Funerals, Rhetorics, and Constructions of History

Clichés about “funerals being for the living” abound. Funerals assist with grieving and with accepting one’s own mortality, popular mores say. 

Funerals can also hinder this grieving process: Without realizing it, people sometimes talk about the deceased in ways that can be inaccurate and uncomfortable for others. Sometimes intentions might be more malicious and consciously aim to delete, to rewrite, and to utopianize and control History and its narratives. Sometimes victims themselves will manipulate the past as a healing mechanism or to selflessly make others more comfortable. 

The public personas of a person do not necessarily parallel private ones. Different people have completely different experiences with the same person.

Consider the possible pain that might, sometimes, be caused when you attend a funeral and tell relatives of the deceased, “Your [relative/relation] was such a wonderful person. We will really miss [relative’s name].”

Other clichés say, “You should not speak ill of the dead.” Such upholds silence. Upholds the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist (Heteronormative Ableist) Patriarchy. Silence that can hinder this otherwise celebrated–selective–grieving process. If funerals are to heal the living, then people must be able to publicly vocalize, or at least internally acknowledge, any (final) grievances. No one is perfect. 

Funerals are for the past, present, and future. They shape and reshape History. Especially for everyday people, such rituals are battlegrounds that help crystallize what will be the “official” Histories. 

People don’t like accurate History. As a culture, however, we must move past it being taboo to discuss abuse and oppression and all of its manifestations. Moving past hagiography is equally important. 

“Myths are motors of history. Facts that happen are often powerless to affect behavior. People act on the basis of the falsehoods they believe.”

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda 

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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4 replies

  1. My parents died within 11 days of one another in the summer of 2016. About a month after my father’s death we had a service at my mom’s church in the village where they had lived and an open house at their place. Apart from my brothers’ in-laws, no one there had known my parents for more than six years (they were already in their 80s when they moved there) and none of them knew my history. I wrote an obituary for the local paper and read it at the funeral. In it I was the oldest of three sons. Unfortunately we could not make sense of my mother’s address book so when Christmas cards arrived that year I took on the task of writing to everyone to tell them our parents had died. To almost all of those people spread across North America, I was still their daughter. The odd disjointedness and lack of ritual closure leaves my grieving process, especially for my mother to whom I was so close, unresolved.

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  2. Sometimes a comment made at a funeral about the deceased makes me wonder if “we are talking about the same person.

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  3. It’s interesting because there are a lot of different stakeholders at a funeral and yet each person attending may provide a different (albeit biased) lens on the deceased. We can’t fully capture the complexity of a person but the more perspectives we have (although biased) the closer we probably get to the “whole” person. In the Christian context you could even consider the four gospels as a type of eulogy of Christ from four different perspectives (each with their own intended audience and agenda as well).

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