What is a funeral for?

A tea tray, flowers and candles left outside Buckingham Palace in tribute to Queen Elizabeth II

Five minute read

In September 2022, as thousands of mourners came to London to pay their respects around the Queen's state funeral, our founder Poppy Mardall explored what funerals are for and why they matter.

Most of what we do when someone dies — our rituals and processes — we do because we want and need to. There are practical considerations — registering the death and burying or cremating the person — but everything else is a choice, rather than a legal requirement.

Funeral ceremonies meet our emotional needs

For thousands of years, we have gathered together for funeral ceremonies because they meet our emotional needs. We need to connect with other grieving people. We need to come together to support one another and to validate each other’s feelings. We need to feel we have ‘done the right thing’ for the person who has died, whatever that means for us.

The ceremony also gives us the chance to connect meaningfully with the person who has died. To say goodbye to them, to look at the coffin or shroud and to start to wrap our brains around the fact that we won't see or hold that person again. Instead, we need to build a new relationship with them in our hearts and minds, based on memory and love.

On a more abstract level, death and funerals can prompt us to think more deeply about how we’re living our lives. They can be a moment to connect with nature and the cycles of life, to pause in our busy lives to think and feel more deeply, in the knowledge that we will all share the same end.

The importance of saying goodbye

It is natural that when a prominent and influential public figure dies, someone that hundreds, thousands or millions of people may be grieving for in different ways, there will be a multitude of conflicting needs.

Whether close friends, family, supporters, fans or subjects, all of these people need some kind of ritual or ceremony to process their feelings. We know from our recent experiences during the pandemic — when so many people were not able to say goodbye — how traumatic and disruptive it can be when we cannot do what we need to do.

At Poppy’s, we have cared for people who led public lives. We have ensured that the needs of their family and friends, as well as the wider public, are met. The formal, public funeral ceremony is vitally important in honouring the public life. We can and do facilitate that beautifully.

We have also seen how powerful it can be to have another ceremony, as well as the public memorial — often something lighter, more colourful and more informal. This enables close friends and family to celebrate and remember the other side of the life lived.

We have held very intimate ceremonies in our Friends and Family Room at Poppy’s before a large, public funeral. Here, a smaller group can gather together to express themselves — often joking, sobbing or sharing personal memories in a way that would feel impossible in a public setting.

The impact of a death in the public eye

The Queen has been a powerful and important symbol for millions of people across the world, for the best part of one hundred years. For many, she has been foundational to how they understand themselves. For some, who have not met the Queen personally, the loss feels very personal.

I went to Buckingham Palace on Saturday with my young children to see thousands and thousands of people laying flowers and leaving notes (such as the one pictured above). Their personal words reflect how, for so many people, the Queen has been more than a public figure — she has been a real presence in their lives.

Being able to visit the Queen as she lies in state, or being able to watch the ceremony on television, will be a helpful and meaningful way for many people to process her death.

Others, who weren’t particularly engaged with the Royal Family, might be surprised by their feelings of grief. Death and death rituals in the public domain can trigger past loss and grief. So for some of us, these ceremonies and rituals can tap into feelings that may have lain dormant for a long time.

Public and private funeral rituals

For the Queen’s family and friends, she has been a mother, a grandmother, a friend, an aunt and so on. They need to be able to honour those relationships. I was particularly moved to think of Princess Anne travelling by the Queen’s side from Scotland to London. An intimate experience like this can be a very powerful way of saying goodbye.

I have experience at Poppy’s of watching as close family and friends struggle with meeting their own needs, when they are under pressure to do what tradition says is the right thing. Our perspective at Poppy’s has always been — you don’t need to choose one or the other, you can do both. We support big formal funerals and vital, personal moments too.

I speak to many people who have traumatic memories of missing meaningful opportunities to say goodbye, or of being sidelined or excluded from a core moment in their lives. These can be recounted decades later with disappointment, pain, regret and anger.

It is so important for our future health and wellbeing that we do what we need to do when someone dies, whatever that may be.

It is possible to meet a multitude of different needs, both public and private, when someone in the public domain dies. However, we have to acknowledge that different people need different things. It takes real thought and care to make sure both the public and private parts of a person’s life get the attention they deserve.

It is essential for healthy grieving that people get what they want and need from funeral rituals. So amid all the pageantry, tradition and formality we will witness over the coming days, I will be looking out for personal moments too, with the hope that everyone gets what they want and need.

Read more opinion pieces Why we need to talk about death or Let’s open up our mortuaries to the public.

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