Things People Say at Funerals

It hasn’t even been two months since my dad’s funeral. Stuff surrounding those horribly difficult days is still fresh in my mind. So before my memory gets cloudy, I thought it might be interesting to write about things people say at funerals, or specifically, what people said to me at my dad’s funeral.

I am interested in hearing what’s been said to some of you too. My intention is not to make this into one of those ‘things not to say’ posts. Maybe one of those will come later. Rather, this is merely an observational sort of post. I’m just sharing some random things said and also my reaction.

One of the first things I noticed was no one seemed to want to say the word, died.

No one said, I’m sorry your dad died. Nearly everyone said, I’m sorry for your loss. Probably nine times out of ten, this is what people said.

I find this fascinating. The “d” word avoidance. Deserves a post of its own someday.

2019 update:  You might want to read, What If We Started Saying the “D” Words Out Loud More Often?”

After noticing my barely-holding-it-together demeanor while standing in the receiving line, one kind soul said, “It’s okay. You don’t have to speak. Just stand there. That is all you need to do.”

I wanted to give her an extra hug for saying that. No two extra hugs. At least.

Another equally kind remark, notably said by the spouse of who said the above kind words, was this, “It’s okay. Someone in your family has to be the crier.” (Yep, that would be me alright).

It felt wonderful to be given “permission” to go ahead and cry. In public. It’s interesting the effect tears have on people. This would make a good post topic someday too.

A strange sort of comment was, “Gosh, I don’t recognize you anymore. I still recognize your sisters, but not you.”

I fear this person really meant, wow, you look tough – like you’ve aged a gazillion years and your (older) sisters have not. Thank you, cancer.

I loved hearing from a few of my dad’s former students who showed up, and a couple were really former, like from his first class of 1958 or whenever it was, who said things like, your dad was such a great teacher. I always enjoyed his class and our chats in the grocery store too.

One neighbor said, “I am going to miss your dad. I still miss your mom. There were both such wonderful neighbors.”

What lovely things for her to say and for me to hear.

Someone else said, “Oh, you look just like your mom.”

Hmm… wasn’t sure how to take that one. But decided it would be a compliment.

“Our last visit was a treasure.”

What a beautiful sentiment. I loved hearing that.

“Your dad will be missed.”

Can’t hear that often enough, right?

“Well, this is the time and place to be weepy.”

Felt weird. Made me feel like, can’t I be weepy any other time or place?

A dear old friend from high school who I had not seen in years and years (my fault) said this:  “Oh Nancy, I just want to stand here and hug you and hold you.”

As you might suspect, more tears.

And then of course I heard, “Well, at least he didn’t suffer.”

Shit. He suffered plenty.

And how can anyone judge another person’s suffering anyway?

“It’s nice you have siblings to share your grief with.”

That felt comforting and made me realize yes, it must be hard when there isn’t someone else to share your pain with.

“It was wonderful your dad got to live independently in his own home for such a long time.”

Perfectly true and perfectly stated.

I also heard a similar sentiment not so perfectly stated, “At least your dad lived a long life.”

True, but not comforting to hear nonetheless. Those “at least” statements are damn annoying.

And then there was this one simple statement, “Your dad was a good man.”

Kinder words could not have been said.

Or truer ones.

Yes, the things people say at funerals…

Is there something said to you at a funeral (comforting or not comforting) that has always stuck with you?

Why do you think it’s so hard for people to know what to say at funerals?

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Things people say at funerals…

26 thoughts to “Things People Say at Funerals”

  1. People do say strange things. I was in a fog when my dad died and just kept trying to help my mom get through it. You have been through so much lately. Sending you tons of love, light, and prayers. xoxo

  2. People are uncomfortable with death, our society is quite immature in acceptance of mortality. We have a long way to go to educate the public that death is part of life, it is something that will happen to all of us, and it shouldn’t be viewed as unnatural. We all have to face it, so we might as well work at having a good death to wrap up a good life. Lots more I have to say about that, too! Unfortunately our fear of confronting our mortality leads to way too much unnecessary suffering at the hands of the healthcare system. I’ll be writing more about this myself.

    1. Alene, It’s a tough topic, but all the more reason to talk about it. It’s too bad the topic is still often taboo even within the healthcare system. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on that. Thank you for reading and sharing here.

  3. There can be humor as well. I was at my uncle’s funeral, sitting with my 92-year-old aunt on the couch directly in front of the casket. She was definitely in mourning for her brother and I was sharing some memories of him, when out of the blue she asked me if my partner of 14 years had finally asked me to marry him and I said no. Without batting an eyelash, and in front of some of the other family members sitting with her, said, “Tell him to either s**t or get off the pot.” I love my aunt.

  4. I thought this post was so interesting. I do try to say “I’m sorry to hear so and so died.” Or even “I’m sorry to hear so and so has cancer” rather than “sorry to hear about your mom/dad.” My friend (Maren) explained this well when she said it shows you acknowledge this incredibly difficult experience the person is going through rather than trying to downplay it with hushed language.

    1. Lindsay, I’m glad you found this post interesting. Getting specific is usually wise. Saying you are sorry so and so died, is better than trying to minimize the situation. Maren is exactly right. Downplaying a person’s pain is not your job when trying to comfort someone. Being a loving witness by offering validation and understanding is way better in most instances than downplaying with hushed language. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Hi Nancy – I have attended other people’s funerals but was never at any of my family’s funerals. I regret not being able to attend my grandmother’s, but in a way, I am glad I did not go.

    I don’t do well at funerals as I tend to just freeze. Because quite a few family members have died from cancer, I’ve often heard things like, “at least she/he stopped suffering” or “he/she is in a better place now.” Like you said, how do people know this? One reason people may not know what to say is because death is something most of us aren’t ready for and we don’t have the answers we wish we had, so we express ideas that make us feel like we are safe and more in control.

    I often do not know what to say at funerals (or at hospitals) so I stay quiet. Mortality is heavy and surreal. It doesn’t make any sense and maybe this has to do with the way we are brought up. Perhaps that shell our parents build for us, in order to feel protected, stays with us for a long time.

    I am sorry we have to endure such pain. I hope each day brings some sense of peace. xoxo

    1. Rebecca, Many people don’t know what to say at funerals which is understandable and fine. It’s okay to state that. I usually just advise people to avoid the “at least” statements. Those are often unhelpful and potentially hurtful. Just saying, I’m sorry your loved one died, seems more than fine to me. I hope the same for you as you mourn your friend Cathy and as you continue grieving for those family members too. Thank you for sharing. xo

  6. Hi Nancy,

    What a great, insightful post! I believe that “death” is the taboo word in our society. People are so afraid of death that they can’t deal with it. Instead, they choose to stick their heads in the sand. People might mean well, but sometimes their comments are way off.

    I was unable to attend two of my three grandparents’ funerals because in Judaism, a person is buried (and the funeral takes place) the day after the person dies. My grandparents lived in NY, and by the time I found out they died (many years ago), I couldn’t get a flight out in time. I’m sorry I couldn’t attend.

    Hugs to you….

    1. Beth, Yes, I think it is one of those taboo words, maybe even a taboo topic, period. It must have been hard for you not being able to attend those services for your grandparents, but I’m sure they would’ve understood. Being far away presents challenges sometimes when family things come up quickly. Thank you for reading and sharing. And for the hugs too. xx

  7. Oh man the d word–no one says it, despite the weird culture where I live: tons of cars/trucks with these big “in loving memory” stickers, with birth & death dates. Oh and the roadside memorials with flowers and whatnot usually reserved for graveyards. Death and illness highlights some odd aspects of our culture–I’ll never understand it! Still hugging you from afar during this time. No words can express my sorrow for you. But let me share this with you–hope it is not inappropriate. Your blog posts on this subject–such as this one–have been, NOT enjoyable, but something related, to read. I suspect I will revisit them in the future, hopefully a far off future, in a time of need. Is it wrong for us to learn from your writings on grief? I suppose that is the core question of our entire blogging choice in general, isn’t it? It may seem weird to say thank you for this post, but I say it anyway. xoxox Wendi

    1. CC, Yes, the “d” word avoidance certainly continues. I’ve started making a conscious effort to use the word died now when I talk about my parents’ deaths. And in Cancer Land I’m going to use it too when people die. Thank you for saying you “enjoy” reading my grief posts. Sometimes I do hesitate to publish them ‘cuz I don’t want to be a downer, but on the other hand, I truly believe it’s a topic that needs more discussion. So thank you. And thanks for the kind words and hugs from afar. xo

  8. It’s so strange really, isn’t it, how people avoid saying the D-word. I think it says a lot about our culture, a lot of which is not particularly good. I think it’s also what leads people to say some of the ultimate stupid things about people who die of cancer, e.g., “she lost her battle…” or “he fought bravely…” Etcetera, etcetera. Oy.

    The people who touched me the most at my dad’s wake and funeral were his close buddies. This group of middle-aged men were amazingly real. The ones I knew well just folded me in hugs, said they were sorry, and what great memories they had of him. Or how sad they were and what a great guy he was and how they would miss him. One man, whom I didn’t know well, but who was a close recent friend and one of the first people I called when my dad died, just grasped my hand, thanked me for calling him right away, then teared up and couldn’t speak. He made me cry, of course, but it was so wonderful to know that my dad had friendships like that, that his friends truly loved and valued him. It helped me feel less alone.

    Many heartfelt hugs, Nancy. I still miss my dad after all these years — thirty-one years, in fact! — but I have so many great memories. I still feel that sword through the heart sometimes, but it just reminds me of how much I loved him, which is a good thing to remember. xoxo, Kathi

    1. Kathi, It is really strange. We like to think we are softening death’s blow or something by not stating the obvious. I loved reading about your experience at your dad’s funeral and about some of the things said to you that meant so much and were so comforting. And you’re right, sometimes it’s not the words, it’s the gestures. Kindness and compassion take many forms. I know you’re right in saying the deep hurt reminds us of the great love we felt and still feel. I try to remember that. Thank you for sharing and for the hugs too. xo

  9. Five years ago, the father of my son’s friend died (notice I use the D word) from cancer (of course), glioblastoma.
    I told my son I would meet him at the funeral home after work. When I arrived, he was sitting with some of his school age friends on two sofas separated by a coffee table. The body of the deceased was just to his left in the coffin and people were streaming by.
    The widow was standing greeting guests.
    Finding my son, I greeted his friends and pulled him away from the crowd, asking, “Did you express your condolences to Mrs. Michels?” to which he replied, “I didn’t think I should bring it up.”
    I about burst out laughing.
    Funerals are really hard. My husband walks in looking like he has seen a ghost. He appears lost and uncomfortrable—he does not know what to say either, even though his own mother died suddenly when he was 17.
    I am sorry for the loss of your father. Your were fortunate to have a “good one.” Many others are not so blessed.

    1. Molly, Thank you for reading and sharing about some awkward funeral moments you and your family have experienced. Funerals are really hard. The topic of death makes everyone so uncomfortable. And you’re right, I was (and still am) fortunate to have had such a great father. Thanks again for sharing.

  10. When my husband died, nearly five years ago now, a friend of his from years back, who had travelled three hours to come to the funeral, handed me a large brown envelope. In the envelope were years of camp pictures taken at a church camp, where my husband had volunteered each summer before I knew him. What a thoughtful thing to do! Because those pictures must have been over thirty years old. In them I saw a younger version of my sweet man and I also saw his companions and the children he served. I will keep them and treasure them. Each memory of my husband that people share with me is a precious jewel. My husband did not parade his helpful deeds so it is beautiful to hear about them from others. I am always delighted when I meet someone who knew him. Sometimes they have a story to tell me.

    My husband died of pancreatic cancer when he was only sixty-six years of age.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about death and funerals. It’s something I’m thinking about because I have no family to do for me what I did for my beloved. I need to be thinking about Powers of Attorney and executors and making plans.

    I appreciate your blog and the feeling of community I sense here.

    Sending you hugs,
    Honey Bee

    1. Honey Bee, I am sorry about your husband. How sad. It must have meant so much to get those photos from your husband’s friend. What a thoughtful gesture for him to hand deliver those priceless pictures, literally treasures for you to cherish. Thank you for reading, for your kind comments and for sharing about your husband.

  11. This post bothered me in the sense that no one who goes to a funeral expects that their words or actions would be judged. They are there because they care, they took the time to show up, and may very well be uncomfortable and unsure of what to say. But the important thing is they were there. I hope I never comment on or criticize what someone who is trying to express care and kindness says to me.

    1. Sue, I’m sorry this post bothered you. My intent wasn’t to judge. I was merely sharing some things said to me and how I felt about hearing them. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  12. Hi Nancy,
    I’m sorry to hear of your dad’s death.
    It’s obvious, from your writing, that you loved him. So I want to say to you that when you are sad, remember your dad died, knowing you loved him (and still do!). I hope that acknowledgement brings you some comfort. God bless you.

  13. Hi Nancy, I’m one of those people who doesn’t do well at other families funerals. I can come undone before I get there so I just don’t go on the most part. I’m always afraid I’ll just make things worse for the family. I think in general I for one just don’t know what to say. I want to acknowledge the death in your family but I also know others that don’t want anything said to them. My sister is like that. In my own family I’m completely different and have learned to literary shut my emotions off.

    I can give you a bit of a funny on my own mom’s funeral. She wanted a small graveside funeral of friends and to have her ashes blessed before going into the ground. My sister was supposed to bring those ashes. She informed my 15 min before the service when I asked where mom was that she just couldn’t do it. Now my mom’s ashes were being kept at my mom’s house. I rushed up to get them so I was in time for the service and honestly I didn’t know what to say when I arrived so out of my mouth came “ok everyone I’ve got mom”. I had her ashes tucked under my arm. A complete ice breaker for those there and luckily it brought smiles and laughter which is what my mom would have wanted as she loved to laugh.

    My sister still hadn’t arrived and was now running late. On the levity side again a neighbor whispered in my ear “have you ever known them to be on time for anything” and yep he was right. Apparently she couldn’t find the shoes she wanted to wear so was late along with her entire family other than my niece who came with me.

    Having never been to a graveside funeral before ourselves we didn’t know about the sprinkling of sand. Oops surprise. When asked if anyone wanted to do this we all kinda of looked at each other and froze. Again luckily a few friends of mom’s knew what do to and led on for us. One of those friends looked at me and said are you going up and out of my mouth before I even thought about it was ” I hadn’t planned on it” so up I went with this wonderful lady behind me. She had had knee surgery so I waited for her and grabbed her elbow as she bent down. I was so afraid she was going to fall in the hole. She looked at me and laughed because she knew exactly what I was thinking and said as much.

    My mom was a woman full of life and laughter and that day we celebrated the life with lost. There were definitely tears but lots of laughter as well. I didn’t want anyone to be sad that day. I wanted them to remember her with a smile. In the days since I’ve cried a lot as I’m crying writing this but that day I just needed to shut everything off, get through the day and make sure that everything went right that I had the power to control. I knew my mom was watching and saying keep it together you’re doing fine.

    1. Beth, Yes, the things people say at funerals…Thank you for sharing the story about your mom’s service. You arriving with your mom’s ashes and then saying, I’ve got mom, was quite the icebreaker indeed! I understand how you didn’t want anyone to be sad, but rather to remember your mom with a smile. You holding it together that day was probably your coping mechanism to just get through it. I love your last sentence. Thank you for sharing. I’m very sorry for your loss.

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