What Not to Say at a Funeral

Death is an unpleasant and unwelcome inevitability of life, and its presence makes us feel uncomfortable like little else can. Even the most talkative of people struggle to speak to someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one.

people at a funeral
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Hoping to provide some comfort to grievers, people often resort to the clichés and other trite expressions that readily spring to mind in order to avoid an awkward silence.

Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, many of the oft-heard expressions used at funerals, wakes and in condolence letters are misguided and, frankly, insensitive. Here are five common expressions you should never say at a funeral or memorial service to someone grieving the death of a loved one.

"I know how you feel."

No, you don't.

Even if you, too, experienced the untimely death of your 16-year-old daughter, who was also named Anne, in a freak drunk-driving accident on the same stretch of highway while also driving a sky-blue vehicle at that same time of night, you still don't know how someone else feels about losing their child.

In the end, the way in which each of us reacts and responds to grief is unique. Stating that you know how anyone else feels is condescending.

A Better Approach

If you experienced the death of someone close and feel the need to reference it, do so in the form of an open-ended question or comment. For example, you might say, "When my daughter died, I blamed myself for letting her use the car that night. If you're feeling that way, please know that I'm here to talk any time you need to."

If you don't know how someone mourning a death is feeling, it is okay to simply state, "I don't know what to say, but please know that I'm sorry."

Avoid saying "I'm sorry for your loss." The phrase is trite and rings hollow to those grieving.

"He's a better place now."

Anyone who utters this phrase has clearly never grappled with the forever loss of someone close due to death. A mother facing the future without her child, a widower first returning to the empty house he shared with his wife for decades, or anyone struggling to understand why a motorist with previous drunk-driving offenses was still behind the wheel thinks that the best place for their deceased loved one is right by their side.

Telling a griever otherwise, even if you believe that the better place is heaven, suggests that he or she should somehow feel happy about the loss and that crying and showing anguish about the situation is out of place.

A Better Approach

Anyone caught in the throes of grief struggles to accept why a loved one isn't with them and among the living. Therefore, there simply is no reason for you to suggest he or she is in any other place right now.

Instead, share your favorite memory of the deceased, if appropriate, and avoid the instinct to "make things better."

It is important to remember that, even if the mourner believes in life after death, the loss of a loved one often challenges faith.

"You need to be strong."

Commenting on how someone is responding to or handling a difficult situation is condescending and serves no purpose other than to create feelings of guilt and/or resentment. Generally, people experience several similar stages or phases of grief following a significant loss, but just when and how someone exhibits his or her grief response is unique.

Telling a mourner he or she should not express feelings naturally can contribute to an abnormal or complicated grief response because the individual cannot process, and eventually accept, the feelings associated with a loss to death.

A Better Approach

Switch off the rational, intellectual part of your brain and simply allow yourself to respond emotionally. Words are unimportant right now. What will be better remembered is what you do, whether it be a long hug, a hand on the shoulder, or tears shared between friends.

If at a loss for words, don't fidget, look away, or panic. This is when you are most likely to say something inappropriate. Instead, be sincere and simply say, "I don't want to what to say except that I'm truly sorry."

"She looks so natural."

Have you ever looked at a living person and said something like this? Of course not, because someone who looks natural in life just looks, well... natural. In other words, we don't feel the need to comment on it. Uttering this comment when looking at a dead human being lying in a casket, however, merely emphasizes that he or she is not alive.

In addition, one of the most common fears funeral service professionals harbor is that a family will think an embalmed and cosmeticized loved one does not look natural. Thus, being the first to comment on the appearance of the deceased is never wise because you simply don't know what an immediate family member or close loved one thinks.

A Better Approach

Obviously, if a mourner expressly asks you, "Doesn't she look wonderful?" then you should readily agree. Short of that, avoid any comments on the appearance of the deceased in an embalmed/cosmeticized situation, such as a wake or visitation.

People who are grieving want to hold on to the memories of their loved ones at their best. Focus on those memories rather than putting a positive spin on an otherwise trying day.

"Let me know what I can do."

Telling someone already hurting from the death of loved one—and who is likely exhausted by the multitude of decisions they've had to make—that you want them to make yet another decision is insensitive and burdensome.

More likely than not, the person will have given little thought to what tasks and responsibilities like ahead (and, if they, will likely be overwhelmed). Asking this question merely puts them on the spot in order to make you feel less helpless.

A Better Approach

If you sincerely wish to help the griever at some point, then simply state that you will phone them next week once things have settled down a bit. By then, not only will the funeral and committal services have concluded, but out-of-town guests will likely have headed home, too.

When you do call, you should still offer a specific suggestion or two instead of leaving it up to the bereaved individual. You might offer to cut the grass, shovel the drive, or to perform some other basic outdoor chore.

Cleaning the house, doing the laundry or picking up some groceries can certainly prove helpful, as well. Perhaps the most appreciated thing you could do is bring over a meal and simply spend the time talking, listening, or sharing quiet companionship.

If you offer to do something, including calling within a week, do it. Blowing off promises is not only hurtful, but it can amplify feelings of isolation and loneliness the mourner may already be feeling.

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