What is a proper funeral?
Short answer: Anything the next-of-kin wants it to be.
What constitutes a funeral in the U.S has undergone a radical change and probably should be redefined.
A funeral is commonly thought of as a ceremony or set of rituals carried out by the survivors of a deceased person preceding the disposition of the remains. Archaeological evidence shows that human beings have long engaged in rites and rituals, caring for their dead, and sometimes sacrificially causing death. Humans still cause others to die, but at least overt human sacrifice is not celebrated.
Funerals in Different Cultures
Little has changed in some parts of the world, where century old traditions and methods of disposition of the deceased remain intact. Cremation on a funeral pyre in India is the custom among Sikhs and Hindus, but it is being threatened by an acute shortage of wood, prompting technological changes in the structure of the pyre to conserve wood. Yet the supporting traditions persist because of strong cultural and religious ties.
In the West, burial was the traditional method of disposition but economic, demographic, and cultural factors have combined to make cremation an increasingly attractive option. The main reason for this change is cost. The cost of a traditional burial with casket, church services, a vault or grave liner, and a cemetery plot can easily exceed $10,000.
Cremation, including a basic memorial service, costs around $1,500 depending on the venue. A direct cremation alone can cost as low as $700 in some parts of the country. Setting cost aside, many believe that cremation is a more environmentally friendly option.
In the metropolitan Seattle area, many people have no ancestors present and may not even be aware of ancestral funeral traditions. Many have no church affiliation. Free from cultural or religious restraints, they decide for themselves what constitutes an appropriate funeral. It is in this context that the term “funeral” needs to be redefined.
Before venturing to define what may now constitute a funeral, it may be instructive to explore when the disposition of a human body is obviously not accompanied by a funeral. Even indigent people who have no known next-of-kin or friends are accorded a high degree of dignity when government authorities contract with a local funeral provider for disposition. There may only be a silent recognition that a fellow human has met his inevitable demise, but under the circumstances, is it any less a funeral? People lost at sea and not recovered are frequently memorialized by their families in funeral services. So there are funerals with no body present, and there are bodies over whom no one chants prayers, but who are respectfully put to rest by strangers. Only the person who dies alone, perhaps in the wilderness, who has no one who cares about him, and whose body is not recovered, does not have a funeral.
Is the funeral for the living or for the dead?
Religions will disagree about the reasons for prayers, ceremonies, and rituals. Perhaps they are necessary to help the departed with the journey into the hereafter, but arguably they benefit the living also to the extent they are embraced by the participants.
When the participants feel no need for traditional formalities, and simply pick up the cremated remains of their departed relative and place them in an urn on the mantle or scatter them in the water or mountain side, one can make a strong case for defining a funeral as the simple act of carrying the remains to a final resting place.