By Kathy Berken
I’ll be the first to admit that I have said some well-intended but unhelpful things at a wake or two. I told a friend that I prayed for her husband during his illness. “Some good that did!” she said back. Ouch.
At my mother’s funeral 40 years ago, many cousins whispered, “Isabelle was our favorite aunt.” That helped me know that her love extended far beyond our immediate family.
I just read a long, almost-scolding article that listed the dos and don’ts of funeral etiquette, which left me feeling helpless. The script essentially said, “Don’t mess up or you will get bad reviews.” On one hand, I felt a deep compassion for the author because his mother had just died and precious few interactions at the funeral helped alleviate his pain, but on the other, I felt controlled and guilty. I want to do and say what’s most helpful, of course, but I don’t want to walk into the funeral home with cue cards.
The truth is, it’s not your fault that your words don’t help the person grieving. You did your best and you truly meant well. We tend to castigate that “meant-well” gesture yet we do mean well and that does count. In the swirl of raw emotions, we respond in ways we might never otherwise. We showed up because we cared and that alone ought to speak volumes, but sadly, often what we say seems to wreck everything.
Some 20 years ago, I attended the funeral Mass for a teenage boy I taught in high school who committed suicide. At the homily, Father Mike stepped down to the front pews and hugged each person. Then he stood next to the casket and slowly and deliberately said only this: “I have no words. All we can do is put our arms around each other and cry.” He sat down and the church went silent. He could have spoken eloquently about the mystery of the resurrection and life after death. He was a good preacher, tuned in to the human experience, but he knew instinctively that words, no matter how beautiful, would not reach our souls. He chose instead to follow St. Francis’ advice: “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” He showed us how to be Christ for one another.
Recently on Facebook, my friend Pam Marnocha-Janssen, funeral director in Pulaski, Wis., and pastoral minister at Assumption BVM Catholic Church, posted this story. I reprint it with her permission:
Tonight, at work, the family saying goodnight to each other before leaving until tomorrow morning’s funeral… a little girl with curly red hair quietly asks me if I can help her put the picture (of a turkey, on construction paper, with colored fuzzy poms) she made for her great-grandpa in the casket with him. So we walked there together, and she asked where I would put it when we closed the cover, and I said we would put it over his heart so he would always know how much she loved him. She said, be careful with it, because the little poms might come off because maybe she didn’t glue them the best. I said I would be careful, but if any did fall off, we would put them in his hands for her. She said, that was good, because she had kissed every single one of them.
Pam’s advice? It’s enough to say nothing. Then be quiet and let them talk because “You are not going to be able to fix it, but you can love. That’s what we all need. Someone who is safe and says, ‘I feel for you.’” But if you do talk, make it “short, sweet, from the heart, whatever comes out of your mouth.”
Funerals are rituals that involve interactions among real human beings, so Pam also advises bereaved families: “People come here because they care about you, and all of them are going to feel clumsy in expressing themselves. So, if they blurt something out, or say something that feels inappropriate, forgive them.”
Trust your gut, your instincts, your heart, and most of all, trust that we are God’s arms to love and to hold each other in the darkness of grief.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)