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What to Say to Someone Going to a Funeral

A funeral, by its very nature, is a very emotional and fraught time for friends and family of the departed.

For many people it can be difficult to know how to act around someone going to a funeral and what the right words to say are. Some people may even choose to avoid a bereaved friend or colleague altogether, simply because they don’t know what to say to them.

There is no definitive list of the right things to say during funerals. A lot will depend on the character of the departed and the loved ones they have left behind, as well as your own relationship to them.

There are, however, some general guidelines that can help you to express your support and sympathy without causing further upset to people who are already grieving.

What to Say to Someone Who is Going to a Funeral

Some people may want to avoid mentioning an upcoming funeral altogether, either through awkwardness or for fear of upsetting another person.

It’s worth remembering that even if they are not showing it, a bereaved person will still feel raw and may be hurting. Expressing your sympathy is polite and can be comforting. If it triggers tears, that is natural at a time like this.

When expressing sympathy, you may choose to use the name of the person who has died or their relationship to the person who has died.

‘I was so sorry to hear about John’ or ‘I was so sorry to hear about your mother.’

They are short and simple, and this may be all you have to say unless the bereaved person continues the conversation.

Admitting that you don’t know what to say may make you feel like you are not saying anything at all, but it can be an honest and appreciated response. Sometimes the actual words you say are not as important as the expression of your sympathy and support.

Depending on your relationship with the person who has the funeral plans, your initial contact may come from bumping into them at work or elsewhere. If you are friends, you may find it appropriate to send a suitable card with a simple message. A phone call or a visit may also be welcome.

In this digital age, social media offers another channel for people to express grief and sympathy, but the appropriateness will often depend on the individual and may be generational. If a bereaved person posts about their loved one, it is generally appropriate to make a respectful comment underneath.

Speaking to People During the Funeral

Funeral directors are experienced professionals who are used to striking the right tone at a funeral, but it can be difficult for the rest of us to know what to say.

If you attend the service, you will no doubt have a relationship with either the departed or one or more of their loved ones. Even if you were close to the person, you will probably speak to people you don’t know very well.

When you speak to the family of the deceased or others who were very close to them, you might want to keep things simple. Just saying, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ is perfectly acceptable, but if you knew the departed person, you might want to say something more personal.

Some generic examples could include, ‘She was a lovely woman and will be missed by everyone’ or ‘I was so sorry to hear of [the person’s name] passing; he was always so nice to me.’

Sharing stories or anecdotes such as when you first met the deceased may also be suitable but could also depend on the situation. A long story might not be appropriate at the funeral where a grieving widow or widower is greeting many people in a limited time, but it may be more suited to a wake if there is one.

Offering Support After the Funeral

Although the funeral can offer a certain sense of closure, the grieving process certainly doesn’t end there. Support afterwards can be very much appreciated, whether asking, ‘How are you today?’ or sitting down for a cup of tea and having a long chat.

Offering practical help can also be invaluable. ‘We’re here if you need us’  doesn’t necessarily invite a person to call if they require help. Be specific when offering help; perhaps they’re in the middle of redecorating. You can ask if they would like you to come over and help during the weekend. This may provide ample opportunity for them to voice how they’re feeling in a more intimate setting whilst also being productive.

Offering an ear and a shoulder to cry on is also good, but only if you mean it and are willing and able to offer that time if needed.

Things to Avoid Saying at a Funeral

Whether approaching someone about a funeral or attending the service, you should avoid platitudes such as ‘They’re in a better place now’ or ‘At least he/she had a good innings.

This may be seen as trivialising or downplaying the loss. Even if someone died peacefully at an old age, the grief is real for those left behind. This could be especially true for the spouse or partner.

Saying ‘I know how you feel’ can also be problematic. You may have lost someone, but everyone’s experience of grief is different. It can also shift the focus from the person grieving to your own experience.

Other Aspects of Funeral Etiquette to Bear in Mind

During the lockdown, there were questions about how many can attend a funeral to bear in mind, but at the time of writing, numerical limits have now been removed.

You may still have questions such as what to wear to a funeral. In general, plain sombre clothes are recommended unless explicitly told otherwise. Some people want their send-off to be a celebration, but it is usually best to be understated, smart and to act with dignity.



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