If you do not believe in the afterlife, or if you do not believe in the efficacy and friendliness of prayer for the dead, then I am not offended if you say that “Funerals are for the living, not the dead.” You are wrong, but you are being truthful to your own theology.
If you are a Catholic and you say that, you don’t know your own faith.
The reason we have funerals is not so we can make a party out of medical waste disposal. It isn’t even so that we can remember and honor the dead person while we work through our sad feelings. Nor is it about celebrating someone turning into a soul-butterfly and leaving his corpse-chrysalis behind.
First of all, Catholics don’t believe that you’re ditching your useless husk, or anything like that. If you have been Baptized, then it’s not just your soul that received an indelible seal. Your body was sealed in Baptism also.* Your body shared in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, in receiving the Sacrament of Baptism. It may be dead at the moment and it may rot away to less than dust (although incorruptible bodies of saints and miracle-working relics are signs that dead bodies aren’t necessarily dead where Christ is concerned). Your soul may be in Heaven or Hell, but that is a temporary and somewhat incomplete state. Come the general resurrection, your body will be back, albeit new and improved. Body and soul will reunite. We will be judged by Christ as whole persons, not as souls alone. So we must honor and pray for the body as well as the soul of the deceased. The body is not separate and disposable; it is part of us being whole persons.
Second, Catholics believe in the Communion of Saints, and that all members of Christ’s Body can always pray for each other. The dead are not so dead that they aren’t alive in Christ and that we can’t pray for them. We believe that they pray for us. We do not believe in “soul sleep,” or in anything that cuts us off from each other. (Unless you are so stubbornly unrepentant that you’ve gone to Hell, which pretty much means you cut yourself off from the Body of Christ. “I am the Vine, you are the branches” doesn’t work if you chop yourself away.)
Third, we are like the soldiers of the Maccabees; we believe that prayer for the dead can help them. When we die, our sins may have been forgiven by God, but the effects of our sins remain in the world and on us. We need to be made clean of these things by God, and we believe that prayers from others will help us somehow. Those undergoing this mysterious “Purgatory” process are praying for us, too, so it is only fair that we do our bit for them. This is also the Communion of the Saints.
So funerals are for the dead. People who attend a funeral are meant to be praying for the dead (and asking the dead to pray for us, because that’s polite and we need it).
That said, it is of course important at funerals to bury the dead. That is one of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, and the Bible encourages one to do this even if other people want the corpse to lay around on the ground and get eaten by vultures, and threaten to kill you if you bury the dead. Even pagan religions thought of funeral rites as one of the basic acts of humanity and piety that every decent person must do. Humans should treat dead humans like humans, not like animals or landscaping.
It is also important to comfort those who are mourning. This is one of the Seven Works of Spiritual Mercy, and it’s about as basic a piece of niceness as there is.
Honoring the dead person by remembering their good deeds is also a good thing to do, and helps comfort mourners as well.
Finally, it’s true that if you have any kind of brain or heart, a funeral will make you think about your own death, and whether you are living in a good way or a bad one. It is a chance for repentance and for turning away from sin. That’s the value of a “memento mori.” That’s what the sequence Dies Irae is about.
But a funeral is for the dead. Helping the living is included; but it’s a side benefit. If you didn’t know the dead person, and you were the only person burying that dead person and it gave you no special feelings at all, you would still be helping the dead person by burying him. And that’s why helping the dead used to be a major element of stories and songs throughout the world.
We tend to comfort people these days by pretending that the dead were never really alive, or that remembering them is exactly the same as immortality, or that death doesn’t matter to anybody except because it makes us sad. Or that every human being who dies is automatically going to Heaven. Or that death doesn’t involve any kind of loss to the deceased or you, if you are enough of a believer.
None of this is true. Lying to ourselves about this stuff does no good. Depriving the dead of our loving prayers, just so that we can lie to ourselves and spackle over legitimate grief, is a miserly sort of thing to do.
If there had been no Fall in Eden and death had never come into the world, then there would never have been any separation of soul from body, or loved one from loved one. But sin and death did come, and we don’t live in a perfect world. We have reasons to grieve as well as rejoice. And the dead want us to pray for them.
* Of course the unbaptized will also rise again and be judged. But you don’t actually count as Catholic until you’ve been baptized, unless you got martyred and had a Baptism of desire. (Hence all the jokes by Catholics about their kids being temporarily “pagan babies.”) So if you go to Mass a lot and never got baptized, this is one of many reasons you should get that done.