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COLUMN: Funerals call for closed mouths, open hearts

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By Linda Ireland

 Sometimes as we’re working in the office, we’ll engage in what some may consider to be offbeat conversations.

Recently, we discussed funeral homes – and all the ways things can go wrong when well-meaning visitors descend on the bereaved.

For instance, there’s the “who the heck is that” guest who claims to be a relative no one has seen or heard of in 30 years, but arrives at the funeral home in her gaudiest mourning duds, loudly bewailing the deceased. Immediate family members, not wanting to appear rude, do their best to comfort her, but usually rely on friends to rescue them.

Another version of the “who the heck is that” visitor is the person who – without the family’s permission – places strange little mementos in the coffin with the deceased. The family is forced to wonder about the significance of the object – and whether it is something that should be left alone – or if it’s something that merits a call to a police agency.

And then there are the people who rabidly insist on taking a flower or potted plant home from the funeral home with them – even if it has clearly been reserved for someone else. They’ll even fight you over that plant – with the same bullheadedness they’d show if you said their kid was ugly – if you object. I still owe Janice Bertram (of Bennett-Bertram Funeral Home) a huge debt of thanks for intervening during that very circumstance a few years ago.

I shouldn’t talk, I suppose. I’ve been known to do some extremely stupid things when visiting. One time I was very distraught when I walked in the funeral home. The deceased was a young person I had known since he was a baby. I blundered right up to the child’s mother and told her how sorry I was – then looked around and saw a whole row of people glaring at me. I had done the unthinkable – I had cut line.

Another time, I was running late to a funeral service and grabbed the first available seat.

My daughter, who was with me, hissed at me, “You’re sitting in the pallbearers’ seat!”

And sure enough, I was. I moved, luckily, before the pallbearers walked in.

Hopefully, my friends overlooked my actions – and will continue to do so in the future.

Even worse is all the odd things people say to the bereaved at the funeral home.

One of my co-workers said that she’d never get over what a woman said to her at her mother’s funeral. The woman had brought her young daughter to the funeral home for the first time. She said something to the effect of “I’m glad I could bring her to a funeral of someone she doesn’t know well so she can get used to it.”

Wasn’t it lucky that someone else’s mother could die so it wouldn’t discomfort her child?

I’ve found it’s best to keep the conversation to a minimum. Hug the bereaved, if you’re on hugging terms. Tell them you’re sorry about their loss. If you feel the need to stay, then sit and listen quietly.

It’s not the time to talk business or bring up your own miseries or tell jokes. Telling jokes, on the other hand, is how many people deal with death. Let the bereaved tell the jokes. It’s safer that way.

You want your friends to remember that you cared and visited – not the foolish words you may have said.

I’ve only been accused of saying something inappropriate at a funeral home once – and it was when my own father died. I don’t even remember saying what I apparently did – and still don’t understand how it offended the person. All I could do was apologize and try to do better in the future.

Other things that funeral directors advise against saying:

• “I know exactly how you feel."

• "She's better off."

• "There's someone else out there for you."

• "Let me know if there is anything I can do for you."

• "Wow, all these flowers are sure a waste of money."

• "All things work for good, to those who love God."