When paying your respects, it can be daunting to find the right words. When someone you care about is in mourning, nothing feels quite right—and the anxiety of saying “the wrong thing” can be paralyzing.
We asked Claudia Coenen, certified grief counselor and Fellow in Thanatology (an advanced certification in the the study of Death, Dying, and Bereavement) to shed some light on funeral etiquette.
Next time you find yourself at a funeral—or a memorial service, celebration of life, wake, or shiva—we hope these tips empower you to share a meaningful, healing moment with a bereaved loved one or family member.
What should you say to a grieving person at a funeral?
Right off the bat, Coenen encourages those who might be at a loss for words to perhaps… not say anything at all.
“Just show up,” she says, simply. “It’s completely okay to hang back and sit at a memorial in a compassionate way. A warm look or a gentle touch can go farther than platitudes, which can sound insincere and annoying to bereaved people.”
If you do wish to offer your condolences to the mourners, “pay attention to the setting, to who’s there,” Coenen explains. “Don’t push yourself forward, wait your turn. Listen to what the bereaved person is saying, and match their tone.”
When it’s your turn to speak to the bereaved, she recommends a few tried-and-true words of sympathy:
- “I’m sorry”
- “I’ll be here for you”
- “They were a lovely person/they made me feel welcome/they taught me so much” (this lets the bereaved person know that you cared about this person as well, that this person’s life mattered
- “I’m holding you in my heart”
- “How are you?” (wait for them to answer, then really listen)
What if you have more to say?
Sharing stories about a deceased person can be welcome, but you need to be sensitive to the time and place, Coenen cautions.
“At shivas and wakes, it’s common to share stories about the deceased,” she says. “Sometimes guests might be invited to say something. If you knew the deceased person well, come prepared with a small statement.”
Perhaps a family member has asked you to share some more formal or elaborate words about the deceased, in the form of a eulogy. This might seem like a lot of pressure, but Coenen has some specific advice for striking the right tone.
And perhaps this goes without saying, but we’re glad Coenen said it anyway: “Only tell positive stories.”
What specific words of comfort can you offer a grieving young person?
When approaching a young person who has lost someone close to them, understand that young children and adolescents grieve differently than adults. Even if they’re not crying—or if they’re playing— “don’t assume they aren’t grieving,” she says.
Kids have a different perspective and different ways of handling loss. “I had a client who told me that when she was 6-years-old, she turned cartwheels at her father’s memorial because everyone was so sad,” Coenen recalls. “She thought this would cheer them up.”
As far as what to say, Coenen urges you to not overthink it: “A hug and a warm, ‘I really loved your dad,’ is enough.”
“If you can establish a connection, you might ask a child or teen to tell you what they loved most about the person who died, but don’t be surprised or offended if they don’t want to talk about it.”
What not to say to any grieving person
To avoid an awkward situation, Coenen broke down the cringe-worthy platitudes you should avoid saying to a grieving family or a grieving friend, and exactly why you might want to remove these phrases from your funeral vocabulary.
|Phrase||Why you shouldn’t say it|
|“He’s in a better place.”||It implies that life with their grieving loved ones isn’t the “better place.” This can be received as a veiled insult.|
|“God called her home.”||Do not impose your own religious ideas on anyone else (unless the bereaved person is deeply religious)|
|“You just have to be strong,” or “You are so strong.”||This is dismissive. It actually is an underhanded way of saying you don’t want to deal with their emotions.|
|“Call me if you need anything.”||Don’t put the responsibility on the bereaved. It’s on you to check-in, make plans, and help out.|
|“When do you plan on dating again?” to a newly widowed person. |
“You can always have another one,” to a person who has lost their child.
|Do not try to shift focus away from their grief towards the future. It’s not helpful, and, more importantly, it’s none of your business.|
|“The grief will end”, “It will get better soon”, “She wouldn’t want you to be sad.”||Dismissing someone’s grief makes them feel as if they aren’t supposed to grieve.|
Do not ask for details on how the person died, especially if they died by suicide, homicide, or in a sudden, tragic event.
|It’s none of your business. Period.|
Checking in after the funeral
“Often, after the rituals are over, people fade away, the bereaved are left alone as the stark reality sets in,” Coenen notes. “Assurances that the bereaved person can rely on you to show up are also needed.”
That means you’ll want to assure the bereaved that you’ll call them to check in within a few days or weeks. How soon to reach out after the funeral exactly depends on how close you are to the friends or family of the deceased. The closer you are to them, the sooner it makes sense to follow up.
And most important: If you say you’ll call, make sure it’s not an empty promise. Set a calendar reminder, and make time in your schedule to follow through.
Also avoid doing something that could be perceived as easy and insincere, like a lazy ‘thinking of you’ text. “If you were thinking of them,” Coenen contends, “you’d pick up the phone and call.”
Writing a eulogy for a memorial? Here’s how to get started
Being tasked with “saying a few words” at a funeral or memorial service can be intimidating. For those looking for some inspiration, Coenen offers some guiding thoughts and ideas as you put pen to paper.
If you are having trouble coming up with your own words, don’t stress. Reciting poetry is an excellent option to strike a reflective, beautiful tone.
Some pieces Coenen recommends that might have a personal resonance:
- “I carry your heart with me” by E.E. Cummings
- “Funeral Blues” by W.S. Auden
- “Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep”by Mary Frye
- “To Laugh Often and Much” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Not feeling those? Think of authors, artists, and thinkers the deceased admired as a jumping off point.
If you would like to include a famous quote in your eulogy, Coenen recommends that you consider how the person you are eulogizing would feel about your selection. For example, quoting Jesus at an atheist’s funeral might ring false, as would citing Rumi or Buddha at the funeral of a devout Christian.
First and foremost, “a eulogy should be about the person, and can include a meaningful story or even a funny one,” she says. And don’t feel the need to include a sage quotation or snippet of poetry if it doesn’t actually make sense: “It’s better to quote the person who died than some random, wise words that have nothing to do with them or with their family.”
One final thing to keep in mind: If you’re speaking at a funeral service, don’t put pressure on yourself to “fix” the attendants’ grief. “I’m not sure a eulogy needs to be cathartic,” Coenen says.”It just needs to feel connected and sincere.”
For more from Claudia Coenen, visit www.thekarunaproject.com