A Toronto Transformation

What to Say at a Funeral

Pink carnations

Funerals are the worst.

They’re sad and they’re awkward and uncomfortable as hell.

They’re also inevitable.

The first one I attended was my great grandmother’s. I think I was 7 or 8. I remember my cousin and I getting a severe case of the giggles and I remember being reprimanded by my uncle at the reception afterwards for casually mentioning that nana had died.

“We don’t say ‘died,’ he explained. “We say she passed away.”

I remember being baffled by that. Still am, really.

We want so desperately to separate ourselves from death that we can’t even say the word. Not even at a funeral.

Death has always been mysterious, and while science has unravelled some of those mysteries, I think the practical fact of it has become even more mysterious to us in modern North American society.

We no longer wash the bodies of our loved ones ourselves, or dress them for the funeral on our kitchen tables. We certainly are not as likely to sit them up and pose for portraits with them the way our Victorian ancestors did.

If we’re lucky, we don’t regularly come in contact with death unless we attend a memorial service.

I think that’s why so many of us feel not only grief, but a lot of social anxiety when we attend a funeral.

For some, the anxiety starts with making the decision to attend. When the deceased is a close friend or family member, there’s no question of whether or not you’ll go, but it gets a little fuzzy when you’re a bit more removed. Should you go if an old friend or a coworker has lost a loved one? Should you go if you didn’t know the deceased?

Obviously it’s a case-by-case situation, but I tend to err on the side of attending if I am fond of my coworker and if the funeral information has been shared with me or made public. I don’t worry too much about not having known the deceased. I figure I’m there as a visible, physical show of support to those left behind.

Some people seem to think that they don’t need to go unless explicitly invited. The problem with this is no one sends out engraved funeral invitations. Your grieving friend or coworker is busy dealing with funeral arrangements and wills and just plain old grief. They don’t have time to think about making sure you know you are welcome to support them. They just need you to show up and do it.

I’ve known several people who avoid going because they’re “bad at funerals.” They don’t know what to say or do or how to act.

But here’s the thing: NO ONE really knows how to act or what to say at a funeral. Who is good at funerals? Funeral directors, perhaps? Still each gathering is so different, even they must not always be able to be prepared for what they might face or how people might react. I’m sure many a funeral director has said the “wrong” thing many a time.

Again, everyone is different, and you never know what someone will find comforting. It can be really nice to share a favourite anecdote about the deceased if you knew them. If you didn’t, avoid trying to cheer your grieving pal up or offering words that may ring hollow (like, “at least they’re in a better place” – definitely skip that one unless you’re really sure the person you’re speaking to believes in that “better place” you’re referring to).
Just keep it simple with a sincere “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “I’m here for you.” and throw in a hug or a hand clasp or shoulder squeeze. And if you do blurt out something weird, (like when all I could think to say to a friend whose dad had passed away was “So. This is the actual worst,” before going on to tackle her mother, whom I had never met, in a bear hug), don’t worry too much. Odds are, the  person won’t even remember what you said anyway. They’ll just remember that you showed up to offer support at a really hard time.

What advice would you give to nervous funeral attendees? Have you ever said anything weird/inappropriate at a funeral?

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2 Responses to What to Say at a Funeral

  • Jennee R. says:

    What a thoughtful post. You’re right – no one is ‘good’ at funerals. There have been occasions where I’ve debated attending a service but opted out because I didn’t necessarily know the deceased. I look back now and realize I should have attended to show support for the loved ones left behind, because really, that’s what it’s about!

    Some really good guidelines here. Thank you for writing this!

  • Leslie says:

    Very helpful advice on a topic that we tend not to think about until arrives on our doorstep unannounced. Strangely, before clicking on your blog I was just reading about a fairly new neighbour who just lost his wife and wondering what to do. I don’t know either of them too well except for casual exchanges and friendly hellos on the street, so I was thinking about what neighbours can do. I think a card and some kind of food will be appropriate in this case.

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