1965-1969: Young Widows and Widowers During First Year of Bereavement

The First Year of Bereavement reports results of the Harvard Bereavement Study, which was conducted under the auspices of the Harvard Laboratory of Community Psychiatry. Studies of people who have recently experienced funerals are rare because it is hard to find the people. In addition to its prestigious pedigree, this project had access to data from the local office of vital statistics, and thus the researchers found good number of participants who fit the demographic requirements of the study.1

Subjects: 49 widows and 19 widowers, whose spouses had died within the past year from causes other than suicide or homicide. All under age 45. Several interviews were conducted the first year after death, and a follow-up interview 2-4 years later. Boston.

Topics covered in this project go well beyond funeral experiences but it is extremely valuable for its extensive focus on the latter—which even now, more than half a century later, has only been done a few times. As such, this Harvard study is an important snapshot of one aspect of funerals in the 1960s.

People under the age of 45 are not typically the bereaved in cases of spousal death because most people who die are over 70. This study is interesting because of its focus on relatively young adult mourners, whose perceptions of funeral experiences are also not typically the focus of research.

The subjects’ negative perceptions of embalming and restoration depicted here are illuminating in view of changes in American funeral preferences several decades later—when the contemporaries of these young subjects began to comprise the bulk of the industry’s customers. That finding might be seen as a preview of what the funeral business is encountering today.

Most of the subjects were widows, and the report contains much more of the surviving women’s perspectives.

Ceremony in general

  • Forty-seven percent said the funeral service was helpful. Remainder either said it was unhelpful, or had no opinion.

  • They were pleased that they had had the appropriate ceremonies, and that they had comported themselves properly. Women placed particular importance on following tradition.

  • But few remembered much of what was done or said at the funeral or burial services. The main recollections were blurred memories—and feelings of anguish throughout the events.

  • The social ceremonies were valued mainly because of the expressions of sympathy, and the “mere presence” of others. The bereaved could not remember what occurred during the rituals, but could recall every person who was there.

    “…it was the attendance itself, rather than anything special that was said, that was the tribute.”

  • They learned of their loved one’s standing in the community, which was now theirs, also.

Ceremony benefits

  • Survivors looked back on the ceremonies as having had “great emotional importance.”

  • Widows especially did not experience it as “empty” ritual

  • Because of the “complex things to do,” the bereaved were not left without a way to respond to the sadness.

  • Ceremonies provided organized, structured settings to share with others their love and regard for the deceased.

  • Friends and family had the chance to express to the bereaved their affection and regard.

  • Overall, the rituals made “more nearly comprehensible” an experience that otherwise would have been difficult to grasp.

  • Men did not give the ceremonies as much emotional importance as did women, nor feel they had to work to “manage their role.”

    “Widows tended to see each ceremonial almost as a milestone, but widowers wanted to get through with the ceremonials so that they could get on with reestablishing their lives.”

Viewing the embalmed body

  • “…attempts to produce the illusion of sleeping life usually failed.”

  • Most appreciated the morticians’ efforts.

    Fourteen percent were glad they had seen the restored body.

  • Less than half found the viewing helpful

    Fifty-two percent said viewing was a negative experience; fourteen percent thought the effect was primarily negative. Thirty percent regretted seeing the restored corpse.

  • Most had opted for restoration but were repelled by the result. “Just to look at him after they fixed him up, I knew it wasn’t him anymore.”

    Survivors disliked that their spouse’s body “could now be molded like any other inanimate substance.”

    “It was not so much the makeup, I guess they had to do it, but it was so different from the day I saw him in the hospital.”

  • Men were less likely to be upset by viewing the body, or by the ceremony experience as a whole.

Funeral directors

  • All felt grateful toward the funeral directors; women had more positive impressions than did men.

  • Women survivors’ gratitude was mainly for the funeral directors’ professionalism. “They suggested how everything should be managed, but did so without usurping the widows’ final authority.”

Expense

  • Survivors generally believed charges were justified.

  • Widows all had insurance or death benefits to help pay funeral bills.

  • Widows were more positive than widowers. Widows valued the services provided, wanted a funeral that demonstrated their devotion, and in interviews with researchers reported the cost of an expensive funeral “proudly rather than resentfully.”

  • Men more often questioned the expense, were less appreciative of (or worried about) ceremony details, and also less appreciative of funeral directors.


  1. Ira O. Glick, Robert Stuart Weiss, and Colin Murray Parkes, The First Year of Bereavement (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974), 102–15, 179, 269–70

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