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Questions About What We Need From Funerals

What do we need from funerals?

Some people say the answer lies in rituals having certain psychological effects. Others say it’s about doing what humans have done in the past. Some point to religion, or community bonding, or ecology.

It all gets very involved. In order to help potential funeral buyers get a handle on what they might need, I plan in future posts to discuss ways different parties have answered the question, and domains of knowledge supporting or contradicting their opinions.

Without delving into controversies, let’s just list the related questions that arise when we ask the main question above.

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The Scope Of The Project

Many writing projects—and this began as one of them—can be explained in a linear fashion in 50 words or less. I began this one intending to write a medium-length, overgrown-pamphlet sort of piece about making funeral arrangements.

I had a unique perspective to share, I thought, from working in the business for decades and also from personally helping people who did not know what to expect in making such arrangements. There are many funeral planning books out there, but I thought another modest one with stuff the others did not have would be a decent project.

“Funeral shopping”: interesting topic, and not so deep that it would take forever to address, especially for one such as myself who has such a wealth of personal knowledge to share, right?

Problems arose early on when it became clear that in order to discuss the consumer perspective, my original plan, in a way I was comfortable with, I did really need to give a basic but accurate picture of the business-person’s perspective. If you go to talk to the funeral director, you should know where she or he is coming from so you’ll understand what they have to offer.

Continue reading The Scope Of The Project

What Does The Shell Mean?

Death can’t ever be totally rationalized, but we do learn to deal with it.

We climb the staircase of the finite to the brink of the eternal. We stare at the end of the road, at the barrier between light and darkness, we learn about that borderline, but we ourselves do not cross over, yet.

Double helix of DNA

In doing so, as humans taking care of the only true certainty in all of human life, we join in a process that underlies existence throughout our universe. The process can be symbolized by the “golden mean” or “golden ratio” of a spiral, which is the proportional relationship between progression and growth. For the mathematical basis, do a Web search for “Fibonacci Sequence.”

The unwinding of the helix maintains structure and proportion out to infinity. It appears in biological shapes, from artichokes to pine cones to the DNA molecules within all of life; in spiral galaxies such as Andromeda, Whirlpool, and the Milky Way; in hurricanes; and in the nautilus shell.


When we face the hard reality of death and carry its burden, by making the arrangements and suffering the anxiety and sorrow, yet imposing order, we find ourselves joining our ancestors from millenia upon millennia in a practice that is much more than cultural, but a primeval process of tidying up.

The logistics required by a death, and the experience of having to think about what we want to do in the situation, force us into a mindset that can be deeply unsettling under the pall of grief. It can seem like too much.


For me, the nautilus shell is a reminder that a funeral arranger’s role is not to make everything ok, nor to explain all that has happened, nor to create a flawless funeral, but only to move a process forward.

Like a wound healing, or an island being reshaped by a storm, the aftermath of death is life that has changed permanently, but continues. When we help with the aftermath, we are part of a pattern as old as creation, underlying the organic and inorganic, and linking the finite to the eternal.

Why Rational Death?

The title “Rational Death” seems like a contradiction in terms. In a lot of ways, death is the opposite of rational.

Thinking about our own death can lead to some pretty irrational thoughts. A loved one’s death may be too upsetting for words, much less rationality.

When we talk about motives the “rational” ones are those that increase benefit—generally implying the opposite of death.

But there is a sense in which we want to treat death rationally, to have it all make sense, because death is not just a metaphysical challenge. Death is also a physical event.

When someone dies, things must be done. Decisions and arrangements must be made, and money usually must be spent. Our species has been dealing with the event of death as long as we’ve been around.

Since every one of us is going to die, it seems worthwhile to discuss what we have to do when we or someone else dies, and why.

“Rational” here means how we understand what we do. In almost every aspect of our lives, we use our ability to reason, and we take for granted a rational basis on which to make decisions, even at the most emotional times. The tasks required when someone dies can be complicated and have powerful effects on our emotions and how we perceive the security of our own existence. Yet rationality does come into play.

Unfortunately, making all the arrangements can be such confusing territory that many people won’t see any reasonable basis for the decisions. It isn’t just that we don’t know everything that we have to do: a phone call to a funeral director can fill us in on all of the choices. The problem is that the choices aren’t easy to place a value on.

I began, some years ago, writing down things I had learned in the process of helping people make funeral arrangements, from the perspective of someone with more familiarity than most. But a “how-to” for consumers turned out to be a bigger project the more I tried to account for all the considerations. For example, to understand the difference between different types of ceremonies, you need to hear what ceremonial experts and the people selling the services say, and then to look at least a little bit into the histories of those practices. Why do we buy flowers? Who ought to see the deceased person? What are the pluses and minuses of cremation?

Before long, I was compiling much more than consumer tips—although that remains part of the project. But information from the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology became just as important to the end goal of making funerals make sense to the typical modern American.

Death is when, in the words of W. Lloyd Warner, “some of the deepest and most irrational feelings that possess men dominate and harass their lives.”1 Even those who can make good financial decisions at difficult times need to know what sorts of products and services they are deciding about. The funeral decision process is confusing on multiple levels.

Clearing up that confusion, and providing a rational basis for death practices, are the two main purposes of this Web site.

  1. W. Lloyd Warner, The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans, Yankee City Series 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 299