New York State Funeral Directors Association

The Final Goodbye - Thoughts on Paying your Last Respects

I am always amazed when people tell me they don't attend funerals. Their reasons are something like: "Oh! I don't like to be around unhappy people," "I never know what to say," or "I'm just too busy."

These people ignore the fact that a funeral is not about "them" -- it is about a friend, relative or coworker who has died and whose survivors would welcome a gentle display of compassion. A business associate once told me that she was gladdened by the appearance during visiting hours of a man who had worked with her husband early in his career. "It was wonderful to hear that someone from my husband's past remembered him fondly and made a special trip to tell me so."

A condolence visit is important to reassure the bereaved that while their loved one is gone, they are not alone and that others are thinking of them. Upon your arrival, go to the family and offer a simple statement of condolence. If you are not well-known to the family when introducing yourself, be sure to mention if you were a business associate or an acquaintance of the deceased so that the family members can acknowledge you. You need not stay long; 15 minutes can give you enough time to express your sympathy and ask what you can do to help. You may stay longer if you feel that the family is comforted by your presence.

Be sure to sign the guest register and indicate your connection to the deceased if the family doesn't know you well. Don't worry about what to say. A simple "I'm so sorry" is usually sufficient. Try not to say "I know how you feel." Everyone reacts to the death of a loved one in a different way and you couldn't possibly know how they feel.

Quiet conversation with other mourners is permissible, but direct questions about details of the death are to be avoided. If the family wants to talk about the cause of death, then listen attentively. Don't offer advice unless you are asked. Don't make comments such as "You're young, you'll marry again" or "You can have another child."

Referring to the deceased's obituary in the newspaper will give you details about the location and time of visitation hours and any religious or fraternal ceremonies that have been scheduled. Many funeral homes post this information on their websites. Obituaries will also indicate if the family prefers that a memorial donation in the name of the deceased be made to a favorite charity rather than sending flowers.

Conservative clothing is appropriate, but black is not necessary. And yes, children can attend if they are old enough to understand the concept of death. Parents are the best judge of whether or not attending a funeral will be meaningful to the child and comforting to the bereaved.

Thoughtful people will keep in touch after the funeral, especially with a widow or other survivor who now must live alone. Offer a visit to a local museum or cultural event, or help with shopping or mowing the lawn. We all have busy lives and many commitments. But taking a few moments of our time to provide comfort to the bereaved will give us enormous satisfaction and a feeling of well-being for ourselves and those we comfort.