How To Attend A Funeral

Sadly, most of us will be called upon to attend a funeral at some point in our lives. These occasions can be pretty stressful (what do I say? how do I act?) but our tips will help you get through them.

First of all, just go.

Look, nobody's psyched to attend a funeral. If you were close to the deceased, you're grieving. And if you weren't as close, you may well be worried about how to interact with those who were. You don't want to say the wrong thing or offend them, and also the funeral will force you to think about death and sorrow and all that awful stuff, and it can seem a lot easier just to skip it. Don't.

Of her first funeral, for a former teacher, Deirdre Sullivan writes,

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.

Even if you barely say anything at all — even if you act like an awkward teenager — the family will be glad you were there. And so will you. (And if you're worried about what to wear, we have tips for that too).

When in doubt, do what other people do.

Different religions have different funeral traditions — and every family mourns in its own way. I spoke with Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die, who advises that if you're not sure what's appropriate for a given service, "just watch what others do." Sit when they sit, stand when they stand, et cetera. This is easier if, as Ashenburg says, you don't sit right up front. Another way to deal with unfamiliar traditions is to do a little research beforehand — if the service is being held in a place of worship, take a look at its website, or do a quick search on funeral traditions for its denomination. It may be worthwhile to find out the funeral is open-casket — if you've never been to one before, the experience can be disturbing and worth preparing yourself for. As Ashenburg points out, though, "the vast majority of societies throughout history and around the world have looked at the dead. […] It is a mark of respect and fellow-feeling to view the dead, if that is what their family has chosen."

But don't do anything you're not comfortable with.

Storytime: my grandparents were Christian, and I am not. Their funerals were held at their church, and included a fair amount of the things that I understand typically go on in a church, such as talking about God and saying psalms. I was still able to appreciate the services, but there were certain things I didn't want to do, like sing the hymns. So I didn't. I don't think anyone noticed. At many funerals, there are people of several different religions present, and no one's going to judge you if you don't observe every single tradition. Says Ashenburg of funeral rituals, "if it's something you're not comfortable with, such as kissing the corpse (it sometimes happens) you are under no obligation to follow suit."

Don't feel like you have to say something creative.

Lots of people feel tongue-tied when called upon to give condolences, but no one is expecting you to be some kind of Death Genius. "I'm so sorry for your loss" is completely fine — the fact that it's been said many times before doesn't make it any less meaningful. Saying something kind and sincere about the deceased is also a great option — "he/she was such a wonderful person/a great friend/an amazing teacher." You can't really go wrong with praise here, as long as it's heartfelt. Adds Ashenburg:

Do not attempt any silver-lining comments, e.g. I'm so glad he didn't suffer, or how good that you had so many years together. The mourner is not in the mood for being reminded of their "luck." Don't refer to any morning experiences of yours either; this is their particular time.

However, if you have a story about a positive experience you shared with the deceased, or a time when he or she made a difference in your life, this can be nice for the bereaved to hear. You don't need to share every positive experience, though — a funeral receiving line can be exhausting, and if you're in a long one, it can be good to keep your comments somewhat brief.

If you're delivering a eulogy, think of it as a celebration.

Sue Bailey, co-author (with Carmen Flowers) of Grave Expectations: Planning The End Like There's No Tomorrow, told me,

First, we always recommend humor whenever possible. It is so absolutely healing that if you can bring it into a eulogy - do! This, of course, isn't easy under the best of circumstances and especially at this time. But we find people are actually extremely open at this time and even gentle stories with gentle humor can be quite wonderful and uplifting.

No story is too big or too small to tell about the person you are celebrating. That's key to keep in mind — truly celebrate the person and don't just give it lip service. Too often people fear being natural in a eulogy. We advocate saying things you might say about someone if they were alive and you were celebrating a big birthday, for example.

Bailey is right that humor can be a great way of celebrating someone — it can also be a way to begin healing. My aunt told funny stories at my grandparents' funerals because it was the only way she could get through a eulogy without bawling — in the process, she managed to get us all laughing and thinking about the joy in my grandparents' lives and not just the pain of their deaths. She didn't sugarcoat these lives, either — some of her stories involved my grandparents being silly or unreasonable or having crappy senses of direction. But everything she said was something they would've been able to laugh at had they been living, and she helped us remember them not as ideals, but as they were. Says Bailey, "Life is frequently best at its messiest and this is what we're celebrating at a funeral — the person who just died and the whole effort of life itself."

If you're not sure what to say, consider giving a reading.

Bailey adds, "If someone is really stuck, you can always just recite the person's favorite poem or the lyrics to their favorite song." When I spoke at my grandfather's funeral, I just read a short section from The Odyssey, which he loved. It can be hard to put your feelings about someone's life and death into words, especially if you're under time pressure — and using someone else's words can be a great alternative.

Pro tip: if you're worried about crying, don't make eye contact.

Every book on public speaking ever told you to make periodic eye contact with your audience. This is great advice, except at a funeral. If you are trying to talk about a dead person, and you keep looking out into a sea of faces, all tear-stained from grief over this person's death, you are totally going to lose it. I am Not a Crier (my not-crying abilities were one factor in my volunteering to speak at Grandpa's funeral in the first place) and I totally teared up within seconds of looking at the audience. Just look at your notes, or look out at some fixed point above everybody's heads, and you'll be much more likely to maintain a stiff upper lip.

But if you don't, it's okay. Funerals are one of the only places where it's 100% acceptable to cry in public. It's also acceptable not to. Everybody grieves differently, and on a different timeframe. Funerals aren't about Doing the Right Thing or Feeling the Right Way — they're about showing up and being with other people while they, and perhaps you, are going through a loss. And the fact that just your presence someplace can help people start to heal is, when you think about it, kind of uplifting.

Grave Expectations: Planning The End Like There's No Tomorrow
The Mourner's Dance: What We Do When People Die

Image via Ivonne Wierink/Shutterstock.com