How Are Your Funeral Manners?

by Sue
(New York State)

My sister died following a 7-year battle with cancer. I was in my 30's at the time; she was 46. My sister was a very successful health care provider who had moved from our small town about 25 years prior, and had made quite a name for herself in her field.

My parents had her body flown to our hometown in New York, and of course, visitation and her funeral were part of this plan, as well. My sister had lived with someone for 20 years, and frankly none of us were too crazy about him, but that's not the point of this story. My dad had a very hard time coping with the loss, and decided to stay stationed on the front porch of the funeral home to receive visitors.

I was in the funeral home when one of my father's cousins approached me and said, "Where's your dad?" I said, "He's out on the porch greeting visitors because he is upset." And the woman said to me, "Is he upset because your sister lived with a man?" And to that I replied with a bit of anger, "No, he's just upset because his 46-year-old daughter is dead!"

After reading the story, you may think the woman was insensitive or ignorant. Perhaps you think my response was inappropriate to the question, but the bottom line is - neither one of us was inappropriate. Our culture's discomfort with grief and loss makes us say and do things we would not say or do under normal circumstances.

The woman who said this was an 80-something Catholic-Italian who was raised on the premise that living together is a sin. Though I am personally not a fan of the concept, I can understand why this woman would think that this was why my father wasn't in the funeral home, as many years ago parents would disown their children if they lived with someone. My response was appropriate because this is what grief and loss does to someone; it gives you a sense of entitlement to anger and sadness.

Fortunately, funerals are not a part of daily life like eating meals or going to work, so our "funeral manners" are only dusted off for those occasions when needed, and if it has been a while, we sometimes forget what appropriate really is. For me, I wish I could take it back and do it over because I believe it was an innocent funeral-discomfort remark, but I can't undo what was done, but I will tell you that I am even more aware of my own "funeral manners" because of it.

If you don't know what to say to someone who is grieving, say nothing. The fact that you are there is what really matters the very most. I can remember every face I saw at my sister's calling hours and funeral; many people hugged me, and a few just walked through the line or prayed at her casket, but every gesture has gravity and meaning at a time like this to a person experiencing the intensely difficult loss. What you say and do at a time like this is very memorable because it is a sign of loving care; so, be sure to make it a good memory.

Response from Dr. DeFoore

Some very good points, Sue. Thanks for your contribution. I think you will help other site visitors to think about these important questions.

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