The Good Funeral: Toward An Understanding Of Funeral Participation And Satisfaction examined the question of what makes funerals meaningful for attendees. Previous research had shown that people can come away from funerals with very different impressions. Some attendees give positive appraisals, some negative. Studies have suggested that some people only get short-term benefits from the rituals, and some find little benefit because their grieving has barely begun. There may be problems, such as the interpersonal issues highlighted in the adverse events study. But many say the rituals were meaningful for them. Key variables identified in several studies—which also make intuitive sense—are the attendees’ roles and levels of involvement, with more involvement leading to higher satisfaction. This study analyzed the relationship between roles and degrees of involvement, as well as other aspects of the funeral, to see which were associated with meaningful experiences.1
Subjects: 1,210 adults who “had ever attended a funeral”; volunteers comprised of undergraduate students and their adult relatives, average age 30.41. Respondents from 23 states with 96% from California.
This study provided strong support for the idea that funerals are important because they allow people to express emotions and be supported by others at a difficult time.
Respondents had relatively high satisfaction with the funerals they’ve experienced.
The most important factor in whether a funeral was viewed as meaningful was whether the attendee participated by sharing and communicating emotions with other people.
Another key factor in funeral satisfaction was experience with funerals. Previous experience affected subjects’ attitudes, especially in terms of making them more likely to participate in the funeral, which in turn made the funeral more meaningful.
More tragic and unexpected deaths, and closer relationships with the deceased, made the funeral experience seem more satisfactory. Funerals perceived as more traditional, spiritual, and expensive were generally seen as more satisfactory.
Funeral experiences include many elements. First, the attendees and participants have their own predispositions, such as personality traits, beliefs, and attitudes they bring with them. Second, there are immediate factors surrounding the funeral, such as the type of death, relationships to the deceased, and the actions of those present. The authors term the first group the distant or “distal” influences, and the second, more proximal, group the “context” of the rituals.
O’Rourke and colleagues were particularly interested in examining the function of religious belief as a distal factor, and participation as the main contextual factor contributing to a funeral attendee’s satisfaction. The “satisfaction” they measured, incidentally, was not whether participants enjoyed the funeral, but whether “relatively positive expectations” were fulfilled—which signifies meaningfulness and catharsis rather than pleasure, and how a particular funeral compared with others they may have attended.
The authors developed a hypothetical model of factors contributing to overall “Funeral Satisfaction.”
Distal elements were “General Funeral Attitudes,” with religiosity as the strongest influence, but also including other personal needs and orientations such as coping, distress, traditionalism, and sociality.
The proximal, or contextual, elements were broken out in greater detail. Participation was divided into degrees of “Funeral Involvement” on one hand, and “Funeral Roles” on the other, with the latter including observing, organizing, emoting, and performing. Other aspects of the context were how tragic the death was, how close the relationship to the deceased, and how the subject compared the funeral with other funerals they may have experienced.
Funeral participation could vary simply by degree: from walk-in observer bearing witness, to central part of the activities; from low involvement to full responsibility.
But for those who do “act” at the funeral, the types of active roles are diverse. Offering condolences, praying, crying aloud, weeping quietly, maintaining a stiff upper lip, sharing stories informally, leaving flowers, and signing a guest book, are all modes of participation. More “official” roles include singer, eulogist or other speaker, organizer of part or all of the events, as well as involvement in the arrangement and product selection process with the funeral home or cemetery.
Whether the death was considered timely or tragic, and how close the person was as a friend or relative, would be additional chief aspects of the context. Attendees would consider these factors and others in comparing a specific funeral with others, and evaluating how the funeral met their expectations if they had any.
Satisfaction can come in many forms. In the case of a funeral, “satisfaction” is likely to be a paradox because the ritual is about mourning and even heartbreak. But as the authors note, “there are better and worse ways in which a funeral may achieve such sadness.”
The religious or secular content of the service, how the life story is treated, how those in attendance interact, how the logistical aspects are carried out, and the overall emotional effect, are elements that may determine whether someone sees the funeral as satisfactory. The subject’s perceptions of all the different parts of the ceremony might be summed up as fulfillment, or meaningfulness, when they rate their level of satisfaction.
A review of many funeral studies provided items to inquire about, in order to measure each subject’s fit within the model and produce factors to compare through multivariate analysis. After preliminary tests on a portion of the subjects to fine-tune the content, the authors developed a 199-question survey. Some were simple yes-no questions, and others on a 5-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
Factors measured in the survey:
Religiosity: how religious the person considers themselves, how important religion is in their life, and how active they are in religious services.
Funeral attitudes: beliefs, emotional and ideological predispositions, expectations and how well they were met, etc.
Funeral participation—roles: actions and interactions of every type, informal or formal, quiet or expressive.
Funeral participation—extent of involvement, passive through taking responsibility.
Context: tragic or not, relationship, expected or unexpected, etc.
Comparison: to other funerals, traditional, expensive, spiritual, etc.
Satisfaction: with liturgical or secular content, how smoothly it ran, opportunity to grieve, helped adjust to loss, give or receive support, fitting conclusion to a life, etc.
Subjects showed relatively high levels of funeral satisfaction: On a scale of 1-5 with 5 being most satisfied, the average for female respondents was 4.11 and for males 3.86.
Religiosity had by far the least single direct effect on funeral satisfaction, out of the 6 factors listed above.
The strongest direct influence on funeral satisfaction was participating through roles that entailed interacting with other people and communicating emotions:
… sharing stories, expressing condolences, crying, and otherwise interacting with others at the funeral… It may not be the expression of emotion per se (as in a eulogy or performance), but the social negotiation of emotion, the confirmation of one another’s emotions, that is the most important feature of funeral satisfaction.
The next most significant factor in funeral satisfaction was previous funeral experience, which showed a strong “feedback influence” on attitudes and likelihood of participating, as well as influencing how subjects viewed the context, and (obviously) their comparison with other funerals.
Other important components of meaningful funerals involved combinations of factors:
A person’s attitudes, such as personality traits and beliefs, alone did not determine satisfaction with funeral rituals. Instead, attitudes became a factor when they motivated the person to certain types of role participation and levels of involvement.
Religiosity did affect funeral attitudes, which in turn influenced funeral satisfaction. But funeral satisfaction from previous experience was several times stronger of an influence on funeral attitudes.
The closeness of the relationship, tragic quality of the death, and comparison with other funerals, along with a subject’s mode of participation, accounted for about 9% of the likelihood of finding a funeral meaningful. According to the authors, this combined effect was significant relative to other reported factors.
In contrast to findings from earlier studies, many types of funeral roles were not by themselves important factors in reporting a funeral as satisfactory. Simply observing the ceremony, or even being in an organizing role, did not relate to funeral satisfaction. Helping to dress the deceased or give out programs was minimally associated with funeral satisfaction. Reciting, or singing, or giving a eulogy, were “small” factors.
The authors state that the more tragic and unexpected deaths, and deaths of people closer to the attendee, led to reports of more satisfying funerals. Finally, the survey showed “generally” that “more traditional, formal, familiar, typical, expensive, and spiritual” funerals were said to be more satisfying.
Our emotions are strongly tied to human interaction. Thus, we should not be surprised by the finding that the funeral roles that make the most difference to our experience are the ones that involve sharing and interacting with the other people. We might think of the funeral ritual as an emotional wellspring whose strength can be measured by the meaning that registers in those present.
For both attendees and providers of funeral services, the meaningfulness we perceive is a barometer—to extend the metaphor a little further—of the emotional force generated around us or between us. Opportunities to communicate and socialize should be welcomed and encouraged.
The second most significant finding from the data was that the more funerals a person gets involved with, the more that person will find value in funerals. That’s an important point for the modern era in which people live longer and many of us may have less funeral experience than in generations past. We have to learn firsthand about funerals in order to get what they are about, so if we attend one that doesn’t seem satisfactory in some way, the problem may not have been with the ceremony but with our perception of what was happening.
Or, as a general rule, don’t give up on funerals because of one that seemed less than ideal.
Two aspects of the pool of subjects are worthy of mention, because they could have slanted the findings. Subjects were volunteers recruited by college professors; students were asked to also invite adult relatives. These self-selected respondents may have differed from other bereaved people who would not have been inclined to respond to the invitation. This type of caveat applies to most of the studies we review, but needs to be noted.
More significant is the young age of the respondents. An average age of 30 is somewhat below that of the population that typically attends funerals and is far below that of the population that typically plans them. People in their 50s and 60s might have a different perspective on what constitutes a meaningful ceremony—they might find satisfaction in roles that do not center on social interaction, for instance. Older people might also have more funeral experiences and therefore the factor of previous experience might be less significant as a variable in what makes the ritual meaningful.
The report from this study says that context, combined with other factors, comprised 9% of the variability in funeral satisfaction. Unfortunately, it does not provide any numerical basis for the more interesting statement that more expensive, spiritual, and traditional funerals are seen as more meaningful. It describes the result as “generally” what the data showed. Does the lack of specificity mean these factors are less than 9%? Are they far above zero?
One of the main changes in America related to funeral practices over the past century has been a more spiritualized concept of the human being and, consequently, less focus on the deceased person’s body in the ceremonies. The results of this study fit with that trend, suggesting that opportunities to express and share emotion, and receive emotional support, are now the primary functions of the funeral.