Not the Funeral I Wanted

Author: Kenneth Doka

It is not surprising that researchers and psychologists emphasize the therapeutic role of funerals and memorial services. Funeral rituals can be highly therapeutic. Psychologically, they confirm the reality of death and offer survivors opportunities to “do something” at a difficult and disorganized time. Socially, they allow for a community of friends and families to offer support by hugging, embracing, and offering other physical connection – an arm to lean on, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to squeeze. Funerals give us special opportunities to share intimate feelings. These rituals allow reminiscing and the telling of stories that validate the life of the person who died. Spiritually, they remind us of the hopes and beliefs our faith communities speak to in these most difficult times. Military funerals offer even more validation. The Honor Guard, folding of the American flag and the other acts of such funerals underscore the nation’s respect and thanks for service and sacrifice. 

Yet, during the COVID-19 pandemic, funeral rituals are often “not what we wanted.” They may leave us feeling alone, empty, and shaken. They may not have occurred at all, or they may have been available only virtually. They may have stirred up intense feelings about other significant losses we have had, with no social outlet for those waves of grief. We may be one of 10 people in attendance, present but distant from others. Physical distancing and travel restrictions still limit the number of people at a funeral. The gifts of intimacy once present at funerals—the hugs, kisses, and touch—are starkly absent. Even if you are able to attend a funeral now, there are barriers that may derail their therapeutic role. Face coverings may protect us physically, but offer little help emotionally as they obscure the support you may need or the support you could give. Especially early in the pandemic, faith communities may have offered little or no opportunity to worship in their sanctuaries. And even as these sanctuaries open, the community of worshippers may be more limited.


poppy fieldPhoto courtesy of Iordache.


It is little wonder that many TAPS survivors have expressed disappointment with funerals during the pandemic as they have felt intense sorrow for both the death of a friend or loved one, remembrance of past loss, and the lack of these significant rituals that can provide so much support. 

Unfortunately, this creates a perilous paradox at this time because we may be needing the support once offered by funerals now more than ever. During the pandemic there are many issues that complicate grief such as any unfinished business, problems posed in the dying process, and concurrent crises posed by the pandemic like the loss of income or employment. Yet, traditional sources of social support evident in the funeral are not as viable as they once were.  

What can you do if the death experience is not the one you would have wanted? The first step is to assess what really bothered you about the funeral. If it was the very absence of a funeral, you may wish to plan a subsequent memorial service. Some faith systems may offer alternative opportunities to mourn together, such as anniversary masses or the unveiling or dedication of a memorial stone. 

If it is the lack of support, you may wish to hold a small gathering – perhaps a quiet dinner. Even a virtual meeting among family and friends can help create a support network. Whether it be a small in-person gathering or a Zoom meeting, you can create opportunities to reminisce, to share feelings, and to receive and offer support—to mourn together. 

Perhaps it is unfinished business—regrets that you did not have the ability to say some last meaningful words to the person who died. You may wish to create a ritual to do so. For example, you could read a letter to the deceased at the gravesite or even imagine the person sitting in an empty chair as you say what needed to be said. 

Sometimes, books about grief and TAPS seminars on grief can help us understand our feelings and reactions. You may also find confidantes with whom to share your grief— perhaps friends, peers, others in the TAPS community, family, or clergy. And, of course, even if they are offered remotely, TAPS support services in their many forms may be most useful. 

Most importantly, remember that even if a funeral is not what you wanted it to be, there are still things you can do to help make your memorial more meaningful. And always remember, the TAPS family is here to offer help and support.

Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., M.Div., is a TAPS Advisory Board Member and Senior Bereavement Consultant to Hospice Foundation of America. He is past president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling and is the 2019 recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr. Doka is a mental health counselor and ordained Lutheran minister.