1998: Grief adjustment influenced by funeral participation and adverse funeral events

Grief Adjustment As Influenced By Funeral Participation And Occurrence Of Adverse Funeral Events examined how funeral experiences affect later grief recovery. A number of studies had associated participating in funerals with positive grief adjustment. The researchers in this study attempted to test the correlation between positive funeral experiences and grief afterward, and also whether negative experiences during the funeral affected grief recovery.1

Subjects: 74 adults who had lost a family member to various causes of death within 1 month to 25 years (median time interval since death was 11.5 months). Subjects’ ages 20-80; average age 50.7. Data used was part of a larger study conducted in 1998.

Main findings

People who experienced funeral services as comforting showed significantly lower levels of grief misery on the subsequent assessment, compared to funeral attendees who did not find the ceremonies comforting.

The highest grief misery scores were reported by mourners who experienced adverse events at the funeral and also did not find the funeral comforting.

However, about one-third (11 of 32 interviewees) who experienced adverse events at the funeral still found the funeral comforting, and did not report increased grief misery.

People who were active in helping to plan funeral arrangements for their loved one also were assessed as having somewhat lower levels of grief misery.

Study detail

Subjects first completed a questionnaire called the Grief Experience Inventory (GEI) that measured levels of despair, hostility, guilt, social isolation, loss of control, rumination, depersonalization, somatization (feeling physically sick because of psychological distress), and death anxiety. Each person’s overall grief misery level was also devised by combining results of the nine measurements.

Then, the subjects were interviewed by a nurse who gathered personal demographic information, information about the deceased and the relationship, and also details and impressions about the funeral activities.

Researchers analyzed the interaction between different variables in the data to answer the following questions:

  • Does helping to plan funeral services for a loved one help with recovering from grief?
  • When someone says they were comforted by the funeral rituals, will they have better grief adjustment?
  • If an adverse event happens during the funeral or burial rituals, does it detract from the comfort that participants might have experienced from the rituals?
  • Do adverse events during the rituals interfere with the mourners’ later grief adjustment?

Subjects who found the funeral comforting versus those who did not

Almost all of the deaths in the cases described by subjects—72 of 74—were followed by funeral ceremonies. Almost all of those subjects—70 of 72—attended the funerals.

Half the respondents reported that their funeral experiences were comforting, and the other half were not comforted (specifically, the latter group reported the funeral experience “as negative, neutral, or mixed.”) This finding provided two groups of 35 people each to compare for various factor interactions.

There were 55 mourners who participated in planning the funeral services and 16 who said they declined such participation.

People who had felt comforted by the funeral rituals displayed significantly lower levels of grief misery on the GEI test than those who were not comforted.

People who participated in planning funeral rites showed lower levels of grief misery—albeit not as significantly different—than those who did not participate in the funeral planning. Specifically, those who helped with funeral services had lower levels of Depersonalization and Social Isolation on the GEI test results.

Adverse events at the funeral

Thirty-two of the bereaved reported that adverse events had occurred during the funeral ceremonies, versus 38 people who reported no adverse events.

The types of adverse funeral events were varied, but over half (17) were classified generically as “conflicts among survivors” and another 7 were about “issues with cremation,” which appear to have been disagreements among survivors about whether to cremate and what to do with the remains afterward. Other adverse events were conflicts between decedent’s and survivors’ wishes, state of the body, problems with the funeral home, and problems with the clergy.

So it appears that at least 3/4 of the adverse events were disagreements among the bereaved.

The GEI grief misery scores of subjects who experienced adverse events were “significantly higher” than the scores of those who did not report adverse events. Specifically, those who reported adverse events had higher levels of Somatization, Loss of Control, and Depersonalization.

Those who experienced adverse events and also said the funeral was not comforting had the highest subsequent grief misery levels of all.

Interestingly, for one-third (11) of those who experienced adverse funeral events, the funeral and burial ceremonies were still reported as comforting, and this group did not display higher levels of grief misery.

Additional observations

Overall, the results of this project are not dramatic. But because so few studies of funeral experiences have been conducted, this one is worth knowing about.

Survivors who attend funerals and find them comforting have better emotional adjustment than those who attend and judge the events negatively, when tested later for grief misery. These test results are not entirely surprising, because people who had positive experiences at a funeral would seem more likely to exhibit better adjustment later on, which in most of the cases examined here appear to have been within two years.

For people considering whether to attend a funeral, the results seem pretty convincing: good may come of it, so you should attend. Spoiler: this would have been my recommendation anyway: that you should always attend the funeral, and if you are wondering whether or not to have one, you probably should, if you can.

For funeral providers, there may or may not be a lesson, beyond that it is better when everyone feels better at the funeral.

But the fact that one-third of mourners who witnessed some negative occurrence during the funeral process still judged the services positively, and fared well emotionally afterward, should be a little encouraging for funeral providers. The events they hold are often positive enough to overcome unpleasant surprises.

Obviously, it seems to be much better if there are no adverse events, but people being what we are, perfection can never be expected. The majority of problems had nothing to do with the funeral providers, but were caused by the attendees themselves. Funeral and cemetery personnel can’t do much about these types of conflicts except keep their fingers crossed and hope that things don’t escalate. Nonetheless, when things go wrong, a decent-sized minority of the mourners still find something good to remember.

A caveat with these types of studies is that you can find out what happened to someone who had a certain experience, such as whether they went to a funeral and then felt good afterward, but you don’t learn what would have happened to that person if they had done something else. You can compare two people whose experiences were different, but they are different people, so it’s hard to say what you learn.

If you give one person an apple and another an orange, and measure their responses, it’s hard to say whether the results can tell you anything at all about apples, oranges, or either of the people.

As a study expands to include larger and larger numbers of subjects, results probably become more useful. In this case, for instance, about half of the people found the funerals comforting, which created two groups to compare. Because each was 35 subjects, the results may or may not be accurately extrapolated to the entire U.S. population at the time.

  1. Louis A. Gamino et al., “Grief Adjustment as Influenced by Funeral Participation and Occurrence of Adverse Funeral Events,” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying 41, no. 2 (October 2000): 79–92, https://doi.org/10.2190/QMV2-3NT5-BKD5-6AAV