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Please, more ceremonies

What is the best way to say good-bye? Trying to find an answer, we heard the grieving specialist Doug Manning, author of many books on this subject.


David Bowie wanted to be cremated without any ceremony. Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, asks to have a public viewing, so his fans could see him. These two radically opposite decisions, made by the deceased ones themselves, leave us the question: What is the best way to say good-bye? In the attempt to find an answer, we heard the grieving specialist Doug Manning, author of many books on this subject.

Video scene launched by Bowie days before his death, on the end of life and pains caused by cancer
Video scene launched by Bowie days before his death, on the end of life and pains caused by cancer

David Bowie, deceased on January 10th this year (for the readers of the future, this is 2016), knew he was going to die because of cancer and made a plan: left a new album ready to be released after his passing, he produced a video inspired in the approach of the end of life (Lazarus) and planned his funeral. Bowie chose the cheapest cremation service in the state of New York – between 700 and 900 dollars. Defines as  “direct cremation”, it is executed without viewing, casket, presence of friends or family. It is the fastest and most practical alternative. That’s how it was done.

more than 15 thousand fans said good bye to Muhammad Ali in the "funeral show" planned by him, personally
more than 15 thousand fans said good bye to Muhammad Ali in the “funeral show” planned by him, personally

The boxer Muhammad Ali also knew he was going to die as a consequence of his illness (he had Parkinson and died of a generalized infection, unknown cause, at the age of 74 on the 3rd of June). Just like Bowie, the athlete has left instructions about how his own funeral should be. The ceremony was opened to fans in a gymnasium in Louisville, Kentucky, his hometown. 15 thousand tickets were distributed. Leaders from different religions, friends and family were invited to make a speech. Muhammad Ali even chose the cortege route that should go through part of the city, important locations in his History.

Bowie and Ali represent two opposite tendencies of behavior: Ignoring death versus personalizing the passing. I mention these two different tendencies of saying goodbye to think about our narcissistic culture, fan of big shows and not a big fan of sadness. Death has to be reinvented. And between one option and another, I defend that it is better to add some life in death that doesn’t have to be just a final stop and it may be the beginning of a new story, to be told by the ones who stay.  

Motivated by these ideas, I share the learning of my life with the American, Doug Manning, a “super-angel” I had the privilege of knowing. Throughout his life, Manning was a Baptist church minister, counselor; he worked in funeral homes and wrote dozens of books on grief. With its calm and warm voice, he told me he tries to show people who have lost someone that the funeral should be valued because it is the legitimate space for crying and suffering – for the realization of the loss. Based on his experience, Doug states that the farewell ceremony has five values:

1.The value of safety

People need permission to grieve. And it’s hard to get it. It seems that there is always someone around trying to “take” our grief out of us – “time will heal you,” “you need to react,” “it’s been a long time you do not leave home”, “he’s in a better place” and so on. In order to allow ourselves to grieve we need “safety people” and “places of safety”. The best thing you can say to someone grieving is: it must hurt very much (in fact this line is for any other condition of loss or pain, an illness, a separation, a fall). The phrase fits perfectly for the ones who need it and if said from the bottom of the heart it is pure empathy. Those who say such things are the “safety people”, those that offer the ears to hear and arms to welcome.
The safety places though, are the ones where it is allowed to talk about the person, who passed, to cry and take the time that is needed for grieving. The first safety place is the funeral. Crying is ok, the pain is everyone’s and the presence of friends and family warms the soul.

2.The value of participation

Dressing the deceased, decorating the room, carrying the casket, reading a text, lighting a candle. The participation of family and friends is important in the process of saying goodbye, after the funeral, there won’t be another way to experience the pain as a group. When the funeral does not happen all the benefits of participation are not available to family and friends. The funeral is a healing event and part of healing comes from the participation of those around us. The feeling is that of belonging.

3.The value of symbols and ceremony

In our efforts to act in order to make it all go as quickly as possible, we seize significant expressions of love. Imagine how it would be if Princess Diana had not had all that celebration at her funeral? London streets, crammed with flowers for her, each one was a small token of love and pain. Not all ceremonies are great like this, but all have the same meaning and the same importance. The funeral and its symbols take on the role of the words that don’t come out, the feelings that we cannot translate.

4.The value of reality

The death happened, and that’s the reality. There is no way to turn the funeral into a celebration of life and just ignore the fact that this dear person is no longer here. On the death of Ayrton Senna, the cortege followed by a crowd of people on the streets of São Paulo helped to realize that news that was so unbelievable, next to the numerous demonstrations celebrated his life and achievements. Many people believe it is better to say goodbye just looking for the good memories, because seeing the deceased one may be too shocking. To those who avoid entering the funeral room – and they deserve respect for their choice – it is worth remembering that reality hurts, but as it is not seen there is no progress in the grief journey. Like many things in life, the easy way out can be the hardest in the long run. While trying to escape from reality is an open space for imagination which can be much more terrifying than the reality. Many families keep children from participating in funerals. In such cases it is common to hear, children reports saying “Grandpa was traveling and did not say goodbye to me,” “my mother was gone, she left me.” Having the beloved one near us brings the realization of the pain and helps in the elaboration process.

5.The social meaning value

When something happens to us the first thing we want and need to do is to find meaning. Telling the news, whether good or bad, is not necessarily a search for empathy, but a natural response that we all have for things that cause us joy or pain. We need to tell in order to make sense of the fact. The social significance is perhaps one of the main reasons why to hold a funeral. We join in the funeral or burial / cremation so that our friends and family show us how much that person meant to them and vice versa. A dear friend, from VFSOL, told me it was very important to have contact with the people who went to her father’s funeral. It was very meaningful to know how much his father was loved and how many people cared about him (and her). Since then she hasn’t missed any funeral or viewing because she knows how much her presence means.