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How to Say Farewell at a Funeral—with Grace and Compassion

Often a funeral or memorial service or celebration of life puts a final statement on the life of the mother, father, son, daughter, friend, or colleague. It’s there we say goodbye to a human being who touched our lives.

As a hospice and palliative physician, I have been with thousands of patients and their families at the end of life. And I have attended many services and celebrations, and I have some opinions about funeral etiquette.

In a previous post, I discussed what to say (and specifically what NOT to say to a grieving family member or friend, either in person or in a card). Let me now turn to some nuances about the events themselves that can go a long way toward healing.

We all need guidance in these matters.

In many communities, the family will participate in a type of receiving line much like for a wedding. These wakes or visitations usually run two to three hours, and families have shared with me these were among the most exhausting experiences of their lives.

All of the mourners have some story or anecdote to share, and family members have become battered from this experience. We as attendees need to be mindful of the time of day and the fatigue of the family, so say a few short sentences of concern and then move on. And as I’ve written in an earlier blog, a simple, “I am sorry for your loss,” acknowledges the situation. Enough said.

Another crucial issue is the length of the service. I vividly recall a funeral of an elderly woman who died in a nursing home relatively neglected by her adult children. At the funeral each of the seven children, because of guilt or insensitivity, spoke at great length about their mother much to the exhaustion of the audience.

It is certainly appropriate to have one or two spokespersons to share the collective observations of the family but not to go into minute details of every aspect of the loved one’s life. The speakers should be prepared for a flood of emotions from the podium.

As friends and family members rise to the podium, they should identify themselves. They often don’t realize that everyone in attendance does not know their relationship to the deceased. As a hospice and palliative medicine physician, I have attended many funerals and almost never does the speaker identify himself or herself.

If I don’t know how the speaker is connected to the deceased, it is difficult to put their comments into perspective. An appropriate introduction might simply say, “I am privileged to be here. My name is Jim and I am the nephew of Mrs. Jones.” “Hello, I am Frank, Edna’s oldest son.” “Harold was my stepfather. My name is Marilyn.” “Donna and I grew up together in Sheboygan, and we’ve stayed close through the years.”

And by all means thank and acknowledge the clergy, choir, if appropriate, as well as members of the grieving community.

Of course, you don’t need to say anything—at the podium or in a receiving line. Just the fact that you are there with a hug or a smile says volumes to those touched by the death of someone they loved.

At the end of the day when the grieving process slowly fades and life resumes a new normal, almost none of the family members will remember what was said, but they certainly will remember the fact that somebody showed up—after the death—during one of the most difficult times during anyone’s life.

Edward T. Creagan, MD, FAAHPM, a cancer specialist, is the first Mayo Clinic doctor board certified in hospice and palliative medicine. His new book, Farewell: Vital End-of-Life Questions and Candid Answers, is about navigating those precious last days, at the bedside, and saying farewell with hope, love, and compassion.

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