Modern Funeral Ceremonies: A Break with the Past

By Camille Cusset

Whether it’s balancing an urn on a motorcycle seat or hanging photos in tree branches, alternatives to traditional funeral rites are diverse and varied nowadays.

According to sociologist Laurence Hardy, private funeral services no longer base themselves on narrowly billing for goods and services, but on “a personalized accompaniment of loved ones in mourning as well as a personalization of ceremonies.”

Indeed, personalized ceremonies are becoming more and more common in North America and in Europe. Letting people’s imagination run wild, they break with traditional, stricter customs, allowing for original ways to see off the deceased.

“It was already gaining in popularity before the pandemic, because it changes the atmosphere. It’s a lot less dismal. People feel more comfortable living in the moment rather than feeling a duty to be sad,” explains John Tittel, Sales Director, Pre-arrangements for Magnus Poirier, a Québec-based funeral home chain that offers personalized funeral products and services.

Tittel began working with Magnus Poirier when he created the natural cemetery Les Sentiers, in Prévost in the Laurentians. He then became the spokesperson and the director of several projects for the company.

The variety of services on offer allows the bereaved to formulate their ceremony as a function of two criteria: legality and security. “We’re like a blank canvas, where people show up and paint their own picture” he explains.

Changes of Custom

For a long time, Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, conducted most of the funeral services in the western world. Laurence Hardy explains that the Vatican II council Catholic Church reforms of the early 1960s assured that the set of funeral services available could be conducted by private companies, and in varying formats.

Historian Yves Hébert, in his article La Thanatopraxie au Québec (Embalming in Québec), explains that embalming, a technique for conserving the body, was adopted in this province after the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Hébert also says that the practice is mentioned in a basic treatise on medical matters published in 1870 by the Soeurs de la Charité de l’Asile de la Providence, a Montreal-based order of nuns.

Funeral parlors multiplied in Quebec during the 1940s and 50s. The deceased would be viewed at the funeral parlor during a viewing period for loved ones. Depending on the deceased’s religion, a church service would come next. In the case of cremation, the burial of the remains is replaced by incinerating them. Hébert says that the Catholic Church recognized incineration as a legitimate manner of disposing of a body in 1962, though the practice was already widespread in North America.

Hardy explains that variety in funeral services arose because people were dying in hospital more often. Because of this, community participation was reduced because the deceased’s body didn’t come back to the family residence, but was put in a funeral home or a funeral chamber administered by a private funeral company. To respond to this, companies offered specialized funeral services to cater to the individual needs of their clients.

Cultural Diversity

Québec has many cultural communities. When it comes to funeral services, the presence of counsellors from these communities allows for funeral homes to better understand the needs of the bereaved. “Who better than someone from the same culture to know…how people feel, how they live their grief, or how they interpret certain gestures and acts” says Tittel.

He adds that knowledge of different funeral rites allows his company to offer a place where grieving families can be taken care of.

Pandemic Difficulties

Most experts agree that funeral rites help the bereavement process. “Seeing the remains is also a helpful element in handling loss. It’s the main difficulty during a pandemic,” explains Josée Jacques, a specialist in grief and communication. In effect, the health restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 limited visitations and the number of mourners who could attend funeral services.

As for Magnus Poirier, services continued to be offered respecting public health directives. “During the pandemic, we had to rethink everything in order to respect the rules and yet continue to take care of families,” Tittel says.  

French version on the Reflet de Société website

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