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Funeral Wisdom: Things you should or should not say at a funeral


At age 65, I’m beginning to spend more time standing in line at funerals or pre-funeral visitations.  Over the years, I’ve heard people say things that have made me cringe.  And, I’ve probably said some of those same trite phrases myself years ago. Now, because we’ve heard other people say those things they’ve become part of our own “funeral language.”

It’s surprising to think that we’d take time out of our busy lives to pay our respects at a funeral, but give so little thought to what we will say to comfort those who are mourning, when we get there.  We should be asking ourselves, “What would we like to hear if it was our loved one who was lying there?”

So, about a dozen years back, I took a little time to think about it and made some pre-decisions about what I ought to say, or ought not to say at funerals.  I’ll share some of these ideas here, but I’d also like to hear your own ideas. 1. Prayer and Pre-decisions My first suggestion is that before you go to your next visitation or funeral, set aside a little time to pray for wisdom to know what to say or not to say that would be helpful or encouraging to those grieving.  I’d suggest actually practicing saying what God puts in your mind, on the way to the funeral, so you’re ready.

2. Thoughtful Responses What you might say at a funeral depends a lot on whether or not the family are strong Christians, and on the circumstances surrounding the death.  (ie. was it totally unexpected, the result of an accident, or a long illness or struggle.)  Also, take your cues from the family.  If everyone appears happy that the deceased person’s suffering is over, then rejoice with them.  If they are very sad – grieve with them. My general rule of thumb; rejoice with those who are rejoicing and grieve with those who are grieving.

The following is a list of statements or questions that I’ve found helpful. •  I’m really sad for you. •  This must be very hard for you. •  How can I pray for you and your family? •  Tell me about your father.  What was he like?  (Or the name or relationship of the deceased person.) People generally love to tell their stories. •  I wish I had something profound to say that would really comfort you. I don’t. Just know that I really care for you. •  I have no idea why God would let something like this happen. •  My favorite memory of Martha is… •  Tell the family what the deceased person meant to you or tell a short story (if you knew them well). •  Ask, “Do you have a special memory that you’ll always cherish (of this person)?” •  Generally, I don’t quote scripture at funerals, unless it describes a virtue of the deceased person. (i.e. “She was certainly a Proverbs 31 woman!”) There is an exception if the family is struggling to understand “why?”  I love this verse from Isaiah.

“The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.  Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.”  Isaiah 57:1-2

If I do quote this verse, I prefer doing so in a note after the funeral.  In the busyness of a receiving line people are not apt to remember the verse, nor do they have time to reflect on it’s meaning.  Later they might.

•  Standing for hours, meeting people, some you barely know is tiring. Offer to sit with them just for a few minutes if there is not a long line. •  Finally, remember there are others waiting behind you, so be brief.

What I would not say at a funeral •  Well, I guess Jesus wanted John home with him.  (That’s possible, but not very comforting.) •  You know what the Bible says, “All things work together for the good of those who love him.”  A grieving family often can’t imagine just then how this death will work for anyone’s good.  Therefore, implying that this was a good thing is not comforting. •  He (she) looks so nice. •  She’s in a better place. •  Be strong. •  I’ll bet Mary is just looking down from heaven right now and seeing all the people honoring her.  We have no idea if deceased saints can see what’s going on here on earth. •  How are you doing? They’ve been asked that question by 50% of everyone in the line in front of you and are probably tired of answering it. •  Don’t chat about business, vacation plans, your family, or other events with grieving family members. The family has just lost a loved one and talking about trite things, communicates that you’ve already moved on mentally. But, they’ve not, so respect the sanctity of the moment. •  Can I do anything for you? That question is too open ended. Instead you might offer a specific service, “Could I take your children for a day next week to give you a rest?” Or, “I’ll call you next week, I’d love to take you to lunch or have coffee.”

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