The Big Send Off: Funeral Traditions

[Updated March 2019] I recently watched Billy Connolly’s “The Big Send Off”, looking at different death traditions and funeral traditions around the world. It was a fascinating examination of how we humans have a universal need to grieve the loss of a loved one by demonstrating how much we cared about them and recognizing their life achievements.

At the time I watched this program my elderly brother-in-law was dying. He was suffering with Parkinson’s disease and had mourned the passing of my sister since she left us 16 years before. To say he was ready to go was an understatement. He was keen, and determined neither to live in a nursing home nor to be kept alive through medical intervention.

Funeral traditions around the world differ dramatically

quotation about deathBut although we all share a need to give our loved ones a “good send off” we do this in many different ways. Each culture, religion and community having their own specific practices. Of course, one cultures’ deepest traditions often seem extremely odd to other cultures.

The funeral traditions for my brother-in-law’s funeral were different from our past family funerals because his background and life had been quite different. His service was dignified and beautifully planned, honouring his Fijian upbringing, his army career, his family life and his eccentricities. The eulogies were full of wonderful memories, emotion and humour, in equal parts. A powerpoint presentation of photographs taken throughout his life illustrated many of his life stories, most of which were unknown to those who knew him in his later years.

The burial service was poignant as my sister had asked to be cremated and to have her ashes buried with her husband. And so we shared the emotions of farewelling her again as well.

A good old-fashioned wake

And then there was the gathering afterwards! We kept it simple; just drinks and nibbles for extended family and close friends. But many of the people hadn’t seen one another for a long time. Because of this it turned into quite a party. My brother-in-law’s relatives had come from interstate and overseas. Some people, from the two sides of the family, met for the first time. Our extended family reunited. Many cousins had not seen one another since the last family funeral so had a lot to catch up on.

The wine and beer flowed freely and the food was passed around. The volume of the gathering grew steadily over many hours. In some ways the funeral tradition of our Irish forebears – having a celebratory wake – was upheld very well.

No disrespect is meant when I say a great time was had by all! My brother-in-law was farewelled in the manner that he would have enjoyed and of which he’d have thoroughly approved. I think Billy Connolly would agree we had an excellent “Big Send Off”.

How does your family farewell its loved ones?

Are there certain funeral traditions that are always followed? Or are the services tailored to really reflect the person whose life is being honoured?


Jenni Proctor