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Why You Should Always Attend the Funeral… Even When It’s Uncomfortable

We often hear of someone that was unsure whether or not they should attend a funeral, or whether or not they were expected to attend. Today, we are sharing a story of a young woman who believes in always attending the funeral.  “Always Go to the Funeral” is a beautiful essay by Deirdre Sullivan about how her father taught her to go to funerals. She writes:

I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that.

The first time he said it directly to me, I was 16 and trying to get out of going to calling hours for Miss Emerson, my old fifth grade math teacher. I did not want to go. My father was unequivocal. “Dee,” he said, “you’re going. Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family.”

So my dad waited outside while I went in. It was worse than I thought it would be: I was the only kid there. When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson’s shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, “Sorry about all this,” and stalked away. But, for that deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered 20 years ago, Miss Emerson’s mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes.

That was the first time I went un-chaperoned, but my parents had been taking us kids to funerals and calling hours as a matter of course for years. By the time I was 16, I had been to five or six funerals. I remember two things from the funeral circuit: bottomless dishes of free mints and my father saying on the ride home, “You can’t come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral.”

Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that.

“Always go to the funeral” means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

Deirdre Sullivan grew up in Syracuse, and traveled the world working odd jobs before attending law school at Northwestern University. She’s now a freelance attorney living in Brooklyn. Sullivan says her father’s greatest gift to her and her family was how he ushered them through the process of his death.

Dee has chosen to attend funerals, and has made it a part of her life, not allowing herself the option of not attending. We encourage our readers today to also consider making this part of your philosophy. For those in the depths of grief, few things mean more than being surrounded by people whose presence acknowledges the pain, gives comfort, and provides a powerfully important sense that they are not alone in all of this.

Perhaps we should all take Dee’s father’s advice, “You can’t come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral.”

Funeral Etiquette

Today, we’d like to share tips on funeral etiquette. You may find yourself unsure of what is acceptable. Here are answers to some of the most common etiquette questions that have come up.

What to do upon hearing the news:
It can be very difficult to cope with the news of an immediate family member passing away. Those that are closest to the deceased will be grieving and trying to cope with their loss. The best thing that you could do for someone that experiences such a loss is to reach out to them and offer your condolences and assistance.

The family may need some help, whether it be with children, running a quick errand, or needing a listening ear. Offer to help. Often times, creating a dish or two for the family can go a long way. The family may be very busy with funeral planning and arrangements, so a nice hot meal or something they can easily reheat is usually more than welcome.

If you find yourself trying to contact the family, but getting a voicemail, it is acceptable to leave a message. In your message, express your sympathy and state your intentions. Let them know that you are available to help.

Who should attend:
If you are close to the deceased or to someone who is close to the deceased, you should attend the services. It is often acceptable to attend just the wake, and not the funeral, if you are not close to the deceased or the family of the deceased.

As for children, in most cases, it is best that you do not bring children to the services, if you are not family. It is at the discretion of the family whether or not children who were close to the deceased should attend. The child’s grieving process should be taken into consideration when making this decision, as often times, just as with adults, attending the service may help them with closure.

It is customary at a wake, to approach the casket and take a moment of silence or prayer. A wake is a time to honor and recognize the deceased, and a final viewing of the body is seen as a sign of respect. It is not mandatory to view the body, but it is often expected. However, if you feel that you won’t be able to do this calmly, you should consider foregoing this.

There is often a receiving line near the casket. The people in this line are the closest loved ones to the deceased. It is often expected that you will express sympathy to each of those people.

Sending Flowers:
Flowers are a symbol of sympathy towards the family, and is a way of honoring the deceased. Many florists offer arrangements specifically for funerals. If you are unsure of where you should purchase the flowers, check the funeral home’s website, often times there is a link to the florist they recommend.

It is almost always acceptable to send flowers, unless the notice specifically says not to. Some families wish to receive donations to a charity, in lieu of flowers. If you are ordering flowers, be sure to order flowers as soon as possible so that they arrive in time for the service.

What to wear:
For many people, wearing black to a funeral is a symbol of grieving and sympathy. Although the strict black attire is not as common today, one should show respect for the family by dressing in subdued colors and clothing that is conservative (not too loud or revealing). For men, a suit is often the best option. A polo shirt and slacks can be acceptable, too. For women, dressing in a skirt at about knee level or slacks, and shirts with conservative neck lines are appropriate. The key is to wear clothing that does not draw attention to you.

Some colors and styles are culturally inappropriate for certain traditions, so if you are attending a service of a faith or ethnicity you are not familiar with, ask family members or friends if the family follows the traditions of their faith/ethnicity, and then research or ask about clothing that is culturally acceptable.

Knowing what to say:
At the service, you are going to be expressing sympathy to the family. Do not worry about choosing the “right” words. Simply say what you feel. If you are having difficulty in communicating your feelings, saying something such as “sorry for your loss”, is acceptable. Try to say something from the heart. Keep in mind that during this time your presence is what the family really appreciates.

Who Should Attend A Wake

When a distant relative, acquaintance, coworker, or friend’s family member passes, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether or not to attend the wake. So when is it appropriate to do so, and under what circumstances can you forego attending? Here are some guidelines:

Keep in mind that a wake is an opportunity to express your respect and love for the deceased as well as an opportunity to show sympathy to the family. If you are close to a family member of the deceased, it may be comforting to the family to see you at the wake. Even if it is a short visit, there is a kind gesture in attending, signing in, and paying your condolences. This gesture goes a long way and is not usually forgotten.

If you knew the deceased, but are not sure if you were close enough to them, ask yourself how affected you are by the news. If you were affected by the death in a strong way, attending the wake can give you closure and forward you through the grieving process. Remember, It’s okay to do it for reasons other than to comfort the family.

Another circumstance that often comes up is when it pertains to the death of a coworker or a coworker’s loved one. Again, you should start by evaluating how close your relationship is/was with the coworker and determine whether to go or not from there. If you work closely with him or her, you may want to consider a visit to the wake, even if it is short. Otherwise, a sympathy card is a sufficient expression of sympathy.

One of the only circumstances that would be deemed “unacceptable” for you to attend a wake is if the family has opted for a private funeral service, which means that attendance is by invitation only. Unless requested by the family, you should not attend a private funeral or wake.

Remember that a wake is not only an opportunity to pay respect and show love for the deceased, but also a time to offer you closure and show sympathy and comfort to the family of the deceased. Follow your heart and your feelings when deciding whether you should attend a wake.

Talking About Death With Aging Parents

Talking about death with aging parents is likely to be emotionally heavy. The topic brings forth an acknowledgement that life is not forever and the feelings of grief that come along with losing a loved one.

Before bringing up the discussion, be sure to understand your parents and their fears. Realize that they may be dealing with the deaths of peers, friends, siblings, and others in their age-range around them, so they may be particularly sensitive to the topic.

Share with your parents how hard the conversation is for you, because of how much he or she means to you and how you can’t imagine being without them. Also share how much you want to treasure the time you have together and how you’d like to help ensure their needs are met, both in life and upon death.

Ask your parents to discuss death with you and be sure to go at their pace. They may need to take their time in talking about death and also regarding how they want different aspects to be handled.

You should determine what your parents feelings and wishes are not only in death, but also their preferences in the event that they become sick or hospitalized.

At minimum, you should find out if your parents have the following already in place: a will, living will, an estate plan, and what your parents’ wishes are for burial, cremation and/or other funeral arrangements. The burden will be removed off of you and other loved ones if a will, living will, estate plan, and pre-planned funeral are in place.

All-in-all it’s important to connect with your parents in this emotional conversation to ensure that you can confidently execute their wishes. Although it’s a difficult conversation to have, you will feel relieved to have a better understanding of their needs and wants.

Funeral Etiquette: Knowing What To Say

In addition to the emotions and sympathy one feels when attending a funeral, you might also find yourself struggling with what to say and how to say it. It may be especially hard to find the right words when you do not know the person who has passed and are attending the funeral service to support a friend, colleague or neighbor with the loss of their loved one.

We all know that no matter how well thought out our words are, there simply is nothing we can say that will completely turn their grief around. But there are still some considerations that you may want to take note of in finding the right words to say.

Please always keep in mind that even if the family members are holding themselves together, they are still feeling deep sorrow. It’s important, in most cases, to remain serious and compassionate to avoid making someone feel uncomfortable. In some cultures, a casual approach may be misinterpreted as disrespectful, therefore unless you are very familiar with the family, try to keep a serious tone and conservative approach.

Sympathy and compassion are the two emotions that should be conveyed through your words. Although somewhat of a cliché, speak from your heart. In most cases, it isn’t what you say, it is the fact that you are there that means more to the family than anything. Simply stating that you are sorry for their loss, is an acceptable phrase, but sometimes hearing something more means a lot to those coping with their loss.

When helping a friend or loved one through this difficult time, avoid distracting them or making them feel guilty for their sorrows. Never tell them to stay strong for the sake of the children or for any others. And truly be there for them. Chances are, they just need a friend to listen to them.

Sometimes it’s not only about what you say, but it’s also what you do. Write a short letter or give them a card expressing your sympathy. Sometimes simply hugging the family and letting them know that you are here to help them out goes a long way. If your religious and the family is as well, letting them know that you are praying for them, will also be well received. Offering to help with preparations, children, meals or other tasks is also a great way to show you care.

Funeral Etiquette: Sending Flowers

When one hears of a death, the thought of sending flowers to be displayed during the wake and funeral service most likely will come up. Sending flowers is a traditional and appropriate way to convey your sympathy for the family, while at the same time honoring the deceased. The following guidelines are based on the most common questions we receive with regards to flower arrangements:

Who should send flowers?
Unless the family has requested donations in lieu of flowers or have directly expressed wishes not to receive them, it is always appropriate to send flowers as a show of respect regardless of your relationship to the family or deceased.

What kind of flowers should I choose?
Because the wake and funeral process often lasts up to a week, you should choose flowers that will last for several days. it’s important that you make sure to select flowers that are sturdy and do not require much care, such as roses or lilies. Tulips may be very nice to look at but they are too delicate to last for a day or two without proper handling and care. In most cases, your florist will have suggested arrangements that include the flowers that are best to last the necessary duration.

A NOTE OF CAUTION: Flower color choices should stay within what is considered respectful, based on the customs of the family. In most cases, light colors such as white, light pink and peach are deemed acceptable, as are dark purple or magenta. Red flowers are accepted in some cultures, but not in others. If you are not aware of the family’s belief system, we caution you on purchasing red flowers. For example, in Chinese traditions, red symbolizes happiness and would be very inappropriate at a funeral/wake.

When should I order flowers?
As flowers are typically delivered to the funeral home on the day before or the day of the wake, it is best to order flowers as soon as you’ve heard the news of the passing.

Should I send flowers directly to the family?
We advise against this as flowers sent directly to the house will eventually die and the family will have to discard them, which may remind them of their loss. We recommend that you send flowers to the funeral home.

What should I write on the card?
When sending flowers, make sure you let the receiving party know that it is from you by attaching a simple greeting card to the arrangement. Let them know that you share the grief with them and that you are there to help them out in this difficult situation. Be authentic and sympathetic. It is often asked “what should I write?”  Stay away from cliches. Write a sincere message. It will go a long way.

Can I send items other than flowers?
Often times, flowers are not the only way to express your sympathy. Other tributes or gestures may include sending a meal, baked goods, a fruit basket or other food-basket. These items should be sent directly to the family’s home.

In summary, as far as flowers go, there isn’t much that you can do incorrectly. Unless the family has requested that you do not send or bring flowers, your gesture will be very well received, and will offer a sense of comfort and sympathy to them. Even if you stumble or missed one of the above items, most will appreciate and be comforted by the fact that you care. And after all, that’s all that counts.


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