funeral Rites

The history of funeral service is a history of mankind. Funeral customs are as old as civilization itself.

Every culture and civilization attends to the proper care of their dead. Every culture and civilization ever studied has three things in common relating to death and the disposition of the dead:

  • Some type of funeral rites, rituals, and ceremonies
  • A sacred place for the dead
  • Memorialization of the dead

Researchers have found burial grounds of Neanderthal man dating to 60,000 BC with animal antlers on the body and flower fragments next to the corpse indicating some type of ritual and gifts of remembrance.

With no great psychological knowledge or custom to draw from, Neanderthal man instinctively buried their dead with ritual and ceremony.


II. The Role of Fear

Primitive man lived in a world of fear. He reacted to most natural phenomena such as weather events based on that fear.

He eventually attributed many life events to his instinctive knowledge of a higher being or power. In his primitive mind, live and death events were the acts of spirits. Since he was not able to see or sense these spirits, he lived in a world of terror.

In an effort to enact some type of truce with these "gods" or "spirits," man devised charms, ceremonies and rituals to placate these spirits.

Although we may find ancient burial customs to be strange or in some cases repugnant, they obviously arose for a reason.

The first burial customs then, were crude efforts to protect the living from the spirits which caused the death of the person.

Fear of the dead caused the burning of bodies to destroy evil spirits.

Many primitive tribes even today simply run away from their dead, leaving them to rot.

Zoroastrians similarly allow their dead to simply rot or be devoured by vultures. They consider fire to be too sacred to be put to use disposing of the dead and burial is thought to be a defilement and injury to mother earth.

Others place the body deep in the jungle to be devoured by wild beasts. In Tibet and among the Kamchatkan Indians, dogs are used for this purpose because they believe that those eaten by dogs will be better off in the other world.

Herodotus tells us that the Calatians ate their own dead. It was considered a sacred honor and duty of the family. Queen Artemisia supposedly mixed the ashes of her beloved with wine and drank it.

To this day, certain African tribes are known to grind the bones of their dead and mingle them with their food.

The Zulus burn all of the belongings of the deceased to prevent the evil spirits from even hovering in the vicinity.

Some tribes would set up a ring of fire around the bodies of their dead to singe the wings of the spirits and prevent them from attacking other members of the community.

Other tribes would throw spears and arrows into the air to kill hovering spirits or would eat bitter herbs to drive away or kill spirits that may have already invaded their bodies.


III. The Role of Religion

This fear of the dead carried over into what was developing into religious thought.

The Polynesian word tabu expressed the view that a person or thing coming into contact with the dead was set apart and shunned for a religious or quasi-religious reason.

In English this thought is rendered "defilement" or "pollution."

To most people a dead body is indeed taboo.

In Hebrew belief, the dead were considered unclean and anyone who came in contact with the dead were declared unclean.

"Whosoever is unclean by the dead shall be put outside the camp, that they defile not the camp in the midst of which the Lord dwells." 

Numbers 5:2 

In old Persian scriptures, a similar taboo is expressed. Anyone who touched a dead body was "powerless in mind, tongue, and hand." This paralysis was inflicted by the evil spirits which were associated with the dead body.

Sacrifices of one kind or another were also offered in honor of the dead. In some cases their purpose was again, to appease the spirits.

In some cultures, these sacrifices were meant to be used by the deceased in the future world.

Self-mutilation, such as the cutting off of toes or fingers was another type of sacrificial sign of respect for the deceased.

Suicide was considered the ultimate show of respect and sacrifice in some cultures.

The sacrifice of dogs, horses and slaves was common in Africa after the death of a king.

In Japan, it was the custom to insist that twenty or thirty slaves commit Hara Kiri at the death of a nobleman.

In Fiji it was considered correct for the friends of the deceased as well as his wives and slaves to be strangled.

Probably the strangest rite was practiced among the Hindu in India prior to being outlawed by the British. The practice was known as suttee, or wife burning. The wife of the deceased was expected to dress herself in her finest clothing and lie down by the side of her deceased husband on the funeral pyre to be cremated alive. The eldest son then lit the pyre.


IV. Funeral Customs by Gender 

In many cultures, men and women were treated differently at death. Among them:

  • The Cochieans buried their women, but suspended their men from trees.
  • The Ghonds buried their women but cremated their men.
  • The Bongas buried their men with their faces to the North and their women with their faces to the South.


V. Modern Funeral Customs 

We would like to think that in these modern times, our state of enlightenment would have totally dispensed with such thinking, but such is not the case.

Even today, death is approached from a standpoint of fear.

Many of our funeral customs have their historical basis in pagan rituals. 

  • Modern mourning clothing came from the custom of wearing special clothing as a disguise to hide identity from returning spirits. Pagans believed that returning spirits would fail to recognize them in their new attire and would be confused and overlook them.
  • Covering the face of the deceased with a sheet stems from pagan tribes who believed that the spirit of the deceased escaped through the mouth. They would often hold the mouth and nose of a sick person shut, hoping to retain the spirits and delay death.
  • Feasting and gatherings associated with the funeral began as an essential part of the primitive funeral where food offerings were made.
  • Wakes held today come from ancient customs of keeping watch over the deceased hoping that life would return.
  • The lighting of candles comes from the use of fire mentioned earlier in attempts to protect the living from the spirits.
  • The practice of ringing bells comes from the common medieval belief that the spirits would be kept at bay by the ringing of a consecrated bell.
  • The firing of a rifle volley over the deceased mirrors the tribal practice of throwing spears into the air to ward off spirits hovering over the deceased.
  • Originally, holy water was sprinkled on the body to protect it from the demons.
  • Floral offerings were originally intended to gain favor with the spirit of the deceased.
  • Funeral music had its origins in the ancient chants designed to placate the spirits.

History of Embalming 

I. Beginnings in Egypt

Egypt is credited with being the land where embalming began.

During the period from 6000 BC to 600 AD approximately 400,000,000 bodies were mummified.

Embalming in Egypt was done for two reasons:


Greek historian Herodotus maintained that the Egyptians were the first people to believe in the immortality of the soul.  They believed that the soul would never fully forsake the body as long as the body remained intact.  Embalming was for the purpose of preserving the body so that the soul could return to it after the completion of the "circle of necessity."

This "circle of necessity" was a 3,000 year journey the soul was required to make before it could return to the body. At that time, the whole man would arise from the dead and live with the gods forever.


The writer Cassius maintained that embalming was developed to provide a solution to the problem of trying to bury the dead in the Nile valley which would be inundated on a frequent basis. The Egyptians apparently also noted that this unsanitary condition caused more deaths.


II. The Egyptian Embalming Method

The Egyptian embalmers were members of the priesthood. Some believe that their embalming method is a "lost art" but in fact it was rather crude and rather than lost, well known and documented.

Much of their success was undoubtedly due to the dry hot climate. Dead bodies are destroyed by the action of bacteria. Heat and lack of moisture are natural enemies to bacterial survival and growth.

The Egyptians practiced three methods of embalming based upon the wealth of the individual. The most expensive method was comprised of 5 steps and would cost over $2,000 in today’s dollars. The cheapest would have cost about $150.

  • Step 1 – Removal of the brain. The skull was then repacked with resin.
  • Step 2 – Evisceration. The internal organs were removed through an abdominal incision. The organs were either washed and mixed with resins and spices and returned to the body or were placed in separate burial vases called canopic jars.
  • Step 3 – Immersion. The body was immersed in natron (sodium salt). The caustic action of the solution would cause the fingernails and toe nails to be removed. They were replaced in keeping with the belief that the body must be intact 3,000 later. This immersion lasted for 20-70 days.
  • Step 4 – Dehydration. The body was cleansed, straightened and allowed to dehydrate in the sun.
  • Step 5 – Wrapping. About 1200 yards of 3 1/4 inch bandage was used to wrap the body. Gum or glue held the cloth together and helped in fitting it around the body while it was still damp. The body was then placed in a sarcophagus and returned to the family.

The cheapest method was reserved for the poorest class of people which made up about 80% of the Egyptian population. It basically consisted of immersion in the natron solution.

Within a walled suburb known as the Necropolis (Literally, "City of the dead") all death care activities took place. Within these walls resided all those involved in these activities including coffin makers, artists, and the embalmers. Also located here were the crypts and tombs. 

III. Other Early Practices

  • The Egyptians were not the only people to practice some type of preservation of the dead.
  • Ancient Ethiopian tribes preserved their dead in a manner similar to the Egyptians.
  • Aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands from 900 BC practiced mummification of their dead.
  • Babylonians, Persians, and Syrians preserved their dead by placing them in jars of honey or wax. By depriving the bacteria in the body of air, decomposition was prevented.
  • Peruvians practiced mummification 1000 years prior to being conquered by Spain in the early 16th century.
  • Jewish custom is for simplicity. Embalming and cremation were generally not allowed because they were seen as mutilation of the body. As seen in the scriptures, preparation for burial consisted of wrapping the body and the application of oils and spices.
  • The Greeks believed that the deceased must make a journey across the river Styx to the land of eternity. A coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased to pay passage over the river. A cake of honey was placed next to the body to appease the three headed dog, Cerebus, who guarded the entrance to Hades. Interment was delayed three days to prevent premature burial. Cremation came into practice in about 300 BC.
  • The Romans also did not practice embalming as such. The body would be washed daily for seven days with hot water and oil. This delay also was to prevent premature burial. A group of slaves called pollinctores performed this function. Funeral processions were held at night to avoid defilement of the living. The procession was managed by a Designator, who functioned much like the modern day funeral director. Burial later gave way to cremation. At one point cremation was forbidden within the gates of Rome because of the smoke pollution of so many bodies being burned at once.


V. Early Christian Customs

The early Christians derived their burial customs from the Greeks, Romans, and Jews. They followed the strong Jewish tradition of burial with no embalming. The sacred status of burial grounds was upheld.


VI. Influence of Scientific Developments

During the "dark ages" in Europe, embalming was generally not practiced. During this period, great advances were being made in medicine and bodies were needed for dissection purposes. For this sole purpose, some embalming was done and techniques perfected.

Also during this time, discoveries made in the world of medicine would have a great influence in the development of modern embalming technique.

  • Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519) produced hundreds of anatomical plates as a result of his dissection of the human body. He undoubtedly used arterial injection to preserve his specimens.
  • Dr. Frederick Ruysch (1665-1717) is generally considered the father of embalming with his discovery of the first successful system of arterial embalming.
  • Dr. William Harvey (1578-1657) was the English physician who discovered the circulation of blood.
  • Dr. William Hunter (1718-1783) is credited with being the first to successfully adopt arterial injection as a means of preservation.
  • Jean Gannal (1791-1882) began as an apothecary’s assistant and became the first to offer embalming to the French general public.
    Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) manufactured the microscope and discovered bacteria in 1683.
  • Alexander Butlerov (1828-1866) and Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818-1892) are credited with the discovery of formaldehyde.
  • Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1900 is generally considered the father of modern embalming. He experimented with preservative chemicals while working as a coroner’s assistant in New York and later began offering his services to the public.


VII. Early American Embalming

Modern embalming really got its start during the Civil War period. Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission as a captain in the Army Medical Corps and was assigned to Washington, D.C. where he embalmed many army officers killed in battle. He reportedly embalmed over 4000 soldiers and officers.

President Lincoln took a great interest in embalming and directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize embalming to allow the return of Union dead to their home towns for proper burial.

When he realized the commercial potential of embalming, Holmes resigned his commission and began offering embalming to the public for $100.

After the Civil War, embalming fell into disuse because of lack of demand and few to do the procedure. The "undertakers" of the day limited their efforts to ice to ward off decomposition long enough to have a funeral.

VIII. Twentieth Century Practices

By the turn of the century, wooden coffins were being made to order by the local carpenter or cabinet maker. A few even made coffins beforehand but met with criticism by the public for their boldness.

The cabinetmaker rarely became involved in any aspect of the funeral other than providing the coffin. Even the conveyance of the deceased was done by someone else, the livery man.

With the passing of time, these men became more and more involved in providing other services and advise to those planning the funeral.

Eventually the person who would "undertake" to manage all funeral details and provide funeral merchandise became known as an "undertaker." He eventually obtained and provided all the necessary items for the funeral including the hearse, door badges, coffin rests, etc.

Once it became possible for the undertaker to provide embalming services, the haste was taken out of the burial process and people were given ample time to arrange and prepare for the funeral.

The first embalming preparations were arsenic solutions that were rapidly replaced when formaldehyde became available. Representatives for embalming fluid companies would travel the country presenting one or two day schools of instruction in the use of their product. For attending these classes and purchasing a quantity of fluid, an undertaker received a certificate as an embalmer. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that state licensing became almost universal.

While this education seems wholly inadequate, it should be remembered that physicians and dentists of the day did not have much education either prior to practicing their profession.

From the cabinetmaker who simply supplied a coffin, the funeral director today provides over 130 separate services to a family.

Modern Embalming

The modern method of embalming is defined as the disinfection of preservation of the dead human body.

It is performed for three reasons.

  • The primary purpose of embalming is disinfection. While some pathogens die soon after the death of the host, it is also true that many dangerous organisms have the ability to survive for long periods of time in dead tissues. Persons coming in direct contact with the unembalmed body can become infected as well as there being the possibility of flies or other agents transferring pathogens to humans and infecting them.
  • The second purpose of embalming is preservation. The prevention of putrefaction and decomposition allows the disposition of the remains by burial, cremation, or entombment to take place without the odors or other unpleasantness that would accompany an uncared for remains.
  • The third purpose of embalming is restoration. Returning the body to a life-like appearance has received many critics, but the custom of viewing the body after death in a state of rest remains a practice of proven psychological worth.

The modern embalming process is designed to retard tissue decomposition for the period of time necessary for disposition as arranged for by the family of the deceased. Under favorable conditions however, modern embalming has been shown to be able to keep a body intact for decades.

Rather than prevent the body from returning to its natural elements, embalming allows the body to decompose by oxidation and dissolution rather than by putrefaction or rotting.

Embalming is accomplished by a chemical "fixation" of the cell protein. Formaldehyde basically reacts with the soluble albumins in the cell and converts them to albuminoids or gels. At the same time, the bacteria are destroyed, thus halting or at least delaying decomposition. Once embalming is properly completed, the body can only be attacked by air-borne bacteria and molds that can eventually destroy the body exposed to air if sufficient moisture is present to support bacterial and mold growth.

In modern embalming then, an embalming fluid that is both a disinfectant and a preservative is injected into the circulatory system of the body by an electric pump while the blood is forced out of the body and disposed of. In effect, the blood is replaced with a disinfectant and preservative solution.

The normal steps to preparation of the body consists of:

  • The body is placed in a proper position on the embalming table with the arms laid over the stomach.
  • The body is washed and disinfected.
  • The face is shaved as necessary.
  • The eyes are closed. This is usually accomplished with a small curved plastic disc called an "eye cap" placed under the eyelid. Perforations in the cap help hold the eye lid in place.
  • The mouth is closed. This is usually accomplished by the placing of a specially designed "tack" in the upper and lower jaw. Each tack has a fine wire attached. By twisting the two wires together, the jaw is thus closed and the lips are set to the natural lip line using a cream to retain the proper position and to prevent dehydration.
  • The embalming solution is prepared. The modern embalming machine consists of a 2-3 gallon reservoir and an electric pump. A solution of approximately 8 ounces of fluid to 1 gallon water is prepared.
  • An incision is made over the carotid artery (where the neck meets the shoulder) or over the femoral artery (in the leg at the groin). The artery and vein are located and isolated.
  • A tube which is attached to the machine is inserted into the artery. A slightly larger tube is placed into the accompanying vein. This tube is attached to a hose to the sewer system.
  • The fluid is injected into the artery under pressure by the embalming machine. As the blood is displaced by the fluid going in, it is forced out of the vein tube and disposed of. The pressure forces the embalming fluid into the capillaries and eventually to the cells of the body. After approximately 3 gallons of solution are injected into the body, the blood has thinned and the fluid coming through the vein tube is mostly embalming fluid.
  • The tubes are removed and the incision sutured.
  • The abdominal cavity is treated by the use of a hollow tube called a trocar that is used to aspirate gases and liquid contents under suction. A preservative chemical is introduced.
  • The body is again washed and cream is placed on the hands and face to prevent dehydration.
  • The hair is shampooed and the finger nails cleaned.
  • The body is covered with a sheet awaiting dressing and placement in the casket.
  • Cosmetics are later applied to replace the natural color removed by the embalming process, much of which is created by blood in facial capillaries that is no longer present. In the case of women, cosmetics used in life may also be used to recreate the "look" the person had during life. The hair is combed or set.

The Psychology of Death

I. Reaction to Death

As previously noted, primitive man's reaction to death was one of fear.

In this enlightened age, man still reacts to death with fear. 

Death is still an unknown. No one obviously, has ever died and returned to tell us what death is really like. Man naturally fears what he does not understand and cannot control. 

The so-called "near-death" experience is still not a death experience. We can never know exactly what death is, so we can never fully understand it. 

Therefore we can never stop totally from fearing it. 

Much of our response to death is avoidance. Death is not a pleasant topic of conversation. When death must be talked about, it is usually done in academic terms. 

Talking about death on a personal level creates discomfort. It is much easier to talk about death in terms of, "People die," rather than in terms of, "Someday I will die." 

Within the last 20 years or so, much has been written about death and dying. At times it seemed like everyone who has suffered a loss was writing a book about it.

Each death is unique and therefore each person's experience is unique. That makes much of the material available unusable for another person experiencing a loss through death. 

Indeed some of the advice available becomes contradictory simply because each person must deal with their own grief in their own way. 


II. The "Grief-Cycle" 

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist did landmark work with the terminally ill patient in the 1960's which resulted in the establishment of a "cycle" that she found each patient went through upon learning of their imminent death. 

  • The first reaction was shock. The universal first reaction to hearing the news was, "No."
  • The second stage that quickly followed was denial. “This can't be happening to me."
  • The third stage was anger. This anger was usually directed at God, nature, or luck, but needed to be understood by the family because it usually became directed at them at some point.
  • The fourth stage was bargaining. The patient typically hoped that God would extend their life or cure them in exchange for  promised behavior.
  • The fifth stage was grieving. This is usually the longest lasting stage of the cycle and is marked by deep depression and mood changes.
  • The final stage was acceptance. Once this stage is reached, the patient usually used whatever time remaining to "put their house in order." There was a marked peace in the patient's mood. Death was not a feared event.

A similar "grief-cycle" has also been developed that describes the stages a person goes through upon the death of a family member or close friend. It is really more accurate to use the word "phases" because people do not go through the grief process in an orderly manner.  

  • The first phase is shock. Similar to learning of a terminal illness, the first reaction of a person who is told that a loved one has died is, "No." A feeling of numbness sets in. Some people simply say that life seems unreal.
  • The second phase is denial. We are a death denying society. Even our language tends to deny the reality of death by using  terms such as "passed away" instead of the word "dead." We want to deny that death has taken place. In the denial phase, people hope that it isn't true. They may feel like this is just a bad dream and when they wake up, everything will be all right. However, healing from grief cannot take place until the person is past this step and has accepted the reality of death.
  • The third phase is anger. Once our minds accept the fact that death has indeed taken place, anger usually erupts. Again, this anger may be directed at God (which for a religious person results in a feeling of guilt for feeling that way about the Almighty) or it may be directed to doctors, medicine in general, another family member or even directed inwards ("If only I had…"). Again, guilt enters. Anger may also be directed at the world in general. "How can everyone just go about their business when such a tragedy has just happened?"
  • The fourth phase is mourning. This is usually the longest lasting phase. It can last for months or years. It may be characterized by feelings of depression, continued guilt, physical illness, loneliness, panic, and periods of crying triggered for no apparent reason.
  • The fifth phase is recovery. Some would not call this phase recovery, because it can be said that one never "recovers" from a death. Death changes our lives forever. Things will never be "right" again. Although the pain of death will diminish in time, it never goes away. We will always long for a person we truly loved. But at some point, we usually find ourselves re-establishing our lives and moving on. That is seen in this phase.

There are several problems with the "grief-cycle." First, it tends to over-simplify the grief process. Stages or phases overlap. A person can exhibit anger without leaving the denial stage. Real-life grief is not as neat as the cycle would seem to indicate.

People whose grief experience does not fit nicely into the "mold" are thought (or may think of themselves) as abnormal. But as stated earlier, each death is unique, each person is unique, and therefore, each person’s reaction to it will also be unique. 

In addition, grief is not really a cycle. A cycle implies that you return to the beginning which was a "normal" life as it was prior to the death. Of course this is not true. Life will never be the same again. 

Additional landmark work in the area of understanding grief was done by Dr. Eric Lindemann, who identified six "stages" of grieving during the acute grief stage that his research showed to last for 2-5 years.  

  • Somatic Distress (Comes in waves and lasts 20-60 minutes)
  • Tightness of the throat
  • Choking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sighing
  • Empty feeling in the stomach
  • Loss of strength
  • Tension
  • Hallucinations (Actually see the deceased or sense presence)
  • Sense of unreality
  • Restlessness
  • Aimlessness
  • Loss of concentration
  • Assume traits of the deceased
  • Show signs of last illness of deceased
  • Pre-occupation with the deceased Guilt
  • Hostility
  • Changes in patterns of conduct
  • Identification with the deceased


III. Normal Grief 

As previously noted, every person must grieve in their own way. 

Grief is seen as a process. It is long-lasting and does not follow a fixed pattern.

Grief has also been termed "work." A person must "work-through" their own grief. Anyone who has been through grief knows that it is indeed "work." 

Grief hurts. When we refer to the pain of grief, that pain is very real. 

Grief is a hurt. Just as one must heal from a physical wound, one must also heal from the emotional and psychological wound known as grief. 

Grief can become physical. Many real physical diseases and conditions can be traced to grief as a cause. 

One author compares grief to peeling an onion. "It comes in layers, and you cry a lot." 

Grief is very personal. Everyone must heal in their own way in their own time. There is no magical point on the calendar when grief is over. 

While everyone's reaction to death is different, the following general statements can be made to the person experiencing a death.  

  • Accept advice with caution. Everyone will have advice for you. Someone will say, "Don’t try to run away from the death by taking a trip, it won’t help." Someone else will advise you to "Get away for a few weeks." Accept it as an honest attempt at caring, but do what you feel is right for you. There are few if any "rights" and "wrongs" when it comes to grieving.
  • Accept your emotions. You may feel all of the emotions previously mentioned-- panic, guilt, anger, etc. and many others. These      are normal reactions to death.
  • Forgive others. Many will say, "Call me if I can do anything." And then they quickly go about their business like nothing has happened. They leave you alone to your grief. Life has returned to normal for them much quicker than it has for you.
  • Accept platitudes as sincere but misguided expressions of sympathy. "I know how you feel." is a lie of course. No one knows how you feel. You want to scream that this is not God's will. He or she is not better off. And if just one more person tells you can have another child after you just lost this one, you will choke them.
  • Express your emotions. While many of your friends may feel uncomfortable around you when you want to talk about the death, the deceased, or your feelings, feel free to do so anyway. Find a good friend that will listen. If necessary, talk to your pastor, priest or other religious person, your doctor, your funeral director, or a professional counselor.
  • Cry. Tears are said to be the "pressure release valve of the soul." Screaming is okay too. Punch a pillow. Emotions kept inside are a poison.
  • Grieve in your own way. Don't allow others to tell you what you should feel or discourage you from expressing it.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. Neither will speed the process or ease the pain.
  • Watch your diet. Stay healthy by eating healthy, even when you don’t feel like it.
  • Get your rest.
  • Do things. Even routine chores will help get your life started again, as it must. Get out. Take a walk. Go to a movie. Laugh.
  • Be prepared for set-backs. Just when you think you might be making headway, you will suddenly break down crying. It’s okay. It’s  normal.
  • The only "cure" for grief is time. Grief can last for 1-2 years or more. Don’t expect to be "over it" in 3 months, six months or a year, just because someone thinks you should be.
  • Seek out others. Support groups are available for those suffering a loss. Groups are also available for those suffering a particular type of loss such as the loss of a child, death by suicide, etc. No one knows exactly how you feel, but others are going through some of the same things you are. They can be of great comfort and support. 


III. Abnormal Grief 

Many people think they are having a serious mental illness because of what they might be experiencing. Generally, as long as a person is "progressing" through the various phases of grief, they will be okay. Most reactions to grief are considered normal unless they become all-consuming or last for an extended period of time. Persons in this position should seek or be advised to seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional. 

For instance, thoughts of suicide are normal. Serious contemplation is not normal.

Feelings of hopelessness are normal. If weeks or months pass with no change, assistance should be sought. There is hope. Life is worth living. 

Depression is normal. Depression over a period of weeks or months with no signs of improvement is not normal. 

Imagining seeing or hearing the deceased is normal. If these occurrences continue and become consuming, professional help should be considered. 

Hesitation in or delaying the disposal of the deceased’s clothing or possessions is normal. Trying to maintain their room "as it was" forever is a sign of denial of the death. True healing cannot take place in such an environment. Professional assistance should be considered when this hesitation or delay turns into refusal to ever do this unwelcome but necessary task. 

Everyone wants to be left alone once in a while. A grieving person may show no emotion for a period of time. This is normal. If this persists however, it may be a sign that the person is in need of "getting going" again and professional assistance may be necessary. 


IV. Children and Grief 

Children suffer from death much like adults, but with even less understanding.

When dealing with children, it is important to realize that they probably know more than what we give them credit for. 

While parents naturally want to "protect" their children from hurt, even the youngest child knows that something is terribly wrong and wants to know why everyone is crying. 

Such overprotection only serves to rob the child of an opportunity to develop coping skills necessary later on in life, when no parent can protect them from grief because it is the parent who has died. 

Preschoolers generally view death as temporary. They play games where someone is "dead’ and then gets back up again. 

Children ages 5-9 generally view death as permanent, final, and universal. They tend to personify death as a person or ghost that carries off people. (So do some adults.) 

Children from age 10 and up into their teens may show an unwillingness to talk about their feelings. Being young, they believe that death is a long ways off and rarely consider it on a personal level. 

To help a child deal with a death:

  • Be open to their questions. Answer them truthfully and as completely as possible, given the age of the child. If you don’t know the  answer, just say so.
  • Include the child. If they want to attend the funeral, let them. If they want to view the body with the rest of the family, let them. Make them feel a part of the family. Do not however, force them to participate in things they do want to participate in.
  • Avoid euphemisms. The person did not "pass away" they died. The person is not "lost."
  • Watch your terminology. Do not equate death with a journey. The person may fear a parent going away on a trip for fear they will never return. Do not equate death with sleep or the child may be afraid to go to bed. Do not say the person is "with Jesus" without further explanation. The child may hate Jesus for taking their grandparent away from them or be mad at the grandparent for leaving them to go to be with Jesus.
  • Make sure the child understands the difference between minor illness and fatal illness. The child may think they will die the next time they get a cold.
  • Accept attempts at humor. We all react to situations of stress with laughter at times. Accept this also from the child. Accept all expressions without criticism.
  • Give the child affection. Don’t allow them to feel they are being abandoned, especially at the loss of a parent. Assure the child that they are loved and will be cared for.
  • Explain things as you go along. Don’t expect the child to have all the questions let alone all the answers. 



One particular cause of death deserves special mention—SIDS.

SIDS stands for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

SIDS is the sudden unexpected death of an apparently healthy infant whose death remains unexplained after a thorough investigation and autopsy.

SIDS may initially be treated as a case of suspected abuse. This further traumatizes the parents. In fact, the child is dead for no apparent reason and with no fault.

It commonly strikes infants from 2 weeks to 1 year of age. The peak incidence is between 2-4 months of age. It is estimated that 6,500 to 8,000 babies a year die of SIDS which is a rate of 1-3 per 1,000 births.  

While we do not know what SIDS is, we do know what it is not.  

  • SIDS is not neglect or abuse. It cannot be predicted or prevented.
  • SIDS is not suffocation, aspiration, regurgitation, pneumonia, or heart attack.
  • SIDS is not prevented or eliminated by any type of baby care such as nursing or bottle-feeding, use of disposable diapers or cloth diapers, or keeping the baby too warm or too chilled.
  • SIDS shows no regards for socio-economic status or race. It is not hereditary or contagious.
  • SIDS does not effect a subsequent sibling at a higher rate than any other child. 

Researchers have identified some "high-risk" babies whose breathing has stopped and were immediately revived by parents or medical personnel and have placed these babies on monitors to alert the parents that the child has stopped breathing, but this does not explain why a child would suddenly stop breathing in the first place. 

Placing all babies on these monitors to prevent SIDS is not only financially impractical, but many doctors feel that it would place the parents in an unnecessary constant state of emotional tension. It is also not determined that these periods of breathing stoppages are necessarily SIDS or SIDS related. 

Researchers have also noted a decrease in the incidence of SIDS when babies are put to sleep on their backs as opposed to the common practice of placing babies on their stomachs. While this appears to decrease the incidence of SIDS it does not eliminate it or explain it. 

Those who deal with a family who have suffered the loss of a baby due to SIDS must be especially understanding and avoid any words or actions that might be interpreted by the parents as expressing thoughts of blame or suspicion.

Due to the mysterious nature of SIDS, those dealing with this family can also expect intense emotions even beyond that expected at the loss of a child.

The Purpose of the Funeral

Once we see and understand how we deal with death, it is time to consider how the funeral enters into this process. The funeral serves many purposes but is best expressed in the following statements. 

The funeral:

  • Helps confirm the reality and finality of death.
  • Provides a climate of mourning and the expression of grief.
  • Allows the sorrows of one to become the sorrows of all.
  • Is the only time when love is given and not expected in return.
  • Is a vehicle for the community to pay its respects.
  • Encourages the affirmation of religious faith.
  • Is a declaration that a life has been lived, as well as a sociological statement that a death has occurred.


The funeral allows people to remember and honor their loved one in a special way.

It serves as a central gathering place for family and friends to give emotional support to one another. 

It encourages mourners to face the pain of their loss and
express their thoughts and feelings

It helps the survivors to better cope with their grief and enables them to move forward in their lives. 

It initiates the grief process while bringing closure to the death.

When we speak of the funeral we should define it in the terms of today. Many picture the funeral as an exclusively religious event with the body present in the casket followed by earth interment. 

By funeral we mean the post-death activities that may include any type of meaningful ceremony to commemorate the life of the deceased.  

  • While affirming the comfort and solace many find in the rites of their church, we also acknowledge that religious services may be  inappropriate for those who do not have a religious affiliation.
  • The funeral should meet the needs of the family. The service, whether religious in nature or not, may include personal reading, stories, or anecdotes about the deceased, eulogies by family members, and musical numbers of meaning to the family.
  • While we affirm the value of the viewing of the remains as a means to confirm the reality of death, we also acknowledge that the family has the right to arrange whatever type of services they feel would be meaningful to them.

At the same time, we would encourage the family to consider other relatives and friends in the planning of post-death activities. 

  • We believe that death is both a private and a public matter.  While the death of a family member is a very personal loss, that death also effects distant family, friends, and the community at large.
  • Families who might not see the value in a service or desire "private" services should be urged to consider the needs of others to express their own grief at the loss of this person.

While the immediate family may or may not wish to view the body, they should be encouraged to make reasonable accommodation for others.

This might include leaving the casket closed at times when those who do not wish to view are present as well as arranging a period of viewing for others even if the immediate family does not wish to view the remains.

  • While some would view the visitation and funeral as a painful experience and would thus want to avoid it, it is in reality a first step towards healing. Even the very act of arranging for funeral services can be thought of as therapeutic in that the grieving person is engaged in meaningful activities that forces them to communicate, make decisions, and interact with others.

It has been illustrated by comparison to having an aching tooth (With due recognition of the much more serious nature of death). Going to the dentist can be as painful as the toothache, but once the dental procedure is completed, healing takes place and pain subsides.

Rather than a pain to be avoided, the visitation and funeral should be looked at as a first step towards healing with the comfort and support of family and friends. 

  • We acknowledge that cremation is an alternative to earth burial or entombment as a form of disposition of the body. It does not and should not be thought of as an alternative to having a funeral service.
  • We must not allow our own preferences concerning viewing, services, or disposition to become communicated to the family to influence them in their decision making.

While it is a part of our service to a family to advise them in such matters, our advice should consist of factual information free of our personal prejudices.

  • Finally, we believe that the funeral has a dual role. The funeral serves both the living and the dead

The funeral is for the living. It provides a means of saying farewell.

The funeral is for the respectful disposition of the dead. No successful civilization has ever existed that simply discarded their dead. 


"Show me   the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with   mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for   the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals."

Sir William Gladstone