The Purpose of Funerals: Overview

Charles 11 Comments

The first in a major series of posts by guest blogger Jenny Uzell, scholar and undertaker

One of the highlights of the National Funeral Exhibition for me earlier this year (other than the chance to contemplate, yet again, the many ways in which my life has taken an unexpected turn for the bizarre) was hearing Charles speak about modern funerals. This was a memorable event, not least because of the determination required both to listen and, I imagine, speak, over the ambient noise of several hundred people on the other side of the frankly rather flimsy ‘walls’ doing whatever it was they were doing. It was, as you might expect, an erudite and thought provoking talk that led me to the sort of semi-professional navel gazing I have become used to after speaking to anyone involved in the GFG. 

One of the things he said particularly held my attention. He said that unless there is a clear affiliation to a particular faith, modern funerals have no clear purpose. That worried me a lot, because if funerals have no purpose, what on earth are we all doing wasting time, effort, money and a not inconsiderable amount of emotion on them! That’s not what he meant, of course. I know this because I asked him later. What he meant was that we often do not really know what the purpose of a funeral is. 

That is worrying as well. Over the years I have been a teacher, a teacher trainer and a senior examiner as well as, to my lasting surprise, an undertaker and the one thing that all of those roles have in common is that you cannot design something (a lesson; a training document; an exam paper) unless you are very clear indeed about what exactly it is that you are trying to achieve. Otherwise, how do you know if you did it well or not? We talk a great deal on this blog about ‘good’ funerals (odd that, on the Good Funeral Guide!) but what exactly is a ‘good funeral’? Aristotle had an interesting definition of ‘goodness’. He said that something is ‘good or fails to be ‘good’ to the extent to which it does or does not fulfil its final cause (loosely, ‘purpose’). So a ‘good’ knife is one that cuts well; a ‘good’ chair is one that is comfortable to sit in and does not deposit you unceremoniously on the floor; and a ‘good’ person (in case you were wondering) is one who lives up to his or her own innate potential; who is, to be all fluffy for a moment, ‘all that they can be’. By this measure a ‘good’ funeral is one that fulfils its purpose well. Annoyingly, this means that everyone involved in designing the funeral needs to have a common understanding of what that purpose is. 

Its one of those questions that we think we know the answer to. Its obvious what a funeral is for…until we really start to think about it at which point it becomes clear that there really isn’t an easy answer. There are many different purposes that a funeral can serve and just as every funeral will be different, so it will serve a different set of purposes. Unfortunately, the family of the person who has died (or the people responsible for organising the funeral) often are not clear in their own minds about what they want the funeral to achieve. It is therefore an important part of the role of any good funeral director and/or celebrant to be able, through talking to a family, to help them to understand what this particular funeral will be for. Of course each individual funeral will have more than a single purpose, and the different people responsible for it may have different purposes in mind. Understanding this can sometimes help to make the way forward clearer and to shed light on disagreements which may seem trivial but which are actually based on different assumptions about what the funeral is intended to do. 

So what is a funeral for? I think there are quite a number of different answers to this question and over the next few weeks, with Charles’ continued indulgence, I would like to explore each in turn in an attempt to see how well modern funerals do, might or even should fulfil them. Some are far more common than others and some are almost consigned to history: almost, but not quite. It goes without saying that ‘my’ list is by no means definitive and I am aware that others have written on this subject far more eloquently than I could hope to. Still I hope that my musings might be of interest to some and at least form a starting point for some interesting discussions.


  1. Charles

    Couldn’t resist this picture caption using Plato and Aristotle quotes:

    Plato: Death is not the worst that can happen to men.

    Aristotle: Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.

    1. Charles

      On the whole, Richard, I’m inclined to agree with both (which is quite a thing coming from death-phobic me!) I always struggled to ‘pick a side’ between Plato and Aristotle. Both talked a lot of sense and a lot of…not.
      What would be the Platonic Form of a coffin, I wonder? 🙂

  2. Charles

    Great idea Jenny and silk top hat off to you for tackling a question which, the more I think about it the more difficult it is.

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