Ask Thelma Column on Funerals

Aug 29, 2011 | 4 comments

Etiquette expert Thelma Domenici’s latest “Ask Thelma” column includes a query about the organization of funerals. The question is not about funeral etiquette, but the changing structure of the memorial service itself.

The writer is uncomfortable with the growing trend of inviting attendees to stand up and speak off the cuff about the deceased. There’s often an uncomfortable silence after attendees are asked to share impromptu stories. This person is more comfortable with “traditional” funerals.

Thelma makes some very good points about how rituals related to death are changing, and there are no right or wrong formats. What is most important is how the family and those closest to the deceased want to honor the person.

Of course, it helps enormously for the family to have a conversation about the best way to honor that loved one before there’s a death in the family. All together now: Just as talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about funerals won’t make you dead – and your family will benefit from the conversation!

Here’s the full letter and Thelma’s answer.

Dear Thelma:
I’ve had occasion to attend some funerals lately. As I’m in my late 60s, I suppose they will now demand my attention more frequently. Funerals seem to be more informal than they were some years ago.

I notice that often there is less predictable ceremony and more ad hoc asking of attendees to stand up and share “stories” about the deceased. Sometimes there is an uncomfortable silence until some brave soul gets up to share. It surprises me that attendees would be expected to ad lib at a time like this.

Does it not seem better for the organizers of the funeral — the family or friends of the deceased — to arrange for three or four people close to the deceased to lead off the sharing? And for some kind of master of ceremonies to exert control over the process? Another issue is that sometimes a windy relative or someone with an agenda will get going and make for a rather uncomfortable situation.

By comparison, I attended a “traditional” funeral earlier this year and found myself to be relieved when the event was well organized and went off without a hitch. I wonder if, at such emotional times, all might be better off with better organized, more predictable ceremonies?

Funerals are entirely personal, and there is no right or wrong format for them. The service in which you found yourself comfortable, others may not.

It’s true that rituals surrounding a traditional funeral in most instances follow a format and are organized in such a way that people are asked ahead of time to participate. That can relieve tension.

However, that’s not the only way to celebrate a person’s life. Spontaneously shared memories can have their place too. For me what is most important is how the family and those closest to the deceased want to honor the person. My role as an attendee at a funeral is to participate in that honor and support the family through the process they’ve chosen.

Proper honor and good manners never go out of style.

A Good Goodbye