In the early 2000s, Hayslip, Guarnaccia, and colleagues conducted an extensive survey of several hundred bereaved adults, collected a large amount of data, and ran numerous analyses on the data in order to publish two reports in the Omega journal. The relevant conclusions, for my purposes, overlap and are modest in number. Therefore, since they are based on the same data pool, I am going to combine the two reports into a single, longer review.
Proximal And Distal Antecedents Of Funeral Attitudes: A Multidimensional Analysis attempted to learn whether close/direct or distant/indirect factors are more likely to affect how people think about funerals. Close, or “proximal,” influences include emotional reactions to and personal feelings about death, and involvement in funeral-related activities. Distant, or “distal,” factors would include things like socioeconomic background, age, general health, and personality characteristics. Portions of the data were also used to determine the “pragmatic” versus “emotional” reasons behind opinions about funerals.1
Assessing Adults’ Difficulty In Coping With Funerals took a different perspective on the data from the same surveys, in order to explore characteristics of people who report positive or negative experiences from different aspects of funeral participation. The survey questionnaire, described in more detail below, was composed of many questions from many separate tools inquiring about personality, health, experiences, and opinions. One of the tools asked about participation in all of the different elements of funeral and burial rituals—before, during, and after the main ceremonies—and how difficult it was to cope with each element. Results from this set of questions were analyzed as to how they varied according to other factors in the data collection.2
Subjects: 348 adult volunteers “who had experienced the death and funeral of a close family member or close friend within the past two years” (90% within the previous year, average length of time since death = 11.83 months). Recruiting of volunteers took place through various support organizations such as bereavement groups, churches, and hospices, as well as through university classes and newspaper ads. Age range was from 18 to 88, with average age = 34.21.
The subjects’ opinions on funerals appear to have been mainly formed by their personal experiences with funerals and death rather than by more distant or indirect factors.
People who showed the most positive attitudes toward funerals were those who had been more personally involved in pre-funeral ritual activities, and who also reported positive grief adjustment.
People who had the easiest time coping with all of the demands before, during, and after the funeral, were the people who had an objective viewpoint on the activities, and pragmatic understanding of funerals on matters such as cost—those who had a good sense of what was going on and how all the moving pieces fit together.
People with a better understanding of the mechanics of the funeral also showed better grief recovery and lower death anxiety.
The factors most strongly associated with thinking positively about funerals were: low death anxiety, low difficulty with coping with all of the details of the funeral process, and high involvement in the funeral process.
People for whom the experience of death was most recent, and whose grief was most intense, were less likely to think of the funeral as meaningful.
People who benefit from funeral rituals will likely be those who have a positive attitude toward the rituals.
Studies conducted up through the 1990s had shown different and sometimes contradictory attitudes about funerals. For example, subjects frequently expressed positive views on funeral directors and ceremonies, yet other surveys revealed people with negative views on the funeral or different aspects of it. The funeral business was not always viewed as trustworthy. Some research suggested that American funeral attitudes were changing over time. A recent study by the lead researchers of this project had found middle-aged and older Americans viewed funeral services as more valuable than did younger adults.
The questionnaire employed in this project was large. Subjects answered at least 400 questions, in addition to providing personal data such as age, educational background, ethnicity, and religion. Topics ranged from grief adjustment and emotional status, to health and demographic information, funeral experiences, and opinions and factual knowledge about the funeral business.
To give a sense of the range of information covered, following are the names of specific research tools that made up sets of questions in the survey, under the general focus areas:
Funeral knowledge and perceptions
* Knowledge about the funeral industry
* Attitudes toward funeral directors
* Perceptions of needed changes in the funeral industry
* Lester-Bluestein Attitudes Toward Funerals Scale
* Consumer attitudes toward the funeral industry
* Perceptions of the Meaningfulness of Funerals Scale
* Incomplete Sentences Blank (unconscious fears of death and dying)
* Collett-Lester Fear of Death Scale
* Templer Death Anxiety Scale
* Texas Revised Inventory of Grief
* BEQ-24 (revised Bereavement Experience Questionnaire)
* Education, income, age, and other personal demographic data
* Bradburn Affect Balance Scale (emotional well-being)
* Hopkins Symptom Checklist (psychological symptoms within past seven days)
* Self-Report of Health/Wellness (emotional health over past three months)
* LSI-Z (Life Satisfaction) Scale
Funeral-specific experience measurements
* Extent of Participating in Rituals Scale (37 questions measuring extent of involvement, examples include selecting burial site, speaking at funeral, visiting grave)
* Difficulty in Coping with Funerals Scale (50 questions, covering before, during, and after funeral); examples:
- Writing the death announcement
- Making decisions about the funeral
- Picking clothes to bury deceased in
- Selecting type of casket
- Getting accurate information about burial plots or headstones
- Purchasing plot(s) of land for burial
- Financial burdens left behind
- Receiving mail for deceased
- Seeing friends/family of deceased
- Having dreams/visions of deceased
- Expressing my emotions at the funeral
- Dealing with the press, i.e. harassment, misreporting the details
Analyses revealed differences among respondents based on the first “Funeral knowledge and perceptions” group of questions. These were separated into “pragmatic”-oriented perspectives, which covered topics such as consumer issues, costs, factual understanding of the industry, and whether changes are needed in the industry, and “emotional impact,” which included meaningfulness of the ceremonies and having a positive response to specific parts of the funeral such as viewing the body.
On the main question of the first report, whether attitudes toward funerals are correlated more with “proximal” characteristics closely-related to the death and funeral experience, or with “distal” factors more removed from the death itself: it was the proximal factors that were more likely to predict someone’s views on funerals. Experience with funerals influenced opinions on funerals.
On the main question of the second report, regarding which factors were associated with being better able to cope with all of the demands of the funeral activities, by far the strongest predictor of being able to cope was pragmatic knowledge of “protocol/mechanics of the funeral.”
In addition, this pragmatic understanding also was associated with less intense grief and low death anxiety.
People who had a positive recovery experience from grief and bereavement, and who had been most involved in funeral rituals had the most positive attitudes toward funerals and strongest opinion that funerals are meaningful.
People more knowledgeable about funeral-related matters and had a clearer concept of costs had more positive attitudes, while less informed and younger people had more negative attitudes.
People who found funerals most emotionally valuable were those with less death anxiety about others—less fear of other people dying.
People who were more consciously aware of their own fear of death, and less beset by unconscious fears of death, were most positive about funerals.
People with a more pragmatic perspective on funerals showed stronger sentiment that there should be changes in the funeral industry—which would fit with having more understanding of and involvement in funerals—but this was not associated with negative attitudes toward funerals.
More positive attitudes toward funerals also correlated with being more involved in pre-funeral ritual activities, which generally have to do with “preparation” in various areas, and having less problems with coping with the demands of the activities.
As a rule, all of the above factors associated with more positive attitudes about funerals, would be associated with being older.
Positive funeral attitudes were associated with higher levels of psychological distress, depression, and anxiety, and less general physical wellness. Positive funeral attitudes were also associated with better grief recovery and bereavement adjustment.
People who had higher levels of trust in the funeral business reported themselves having better health and wellness, and also had a more positive appraisal of the value of funerals.
Interestingly, though: Those with the lowest levels of trust in the funeral business were subjects who were older, had higher life satisfaction scores and higher income, had more experience with funerals, and had better understanding of the funeral business.
Higher levels of “concern” about the cemetery were associated with positive attitudes toward funerals, positive appraisal of the funeral director, good self-reported health and wellness, and longer time since the death. But going along with that, older people and those with more funeral experience had less cemetery concerns.
People with lower incomes had more positive attitudes toward funerals.
People with more intense grief had more negative attitudes toward funerals.
More recent funerals were associated with seeing the funeral as less meaningful.
The results do not tell us why people who have been more involved with funerals are more positive; or why those who know more about how funerals work have more positive attitudes about funerals; or why being more involved in pre-funeral rituals is associated with being better able to cope with the demands of the entire experience.
Correlation is not causation. We can’t assume that someone who has a poor attitude about funerals, for instance, would have a better attitude if they got more involved in funerals or became more educated about the industry. It could be that people who have these qualities were already predisposed to being positive about funerals and therefore became better informed.
But common sense tells us that being more involved in the preparation part of funerals and burials could make the overall experience seem easier. In fact, other research has suggested similar correlation between involvement in funerals and finding benefit from funerals. This association will likely come up again here at Rational Death, and perhaps we will hazard a guess about why it seems to be so.
Because positive funeral attitudes are found both among the psychologically afflicted, and the recovered grievers, the study authors propose that the therapeutic function of funerals would produce just such an effect: valued by the distressed, by those whose grief is less intense, and by those whose “adaptive” style of grieving allows them to benefit from the rituals.
The fact that people can be positive about the funeral yet have concerns about the cemetery seems to me an overall positive for everyone, because it indicates they still care, and they are thinking about the cemetery, grave site, and memorial. Typically, grave arrangements take some time to physically come to completion.
Time is believed to be a key to recovery from grief, and appears to be an important factor in how one views funerals. The longer it has been, the more positively the ceremony is remembered.
Apart from the many factors identified as associated with finding funerals meaningful, the authors note that “funerals are not as helpful for coping when the death is recent, and/or for those whose grief is very intense.”
“Trust” was not a main focus of the project, and we can assume that out of the 400-plus questions those addressing how much the subject trusts the funeral business were just a drop in the bucket. But it is certainly a fascinating result that older people, with the most funeral experience, and the most positive attitudes toward funerals, also have the lowest levels of trust in the funeral business.
A caveat about the subject pool is that it skews sort of young for a survey on funerals. This typically happens when researchers dip into “university” populations for their respondents—and unsurprisingly, this happens a lot. The people answering the surveys end up being a younger demographic than the ones most likely to be involved with funeral rituals. But I note this as a matter of interest and not because it necessarily makes the results less meaningful or even different than if the median age had been 50.
Finally, the familiar caveat from previous reviews about volunteer subject pools applies to these studies: volunteers may have different understandings of their grief and of funerals than would other people in the population who might not have been inclined to participate. Therefore, we cannot say for certain to what extent the results would apply to society at large.
Bert Hayslip et al., “Proximal and Distal Antecedents of Funeral Attitudes: A Multidimensional Analysis,” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying 52, no. 2 (March 2006): 121–42, https://doi.org/10.2190/4XBY-3V4X-1QG9-YN5X↩