At Times of Loss and Grieving
Intimate letters of condolence are too personal to follow a set form. One rule, and one only, should guide you in writing such letters: Say what you truly feel. Say that and nothing else. Sit down at your desk as soon as you hear of the death and let your thoughts be with the person you are writing to.
Don't dwell on the details of illness or the manner of death; don't, especially to a mother who has lost a child, try to convince her that her loss is a "blessing in disguise." Remember that a person with an aching heart will not wish to wade through interminable sorrowful thoughts. The more nearly a note can express your sympathy, and a genuine love or appreciation for the one who has gone, the greater comfort it brings.
Forget, if you can, that you are using written words. Think merely how you feel-then put your feelings on paper.
Suppose it is the death of a man who has left a place in the whole community that will be difficult, if not impossible, to fill. All you can think of is "Steve-what a wonderful man he was! I don't think anything will ever be the same again without him." Say just that! Ask if there is anything you can do at ay time to be of service. There is nothing more to be said. A line into which you have put a little of the genuine feeling that you had for Steve is worth pages of eloquence. A letter of condolence may be badly constructed, ungrammatical-never mind. Flowery language counts for nothing; sincerity alone is of value.
The few examples below are intended merely as suggested guides for those at a loss to construct a short but appropriate message.
Dear Mrs. Ramsay,
We are so very shocked to hear of the sorrow that has come to you.
If there is anything that either my husband or I can do, I earnestly hope that you will call upon us. In the meantime, you are in our thoughts and prayers.
With deepest sympathy,
With deepest sympathy,
Or one my father-in-law received when Emily Post died: We have so much sympathy for you. It must have been wonderful to have had her as your grandmother.
Letter When Death Was a Release
It is difficult to write a letter to one whose loss is for the best in that you want to express sympathy but cannot feel sad that one who has suffered so long has found release. The expression of sympathy in this case should not be for the present death, but for the illness that started long ago. The grief for a paralyzed mother is for the stroke that cut her down many years before, and your sympathy is really for that. You might write: Your sorrow during all these years-and now-is in my heart; and all my thoughts and sympathy are with you.
To Whom Are Letters of Condolence Written?
Letters of condolence may be addressed in various ways. If you knew the deceased well but do not know his or her family, the note is addressed to the closest relative-usually the widow, the widower or the oldest child. Some like to add "and family" on the envelope, and this permissible when you feel that you are sending your sympathy to all rather than to one special person.
When you did not know the person who died but do know one of his or her relatives, you write to that person rather than to someone who might have been more closely related. In writing to a married person who has lost a parent you may write to the one whose parent it was, or if the other partner was close to his or her in-law the letter may be addressed to both.
Letters to children who have lost a parent may be addressed to Miss Lucy Field (the daughter), with Mr. John Field (the son) underneath. The salutation would read: "Dear Lucy and John."
I am sometimes asked if one should write to the surviving member of a divorced couple when the other dies. If they have maintained a friendly relationship, and you know that the survivor is truly upset by his or her ex-mate's death, naturally you should write. In most cases, however, the divorce indicates that they no longer wish to share each other's lives, so there is little need to send sympathy. The children of the divorced couple, even though they live with the surviving member, should receive notes if the deceased continued to be involved in their lives.
Acknowledgment of Condolence Notes
Notes of condolence should always be acknowledged-by the recipient if possible. If he or she cannot do it-for whatever reason-other members of the family should write the notes. The only exceptions to this obligation are when the expression of condolence is simply a printed form with no personal message, or when the writer asks that his or her note not be acknowledged-a thoughtful thing to do when writing a close friend, or when someone you know well will receive a great number of condolences.
Printed acknowledgments may be sent in reply to printed expressions of condolence if any acknowledgment at all seems necessary, but they should not be used in answer to warm, personal notes. You may, of course, use those given out by the funeral director as long as you add your personal message to the printed "Thank You."
The sadness we feel when someone we love dies is all encompassing. We mourn the loss of the live, we suffer our own sense of loss, and we are saddened too, for all who share our sense of loss, whose own lives have been touched by this person. The temptation is to retreat and mourn in solitude. The reality usually is that instead, we must deal with the many arrangements for paying tribute and comfort others at the same time. It has been said that the purpose of all the details one must attend to when a family member dies is to give the grieving person a focus and a direction when he or she is otherwise incapable of doing anything but mourning. That may well be, for there are indeed many details to attend to.
Family members and close friends of the deceased or of the family must be notified as soon as possible, by telephone. Each person called may be asked to notify his brother and sisters. If funeral arrangements are known, it is helpful to share them at the time the calls are made to preclude the need of making a second round of calls to pass on this information.
At the same time, a funeral director and the deceased's minister, priest or rabbi should be contacted since they can be instrumental in providing helpful information about what other steps you should be taking.
If family members are not sure which funeral director to call, the clergyperson or the doctor can provide this information.
The Death Certificate
The death certificate is filled out and signed by the physician in attendance at the time of death. If the death was sudden or caused by an accident, or if for any other reason there was no doctor in attendance, he or she should be called anyway. The doctor will either come to the house, if the death occurred at home, or will call the county medical examiner or coroner. Either will ascertain the cause of death and sign the certificate. This must be done immediately because no other steps can be taken until the death certificate is properly signed.
If the deceased has signed an organ donation permissions form, or has indicated that he or she would want his or her organs donated, the doctor or funeral director should be so notified immediately or the telephone number on the organ donation card that the deceased signed should be called. If the situation is such that the body must be delivered to a hospital right away so that organs may be removed for transplants, this and the return of the body to the funeral home is coordinated by the funeral director.
The Funeral Director and the Clergy
The funeral director will go to the hospital or come to the house as soon as possible after he is called and take the body to the funeral home. Whoever is in charge for the family discusses all the arrangements with the funeral director at that time or soon thereafter, discussing how simple or elaborate a funeral the relatives wish and how the details that the funeral director will enumerate are to be handled. The type of casket must be chosen and any floral arrangements for the casket arranged for most, most likely with a florist. The day and hour must be settled for any service to be held at the funeral home. If it is to be held in a church or synagogue, the minister or rabbi must be consulted immediately to fix the time. If the family is not affiliated with a place or worship, the funeral director or a friend can recommend a clergyman or clergywoman of any faith that the family chooses to perform the service.
A Word of Caution
A note should be added that although most funeral directors are reputable and sympathetic, there are some who prey on the emotions of the survivors by implying that a disservice is being done to the deceased if anything less than the most expensive casket is purchased, if anything fewer than several cars are hired to be part of the cortege, etc. It is wise to have a clear-headed friend of the family in attendance to be sure such decisions are not made on an emotional basis that result in purchases well beyond the financial means of the survivors.
Burial or Cremation
The choice of burial or cremation has hopefully been made by the deceased while living and shared with the family or clergyman or clergywoman. In fact, although difficult for many people, a great service is done for those who eventually survive us if we take a few minutes and write personal preferences and instructions in the event of our deaths. These instructions should include our wishes for the disposition of our bodies or ashes and such things as the kind of funeral service we would prefer, hymns and verses we would wish to have be a part of the service, etc. Knowing the wishes of the deceased is a great relief and aid to those who are otherwise uncertain as to what decisions to make.
If the deceased is to be buried or his or her remains put in a mausoleum, but the family has not pre-purchased a gravesite or mausoleum space, the funeral director will make these arrangements with the cemetery of the family's choosing.
If the deceased is to be cremated, the disposition of his or her ashes, after the funeral service, can be taken care of by the funeral director, of the ashes are given to the family for disposition.
If there are to be visiting hours at a funeral home or the home of the deceased or family member with the coffin present, the question of whether or not the coffin will be open is entirely up to the family unless there are specific religious requirements. The funeral director will follow their instructions.
Clothing for Burial
The person who has been put in charge of arrangements, with the help of someone who man know of the deceased's special preferences or a favorite, suitable clothing, delivers the clothes to the funeral director, who will specify what clothing is needed. Members of some faiths still prefer to bury their dead in shrouds. Other religions proscribe that the body is dressed in white linen grave clothes and prayer shawls, but most religions have no restrictions on clothing for a burial. Dresses should be in solid, subdued colors, of a style that might be worn to church. Children are usually buried in their "best" clothes, not play clothes. Men are also dressed as for business or religious services; generally the family chooses a dark suit. Wedding rings are usually left on, but other jewelry is removed.
Notifying An Attorney
The next step is to notify an attorney, preferably the one who drew up the will or f the deceased. If neither that person nor anyone in the firm is available, or if there is no known will, then any other attorney who is reputable may be called.
Notices The Governor and Mrs. State
There are two kinds of newspapers notices: a paid notice, arranged by the funeral director, and an obituary, written by a newspaper staff member. In the case of the former, a family member or spokesperson should discuss with the funeral director what should be included. For example, the tendency to write "devoted sister" or "beloved father" may not represent the wishes of the family, and this should be stated. The notices usually contain the date of death, names of the immediately family, hours and location where friends may call on the family, place and time of the funeral, and frequently a request that a contribution be given to a charity instead of flowers being sent to the funeral.
A man's notice might read:
MILLER - Paul P., on December 17, 1997. Beloved husband of the late Mary Stuart Miller. [Devoted] father of Catherine Miller Summers, Frederick and John Miller. Friends may call at 636 Jones Road, Englewood, N.J. on Friday, December 19, 2-5. Funeral service Saturday, December 20, 11:30 A.M., Christ's Church, Englewood.
The word suddenly is sometimes inserted immediately after the deceased's name to indicate that there had not been a long illness, or that the death was by accident.
Instead of "Friends may call at [private address]", the phrase "Reposing at the Memorial Funeral Home" is commonly used.
A woman's notice always includes her given and maiden name for purposes of identification. The same is true when married daughters and sisters are mentioned.
EGNERS - Christine Muller, on May 5. [Beloved] wife of Peter, loving mother of Elaine Bauman and Gloria Viola, [devoted] sister of Helen Muller Moore. Services Wednesday, May 8, 10 A.M., at Morton's Funeral Home, 580 Onderdonk Avenue, Ridgewood. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Calvary Hospital or your favorite charity.
The deceased's age is not generally included unless he or she is very young, or the age is needed to establish further identification. It is usually added after the names of young children.
Daughters of the deceased are listed before sons, and their married names are used. Living survivors are listed before deceased immediate family members: "…loving mother of Elaine Bauman, [devoted] sister of Helen Muller Moore. Predeceased by husband Peter and daughter Gloria Viola."
Occasionally the notice reads "Funeral private," and neither time nor place is given. Very intimate friends are given this information, either by telephone or on the personal card of the relative or friend in charge:
"Sam's funeral will be at Christ Church, Monday at eleven o'clock."
Others are not expected to attend.
An obituary is telephoned, sent by fax or delivered to the newspaper. It may be written by a family member and submitted, although it is the option of the newspaper as to whether or not it is printed. Generally, a reporter calls a family member or representative to verify facts.
"In Lieu of Flowers"
When "in lieu of flowers" or "family and friends are making contributions to…" appears in the death notice, everyone except a most intimate friend or relative is expected to follow the suggestion, if they would have otherwise sent flowers.
The family has put it in because they honestly feel the contribution will help them to feel that some good had come from their loss, and thus they are comforted. A check is sent to the charity with a note saying, "This donation is sent in loving memory of Mrs. Roy Haskell, of 10 Park Place, Mount Vernon." If the family members who should receive an acknowledgment did not live with the deceased, mention the name and address to which the acknowledgment should be sent: "Please send the acknowledgment to Mrs. Haskell's daughter, Marie Zimmerli, at 400 West Broadway, Port Station, NY." The address of the sender should also appear on the note. The charity sends an acknowledgment, which serves to let the donor know the contribution has been received, and is also for use in claiming a tax deduction. The charity also sends a notice of contribution to the family of the deceased. The charity's acknowledgment to the sender in no way takes the place of a thank-you note from the bereaved family - one member of which must write in person to express appreciation.
Occasionally a notice reads: "Please send a contribution to your favorite charity." You are free to choose whichever one you wish, but it is thoughtful to select one that might also mean something to the bereaved family.
When you write a condolence note to a bereaved person or family you may, if you wish, mention that you have sent a contribution as they requested. This will ensure that they know of it in case the charity is lax in sending notices to the family or an error has been made.
The amount of the contribution is, of course, up to you. However, you should not give less than you would have paid for a flower arrangement, and in view of the tax deduction you should really give more.
If no "in lieu of" appears in the notice, you should send flowers, since it indicates that the particular family feels they would derive the most comfort from the beauty of the flowers, and this is surely their prerogative.
Gifts of cash should never be sent directly to the family in place of flowers or a charitable contribution. However, a group - fellow employees, club or lodge members, or neighbors - may take up a collection for a bereaved person who is in financial difficulty. This is a generous gesture and can be a great help in defraying funeral expenses.
Sending and Receiving Flowers
If there is a notice in the papers requesting that no flowers be sent, you send none. Otherwise they are addressed to "The funeral of Mr. Frederick Butler," either at the funeral home or at the church. When you did not know the deceased, but only his close relatives, flowers may be sent to them at their home. An enclosed cared, on which you write, "With deepest sympathy," or if appropriate, "With love and sympathy," is addressed to "The family of Mr. Frederick Butler," or to the one you know best.
Although people may not want a mass of flowers at the funeral, a lovely plant or flower arrangement may always be sent to the family a few days after the burial as an indication of your continuing sympathy and love. Sometimes friends do this instead of funeral flowers or contributions; others do it in addition to one of the other. Cards accompanying flowers or plants sent after the funeral should not mention the recent loss, but may simply say, "With love from us all."
Even if you hear of the death sometime later, you may still send flowers to the family of the deceased at their home. In fact, these flowers, arriving after the confusion and misery of the first days, are often appreciated more than those which arrive promptly. Do not, however, send flowers to the homes or businesses of Chinese friends or coworkers. Flowers, which are considered an object of death when related to a funeral, are not to be placed among the living, according to Chinese custom.
Recording the Receipt of Flowers
To avoid confusion, whoever is making the arrangements for the family should appoint one person to take charge of flowers, and he or she must carefully collect all the accompanying cards that are sent to the house or funeral home. This person writes a description of the flowers that came with the card on the outside of each envelope or the back of the card if this has not been done by the florist or the funeral director. The cards are delivered to the bereaved family after the funeral. For example:
• Large spray of Easter lilies and greens
• Laurel wreath with gardenias
• Long sheaf of white roses - broad silver ribbon.
Without such notations, the family has not way of knowing anything about the flowers that people have sent. Moreover, these descriptions are invaluable when writing notes of thanks.
If some friends have sent potted plants or cut flowers to the house, their cards are also removed and noted for later acknowledgment.
Acknowledgment of Sympathy
When impersonal messages of condolence mount into the hundreds, as may be the case when a public figure or perhaps a prominent business executive or a member of his family dies, the sending of engraved or printed cards to strangers is proper:
wish gratefully to acknowledge
your kind expression of sympathy
The Governor and Mrs. State
The family of
Harrison L. Winthrop
thanks you for
your kind expression of sympathy
If such cards are used, a handwritten
word or two and a signature must be added below the printed message when
there is any personal acquaintance with the recipient. In no circumstances
should such cards be sent to those who have sent flowers of Mass cards or to
intimate friends who have written personal letters.
Perhaps as the result of the use of cards in these rare but permissible cases, a most unfortunate practice has sprung up. Some funeral directors supply printed cards, and the mourner feels that he or she need only sign his or her name to them. This is a poor return, indeed, for beautiful flowers or even a sincere and comforting note. The bereaved may use these cards, but he or she must add a brief personal note below the printed message.
A personal message on a fold-over card is preferable to any printed card, and it takes but a moment to write "Thank you for your beautiful flowers" or "Thank you for all your kindness."
If the list is very long, or if the person who has received the flowers and messages is really unable to perform the task of writing, some member of the family or a dear friend may write for her or him: "Mother asks me to thank you for your beautiful flowers and kind message of sympathy." No one expects more than a short message of acknowledgment, but that message should be personal and written by hand.
Acknowledgments should be written for all personal condolences, for flowers, for Mass cards, for contributions, and for special kindness. They need not be made for printed condolence cards with no personal message added, or for calls at the funeral home.
Letters must also be written to the honorary pallbearers and those who may have served as ushers.
When a person is buried in a cemetery, a marker is put in place until a gravestone can be ordered. The ordering of the stone can be done directly with a gravestone company, or it can be arranged through the funeral director of the cemetery office.
For most of us the gravestone we choose for our loved one is the only permanent memorial that will exist. Therefore, it, and the inscription on it, should be chosen with great care. The worst mistake one can make is to rush into ordering an ornate stone with sentimental carvings and a flowery inscription, which may later seem in poor taste or objectionable. For example, one might wish in the emotion of the moment to write something about the deceased being "the only love" or "the greatest love" of the spouse. This could conceivably cause considerable anguish to a future husband or wife.
The wisest course is to choose as handsome and appropriate a stone as one can, and refrain from ordering terribly ornate decorations. Almost invariable, the simplest constructions - be they monuments, buildings or any work of art - are those which endure and continue to please forever. The inscription, too, should be simple and sincere, "Beloved husband of Jessica" expresses true devotion without excluding other members of a present, or future, family. Titles are not used for either men or women, with some exceptions. A man who spent his life at sea might with to have "Captain Ahab Marner" on his stone, and the names of men of high military rank or on active service are generally preceded by their titles.
The relationship of wife and husband is usually included, although not necessarily. Today, no other legend or information usually appears, and perhaps it is too bad. Years ago, most interesting poems and inscriptions were written for loved ones. Some particularly memorable ones are three gravestones in New England. The center is inscribed (let us say) "Captain Cyrus Miller." Next to him lie the remains of "Elizabeth, his wife." And on the stone on his other side the legend reads, "Sarah, who should have been!"
Today, however, a typical inscription reads
Mary Jenkins Holt
beloved wife of
John Simon Holt
Whatever you choose, remember that
you must consider the feelings of the living. While a memorial is, in part, a
solace to the bereaved, it is something that will be seen and shared with
others. Surely the one who has died would not want a memorial that could ever be
anything but an honor to him and a pleasure to those he leaves behind.
In cemeteries where it is permitted, some people plant a veritable flower garden around a grave. Others prefer to have only grass and to bring fresh flowers or potted plants regularly as an evidence of their continuing love. This can become quite a chore, however, as the first grief diminishes, because garden flowers need constant care or they become a straggling weed patch in short order. A very satisfactory solution is that of using evergreen shrubs and ground cover, which look beautiful all year round with little attention.
Many cemeteries offer a maintenance contract for the appearance of graves for which they bill an annual fee. Before signing such a contract, be sure to observe the way other graves are maintained.
Many bereaved families wish to make a material gesture to honor their dead. For the very wealthy this may take many forms, from the building of a monument to the donation of a piece of equipment to the hospital that cared for the deceased. This type of memorial does not need a great deal of discussion in this book, because its very nature requires that it be considered carefully, and because time will be required for extensive planning before it can be done. The advice of other people will be involved, and that will put an automatic restraint on those who might otherwise be overcome by their emotions.
The Role of Friends When a Death Occurs
Immediately on hearing of the death, intimate friends of the deceased should call or go to the house of mourning and ask whether they can be of service. There are countless ways in which they can be helpful, from assisting with such material needs of the family as food and child care, to helping with notifications and details of the funeral, making phone calls, and answering the door.
When you hear of the death of a less intimate friend, you call at the home or funeral parlor according to the directions contained in the newspaper notice. At the house, you visit briefly with the family. At a funeral home you sign the register and offer the family your sympathy. If by chance you do not see them, you should write a letter to the family at once. Telephoning is not improper, but it may cause inconvenience by typing up the line, which is always needed at these times for notifying members of the family and/or making necessary arrangements.
When Asked to Give a Eulogy
More and more often, friends are asked to give a eulogy for the deceased, not instead of words said by the officiating clergyperson, but in addition to the eulogy he or she gives. The decision as to whether to accept the invitation to do this is personal. Often it is too difficult a thing to do, particularly if emotions are high. Those who decline do so because they know that the focus of the eulogy should be on the deceased, not on their own emotions. If you decline, it is best to be completely honest, explaining that you are simply too upset to be able to speak without falling apart and that you believe this would take away from the important things that need to be said in tribute to the life of the deceased.
Those who feel they can speak with poise and accept often feel that doing so is part of their own healing process. What is said can include humor as well as sentiment. When the clergyperson reviews the life and accomplishments of the deceased, the friend can focus on personal, special attributes that provide a glimpse into the human, unique aspects of a life and that evoke remembrances for everyone listening.
It is perfectly appropriate to call others close to the deceased and ask them to share their own memories with you. Often these memories can add to the loving snapshot you develop.
There is nothing wrong with displaying your own emotion, as long as you aren't rendered incapable of delivering your eulogy. It is a very good idea to allow your self plenty of time to grieve beforehand, and to practice delivering your words many times so that they don't take you by surprise as you are saying them and make you dissolve into tears.
You should try to keep your eulogy brief, and of course should not say disparaging words about the deceased or portray unfortunate or unresolved instances in his or her life. It is appropriate to include a poem or passage that you believe represents well the life or sentiments of the deceased, or to quote others who have said something to you about the deceased in a particularly poignant way. Whatever you say, always keep in mind that your purpose is not only to share special memories, but also to honor the person about whom you are speaking.
Today, the role of pallbearers is mainly an honorary one since they rarely carry the coffin. The member of the family who is in charge sometimes asks six or eight people who were close friends of the deceased to be honorary pallbearers. This may be done when the come to pay their respects, or by telephone. When someone has been prominent in public life, there may be eight or ten of his or her political or business associates as well as six or eight lifelong friends. Members of the immediate family are never chosen, as their place is with the family.
Honorary pallbearers do not carry the coffin. This service is performed by the assistants of the funeral director, who are expertly trained. The honorary pallbearers sit in the first pews on the left, and after the service leave the church two by two, walking immediately in front of the coffin.
Honorary pallbearers serve only at the funerals, not at memorial services.
There are almost never any honorary pallbearers at the funeral of a Christian woman, but in the Jewish faith both men and women may have honorary pallbearers.
One cannot refuse an invitation to be a pallbearer except for illness or absence from the city.
Ushers may be chosen in addition to, or in place of pallbearers. They serve at women's funerals as well as those of men. Although funeral directors will supply personnel to perform this task, it if infinitely better to select members of the family (not immediate family) or close friends, who will recognize those who come and seat them according to their closeness to the family, or according to their own wishes.
When there are no pallbearers, ushers sit in the front pews on the left and walk out ahead of the coffin after the funeral as pallbearers would, although one or two should remain in the back to assist anyone who may arrive late. If there are pallbearers all the ushers remain at the back of the church.
Visiting At the Funeral Home
More often than not, the body of the deceased remains at the funeral home until the day of the funeral. In that case some members of the family receive close friends there, at specified hours, rather than at home. The hours when they will be there to accept expressions of sympathy should be included in the death notice in the newspaper.
Signing the Guest Register
People who wish to pay their respects but who do not fell that they are close enough to intrude on the privacy of the bereaved may stop in at any time and sign the register provided by the funeral parlor. Their signatures should be formal, including their title - "Dr. and Mrs. William Cross" or "Ms. Deborah Page," and not "Bill and Joan Cross" or "Debbie Page" - in order to simplify the task of anyone helping the family to acknowledge these visits. Close friends who feel it is unfriendly to sign "Mr. and Mrs." may use their first names but must put "Mr. and Mrs. William Cross" in parentheses after "Bill and Joan Cross." A visitor who sees and personally extends his sympathy at the funeral home need not write a note of condolence, unless he wishes to write an absent member of the family. Those who merely sign the register should, in addition, write a note. The family need not thank each and every caller by letter, but if someone has made a special effort or if no member of the family was there to speak to him, they may wish to do so.
Paying One's Respects
The visit to the funeral home during visiting hours need not last more than five or ten minutes. The visitor enters, hangs up outerwear on coat racks in the vestibule, and locates the room where the deceased is reposing. Most funeral homes have more than one visiting room and often there are several visitations occurring at the same time. Upon entering the room, the visitor may sign the guest register or she may sign it when leaving, instead. Generally, visitors first pass by the coffin before locating and expressing sympathy to family members. If a kneeling bench is placed in front of the coffin, the visitor may kneel and say a prayer if that is their custom, although he may simply stand in front of it for a moment if he doesn't wish to kneel. If the coffin is open and the visitor simply cannot approach it, he may, instead approach family members to express his sympathy. In general, visitors should follow the religious customs of the bereaved family when they make their visit. However, they need never do anything that is contrary to their own faith. For example, if there is a crucifix over the coffin of a Catholic, a Jew need not kneel, and a Protestant need not cross himself. An attitude of respect and sincerity can be indicated by standing a moment with bowed head and saying an appropriate prayer silently.
The Duration of the Visit
As soon as the visitor expressed his sympathy to each member of the family, and spoken a moment or two with those he knows well, he may leave. Often, however, visitors remain for quite some time, sitting quietly and reflecting on the life of the deceased, or speaking to friends and acquaintances. When rows of chairs are set up in the room, visitors often feel they must pay a prolonged visit. This is not necessary and is the choice of the visitor.
What to Say
In speaking to members of the bereaved family in a different part of the room form the coffin or even in another room adjacent to that where the coffin lies, what you say depends entirely on your relationship to the family. Acquaintances and casual friends need say no more than "I'm so sorry" or perhaps "He was a wonderful person." Closer friends might ask whether there is anything they can do to help or say that "We are going to miss John so much, too." Visitors should not ask about the illness or the death, but in some cases widows or widowers feel a need to talk about it. If they do bring the subject up, their friends should offer as much comfort as possible by listening and discussing it.
In reply to visitors' comments, the family members need say only "Thank you for coming," or "Thank you so much," or "You're very kind."
Visiting friends who happen to meet at a funeral home greet each other just as they ordinarily would. If a stranger is present, and introductions are made, the response is the usual one, "I'm very glad to meet you." Naturally, laughing and giggling are in very poor taste, but short chat about subjects other than the unhappy reason for the meeting is perfectly correct.
Who Attends the Funeral
All members of the family should find out when the funeral is to take place and go to it without waiting to be notified. If the newspaper notice reads "Funeral private," a friend does not go unless he has received a message from the family that they wish him to come. If the hour and location of the service are printed in the paper, that is considered an invitation to attend. It is entirely up to you to decide whether you knew the deceased or his family well enough to be at his funeral. But it is certainly unkind not to go to the public funeral or a person with whom you have been clearly associated with in business or some other interest, to whose house you have often been invited, or whose family are your friends.
A divorced man or woman may go to the funeral of the ex-wife or ex-husband if cordial relations have been maintained with the family of the deceased. He or she may make a brief visit to the funeral home, and may go to the church service, sitting in the rear and not attempting to join the family. If the deceased had remarried, and there was bitterness and ill feeling, the former spouse should not attend, but should send flowers and a brief note of condolence.
When in doubt about whether or not to attend the funeral of an ex-spouse with whom one has had children, the best advice I can give is to ask the children whether your presence would be comforting or disruptive.
If one member of a divorced couple who have young children dies, the surviving parent should be with the children at the funeral, unless he or she has severed relations with the ex-spouse, in which case grandparents or other relatives would take care of them.
It is no longer considered necessary to wear black when you got to a friend's funeral unless you sit with the family or have been asked to be one of the honorary pallbearers. However, you should choose clothes that are subdued in color and inconspicuous.
At The Church
As the time appointed for the funeral draws near, the congregation gradually fills the church. The first few pews on the right side of the center aisle are usually left empty for the family and those on the left for the pallbearers, but this may be reversed if the vestry or waiting rooms are on the left.
Friends enter the church as quietly as possible, and if there are no ushers, they seat themselves wherever they wish. Only a very intimate friend should take a position far up on the center aisle. Acquaintances seat themselves in the middle or toward the rear of the church.
Late arrivers should go to a pew from a side aisle, not walk up the center aisle once the funeral service has begun. If they arrive in the midst of a processional of family members and the coffin, they should wait outside rather than attempt to squeeze through the door and enter before those walking in the processional.
When there is a guest register, those attending the funeral sign their names before entering the sanctuary.
Sometimes the coffin is brought into the church as part of a processional. In this case, the processional forms in the vestibule. If there is to be a choral service, the minister and choir enter the church from the rear and precede the funeral cortege. Directly after the choir and clergy come the honorary pallbearers, two by two; then the coffin; and then the family - the chief mourner first, walking with whomever can offer the most comfort to him or her.
Usually each woman takes the arm of a man. But two women or two men may walk together, according to the division of the family. For example, if the deceased is one of four sons and there is no daughter, the mother and father walk together immediately after the body of their child, and they are followed by the two elder sons and then the younger, and then the nearest woman relative. It is important that the people in deepest grief should each be placed next to the one whose nearness may be of the most help to them. A younger child who is calm and soothing would be better next to his mother than an older one who is more nervous.
At the chancel the choir takes its accustomed place, the clergyman stands at the foot of the chancel steps, the honorary pallbearers take their places in the front pews on the left, and the casket is set upon a stand previously placed there for the purpose. The actual bearers of the casket walk quietly to inconspicuous stations on the side aisles. The family and pallbearers occupy the front pews; the rest of the procession fills vacant places on either side. The service is read when everyone is seated.
When There is No Processional
When there is no processional, the coffin is placed on a stand at the foot of the chancel a half hour before the service. The coffin may have a floral piece or a blanket of flowers on it. In some churches it may be covered with a pall of needlework, or for a member of the armed forces, it may be draped with the flag. The family usually enters through the door nearest the front pews.
At the End of the Service
Upon its conclusion the procession moves out in the same order it came in, except that the choir remains in its place. Even if there was not a processional, there is a recessional, usually with the minister or priest leading the honorary pallbearers, followed by the coffin which is carried or guided by the funeral home pallbearers, followed by members of the immediate family.
If the family wishes, one of the male relatives may stop at the back of the church to thank those who have attended the services. He need say nothing more than "Thank you for coming," with perhaps a special word for close friends.
Outside the church the casket is put into the hearse. The family enters automobiles waiting immediately behind. If there are a great number of floral pieces they are put into a separate car; if no separate car is needed flowers are placed in the hearse with the casket. Flowers are sometimes taken by a different route and placed beside the grave before the hearse and those attending the burial service arrive.
The funeral director will announce where a processional of cars will form to drive together to the cemetery. Everyone attending is welcome to follow to the cemetery, unless the burial is private, for immediate family only, but it is not necessary to go on to the cemetery where a short, graveside service of prayers will be said.
The standard identification for other traffic is that members of a funeral cortege turn on their headlights. As more and more cars have daytime running lights, it perhaps would be wise for drivers to also turn on their flashing or hazard lights. In concept, the cars remain together and other traffic waits for the entire procession to pass. In reality, there is often little courtesy shown to a funeral procession. I would hope that those who cut in line, honk or refuse to wait through a green light so that the procession can stay together by traveling through a red light in the other direction would stop and think to show the same amount of respect that they would hope someone else would show to their family. If you see a funeral procession turning a corner and the light changes, how kind it would be to let the procession stay together, even if those behind you are honking wildly or gesturing to you to move. If you are on the highway, don't cut into a funeral procession, thereby separating cars in the cortege from one another. When at all possible, permit the cars to stay in their single line and use a different lane. This kindness can be very important, as well, to out-of-town mourners who need to stay with the procession in order to know where they are going.
If there is not to be a large procession to the cemetery, family members instead will sometimes arrange for a reception to be provided in a social hall in the church for guests to attend while they go on to the cemetery. In this case, the minister would announce the reception, invite congregants to attend, saying that the family will return and join them following the graveside service.
At The House
Occasionally a family chooses a house funeral. It is simpler and more private, and it eliminates the necessity for those in sorrow to face people. The nearest relatives may stay apart in an adjoining room where they can hear the service yet remain in seclusion.
Years ago there seldom was music at house funerals, because at that time nothing could substitute for the deep, rich tones of the organ. Now, however, recordings of organ and choir music are excellent and readily available and may be used as a beautiful addition to a house funeral.
Arrangements are usually made to hold the service in the living room. The coffin is placed in front of the mantel, perhaps, or between two windows, at a distance from the door. It is usually set on stands brought by the funeral director, who also supplies enough folding chairs to fill the room without crowding.
At a house funeral the relatives can either take their places near the casket or stay in a separate room.
Women keep their coats on if the weather is cool. The men carry their overcoats on their arms and hold their hats in their hands.
Only a very small group of relatives and intimate friends goes to the cemetery from the house.
At The Funeral Home or Chapel
There is usually a chapel in a funeral home, actually a small and often very beautiful nonsectarian church. There are also retiring rooms and reception rooms where the families may remain undisturbed or receive the condolences of their friends.
Services are conducted in the chapel just as they would be in a church, although sometimes there is a private alcove to one side so that the family need not sit in the front pews.
At the cemetery, the coffin is normally placed graveside, the flowers which were sent to the funeral home or church are placed around it, and mourners stand in a circle around the coffin. The minister says the prayers that are a part of the Rite of Burial. Often the funeral director will arrange for each mourner to be given a flower. After the spouse or closest family member of the deceased has tossed his or her flower onto the coffin, others follow suit, paying their last respects and quietly walking back to their cars to depart the cemetery. A cortege is not formed to leave the cemetery and people may linger quietly or depart immediately as they wish.
Less frequently, the coffin is lowered into the prepared grave before prayers are said, and the flowers, rather than shovel full of earth, are thrown onto it by departing mourners.
Many people whose religions allow it prefer the idea of cremation to burial. The service is exactly the same as that preceding a burial. The family may or may not, as they wish, accompany the body to the crematorium. If they do, a very short service is held there also. However, many ministers incorporate the burial prayers into the funeral service, thus eliminating any need for the family to go to the crematorium.
The ashes are later delivered to the family to be disposed of in any way that the deceased would wish (as long as it is not contrary to any law). Often, however, the urn is deposited in a building or section set aside in the cemetery or churchyard, and sometimes it is buried in the family plot.
A Memorial Service
When there is an immediate cremation, when a funeral takes place at a distance from the home community, when the deceased has died in another country or when there are no remains, a memorial service is held instead of a funeral. This service usually takes place within a week or two of the death. Notice of the service is put in the obituary column of the paper just as a funeral notice is.
There are obviously no pallbearers, but there may be ushers and there are often special printed bulletins. A register for those who attend to sign may be put in the narthex of the church.
The service generally consists of verses, prayers and hymns, and a eulogy delivered by the minister and/or a family member or close friend.
An alternative to a memorial service is a "Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of John Doe." The service is simple, consisting of two or three tributes or eulogies given by friends or relatives, a prayer by the minister, and perhaps two or three hymns or musical offerings that were favorites of the deceased. The bulletin prepared for a service of thanksgiving is a variation of the usual bulletin that would be prepared for a regular church service. The cover of the bulletin lists the name of the deceased and often his or her birth and death dates:
A Service of Thanksgiving
for the Life of
Aldine Gath Muller
October 11, 1911-July 29, 1996
In addition to listing the order of
service the inside of the bulletin provides information for those who attend,
"Interment took place in St. Patrick's Cemetery on July 31," as well
as allowing the family a way to invite people to visit following the service,
"Following the service, all are invited to join the family for lunch [for
coffee and cake] at 100 Andrew Road, Cos Cob." At the memorial service for
a friend of mine, the bulletin included a separate sheet for remembrances which
said, "If you have any remembrances of John that you wish to share with the
family, please write them below and place in the basket at the rear of the
church. They will be most welcome." The service was as lovely as a funeral
can be and the opportunity to share memories with the family added a special
Regardless of the memorial service you arrange, usually only altar flowers are used, which may be ordered by the family of the deceased, or given by friends or associates. If additional flowers are sent, they are arranged as bouquets and placed in the chancel.
The family, which exits from the front pews first, may form a receiving line at the back of the church. Guidelines for what to say are the same as described earlier in this chapter for visitors who call at a funeral home. If they wish, family members may ask the minister, at the end of the service, to invite everyone to the home of a family member or close friend where a reception is being held. Or they may extend private invitations to particular friends passing through the receiving line if they do not wish to invite everyone in attendance.
The custom of having a roaring wake before or after the funeral service often helps those who are accustomed to it to get their minds off their tragedy, but others feel that it shows neither sadness nor respect for the deceased. However, it is a time-honored tradition among some ethnic groups and in some localities, and where this is so, wakes are beneficial and therapeutic to those who participate. If some friends or mourners resent the seeming gaiety, they should stop in and pay their respects to the bereaved family, but they need not stay.
In most cases a quiet luncheon or reception at the home of one of the relatives takes the place of a real wake. If it is held at the house of the immediate family, other relatives and close friends often provide the food. Members of the family who may not have seen each other for some time have a chance to talk, and it provides a meeting place and a meal for those who have come from out of town.
The Funeral Service
Although there are restrictions as to when a funeral may not be held, it should be held as close to death as possible, since embalming the body is forbidden and prompt burial is considered a mark of respect. If family members must travel a great distance to the funeral or if the death occurred away from home, the funeral might be delayed up to three days in order to allow relatives to be present. Ideally, the service takes place early in the day in the chapel of a funeral home, rarely in the sanctuary of a synagogue.
Orthodox tradition decrees that the casket be a plain wooden box, constructed with wooden pegs, and neither varnished nor carved. At the funeral, it is draped with a plain cover, supplied by the funeral home or the synagogue. No flowers are on the casket or used in the chapel. Rather than ordering flowers, friends and relatives make a donation to a charity in the name of the deceased.
Conservative practice generally follows this tradition, but Reform ritual permits a more elaborate casket and permits flowers. If you are unsure if flowers will be permitted and the newspaper notice does not specify, call the officiating rabbi or funeral home for guidance.
The coffin at an Orthodox and Conservative Jewish funeral is left closed so there is never a viewing of the body. The Reform ritual sometimes permits viewing of the body.
The funeral service includes a reading of Psalms by the rabbi, a eulogy by the rabbi and/or by a close friend or relative, and the recitation of the memorial prayer. The family may request that a cantor chant the Psalms or other parts of the liturgy.
After the memorial prayer, the family leaves the chapel first, directly behind the coffin as it is carried to the hearse for the burial service at the cemetery. All who will go to the cemetery form a cortege with their cars and follow the hearse to the cemetery. Usually only close friends and family members go to the cemetery.
At the graveside, the first memorial prayer, or Kaddish, is recited. Male mourners drop a handful of earth into the grave, followed by all other men present who wish to participate. It is customary to remain until the coffin is covered or even until the grave is filled.
A memorial service may be held later if the funeral takes places at a distance from the home community.
The seven days following a Jewish funeral and burial represents a period of mourning known as sitting shiva. (Shiva is the Hebrew word for seven.) It begins immediately upon the return of the family from the cemetery. During this time, a condolence call is made to the home of those in mourning to express sympathy to the bereaved. Friends usually wait until at least the third day after the funeral, leaving the first three days for mourning among close relatives.
Most people visit in the afternoon or evening or on the Sunday of the week of the death, although regular meal hours should be avoided for calls, so that the family is neither interrupted nor made to feel obligated to invite visitors to the table. It is permissible to call ahead to see if it is a convenient time to stop by. Visits are not made from Friday afternoon to after dark on Saturday, which is the Sabbath.
When calling on an Orthodox household, one should knock and enter, not ring the doorbell. The door is usually left unlocked so that no one needs to attend the door. If the door is locked, then naturally you would have to ring the bell or knock.
The purpose of the Shiva visit is to console the bereaved and to express sympathy. Visitors should refrain from frivolous chatter or behaving as though at a party, greeting others, talking loudly, etc. It is appropriate to recall the deceased, if possible, and/or express sorrow for the loss of the mourners. A Shiva visit does not need to last more than half an hour. Upon departing, a few words of support, such as "May God comfort you," may be said.
Usually religious services are held twice a day, morning and evening, and can occur when friends are visiting. They last from 10 to 20 minutes. Non-Jewish visitors should stand when others present stand during the brief service. After the service, friends may resume quiet reflections, or they may depart.
Often a Buddhist funeral ceremony resembles a Christian ceremony, with a eulogy and prayers at a funeral home, sometimes at a temple. The funeral usually takes place within a week of death. Friends may send flowers to the funeral or make a donation, usually to a specific charity or cause suggested by the family. The casket is open, and guests are expected to view the body and bow slightly toward it as a sign of their appreciation of its reminder of the impermanence of life.
Anyone in attendance may attend the interment or cremation if desired, but this is not required. Guests stand respectfully during the graveside ceremony, but do not participate in the ceremony. Friends may call at the home of the spouse or other family members after the funeral, but do not do so before the funeral.
Hindu funerals usually take place within 24 hours of death. Friends may call or visit family members of the deceased to offer their condolences upon hearing of the death and may bring flowers to them at that time. The flowers are placed at the feet of the deceased. The body usually remains at home until it is taken to the place where it will be cremated. The funeral ceremony is conducted at the place of the cremation. The coffin is generally open, and guests are expected to look upon the body and be seated in the room for the service, which is conducted by a priest or a senior member of the family. Guests may attend the cremation, but if they do not want to, they may depart after the service.
After the funeral, friends may visit the bereaved, usually bringing gifts of fruit with them.
Islamic funerals usually take place two to three days after death. Friends may call or visit the bereaved at home before the funeral where they stay for a period of time to talk quietly and offer prayers. The funeral is generally conducted at a funeral home. The coffin is never open. The service is conducted by an imam and is fairly simple. Afterward, a graveside ceremony is held at which prayers for the dead are recited and the deceased is buried. Muslims are never cremated. Guests are welcome to attend the graveside service.
Following the funeral, friends may visit family members any time during the days of mourning which may last no longer than 40 days. During visits, it is customary for mourners to sit silently while someone reads aloud. It is appropriate to send flowers after the funeral.
Fees and Donations
No fee is ever asked by a minister, priest, imam or rabbi, but the family is expected to make a contribution in appreciation of his services, and they should do so. The amount may be anything from $25 for a very small funeral or memorial service to $100 or more for a very elaborate one. A check may be presented to him or her either before or after the funeral, or it may be mailed a day or two later with a personal note of thanks for his or her services.
If an organist plays during the service, he or she receives a fee from the family. The minister, sexton or office assistant who participates in the plans for the service should be consulted as to the organist's fee.
If a cantor is part of a service, he or she receives a fee, as well. The rabbi should be consulted to arrange for the services of a cantor and about the proper amount for the fee.
The Days and Weeks to Come
As soon as possible after the funeral the life of the family should return to its normal routine unless religious practice decrees a longer period of mourning in isolation. There are many things that must be attended to at once, and while these may seem like insurmountable chores to a grieving husband or wife, the necessity of having to perform them, and in so doing to think of others rather than oneself, is in reality a great help in returning to an active life.
The return of the close relatives of the deceased to an active social life is up to the individual. He (or she) may start, as soon as he feels up to it, to go to a friend's house, to a movie, play, sports event, classes or meetings. He may wish to avoid large gatherings for a time, but little by little he increases the scope of his activities until his life has returned to normal. A widower or widow may start to have dates when he or she feels like it, but for a few months these should be restricted to evenings at the home of a friend, a movie or some other inconspicuous activity. After six months any social activity is acceptable. One year is generally considered the appropriate "waiting period" before remarrying, but there are many valid reasons for shortening that time. It is up to the people involved, but they should, in making their decision, consider the feelings of their former in-laws, their children and others close to them.
Those who consider themselves in mourning do not go to dances or other formal parties, nor do they take a leading part in purely social functions. However, anyone who is in public life or business or who has a professional career must, of course, continue to fulfill his or her duties. In sum, each year the number increases of those who show the mourning in their hearts only by the quiet dignity of their lives.
The Jewish faith provides a period of modified mourning for thirty days after the funeral. The period of mourning for Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, however, can extend for one year. During this time, an Orthodox mourner particularly may not marry, attend entertainment of a festive or even a religious nature, or travel on business. Mourning is not permitted on the Sabbath. After the mourning period, all outward signs of mourning end and normal activities are resumed.
On no account should children wear black at any time. They wear their best clothes to a funeral and afterward, whatever they ordinarily wear.
Very small children under five or six should perhaps not be taken to funerals. Older children should be seated with their family, close to someone who can give them the most comfort.
Many people are uncertain about whether children who have lost a parent should participate in their usual school activities and after-school entertainment. The answer is "Yes." They should take part in sports and in school concerts or plays. However, older children may not wish to go to a purely social party within two or three weeks, or even longer, after the death of a parent. The normal routine of small children should not be upset-more than ever they need to romp and play.
Disposition of Possessions and Heirlooms
No one can possibly foresee which of the children will want or need each piece of furniture or tableware in the home, and include all the instructions for dividing up such articles in his will. However, thoughtful parents can help their children immensely by writing a letter, which although not binding, will serve as a guideline, and which members of the family will be glad to follow. Since it is not binding, as a will is, the suggestions can be ignored if circumstances have changed since the letter was written. But it is most helpful to survivors who hardly know where to begin, if they have a word from the deceased along these lines, "I would like Jessie to have the dining room table, since she has a room big enough for it. Ken needs a sturdier sofa, so I would like him to have the plaid sofa from the den," and so on. A mother may allot jewelry in the same manner.
If this has not been done, the most practical method is to call a family council. Each member should list his choices in order. They draw straws to decide who gets first choice, second choice, etc., and then continue around in turn. Toward the end, when there may be wide inequities in the value of remaining items, the person choosing the lesser might be given a second choice. When two people have chosen the same article in the same "round," they might agree to draw straws again. An effort should be made not to break up sets of china or matching furniture.
These situations can be a real disaster, but if they are handled sensibly, unselfishly and unemotionally, they can serve to draw family members closer together than they have ever been before.
Reprinted from "Emily Post's Etiquette," with permission from HarperCollins Publishers.