Funeral etiquette: Why some people behave so badly
Not everyone who stays home from the gathering is callous and insensitive. Some no-shows are simply unable to face death.
Then there’s my mother, who said, upon learning her aunt died: “I don’t do funerals.”
Most of us do funerals, though, and that helps everybody.
“Participating in a funeral generally is a really good thing for the grief process,” said David Feldman, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California and co-author of “Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success” (HarperWave). “It’s a place to express and receive social support, connect with other people, and it helps give people a sense of closure.”
But it’s hard to find support from people who behave badly. Ken Druck, author of “Healing Your Life After the Loss of a Loved One” (Wisdom of the World), said Americans have created a culture that is grief illiterate.
“We are taught that there’s a pill for every pain, for every problem or a diversion for every moment of emptiness,” said Druck, whose own daughter died in 1996 when she was 21. “If there’s one thing that evokes a feeling of helplessness, of all the things in life, it’s death. It’s much easier to turn away from, rather than face, life’s most difficult challenges.”
Advice columns are filled with examples of seemingly callous behavior that aggravates those in mourning and can leave long-lasting ill will. But understanding why people behave badly (if they show up at all) can help.
Here is some insight from experts on common faux pas.
No-shows: Not everyone who stays home is callous and insensitive. Druck said some no-shows are simply unable to face death.
“Attending a funeral, for some, is too painful,” he said.
Feldman agreed, adding that unresolved conflicts can contribute to their absence.
“Often a funeral can awaken in people thoughts about their own lives, their own decisions, thoughts about how they interacted with the person who died,” he said. “This can be profoundly good because it can encourage appropriate grief, but when there are significant regrets and significant guilt … this can cause emotional turmoil and problems. It’s important to respect those who are in this place and try to realize that they are disengaging because they can’t face their emotions.”
Grief groupies: “There are people who, for the wrong reasons, come out of the woodwork who overrepresent the relationship with the deceased as more intimate and more loving than it was,” Druck said. “It’s the rubbernecking version of grief and loss. These are manipulative narcissists who are shameless and who will distort the reality of the situation.”
Druck’s advice? Let it go. “If that’s the story they need to tell themselves and in some way it redeems them in their minds of what they did or didn’t do, they can go ahead,” he said. “There’s no real benefit to confronting someone like this. Some conflicts give you no return on your investments.”
Complicated grievers: Feldman said some people experience what he calls complicated grief, a grief process that is either more prolonged or more difficult than average due to emotional trauma. It might be best to encourage this person to see a professional counselor. “They’re not only feeling the loss of their loved one, but also are feeling frightened, scared for themselves,” Feldman said. “For those people funerals are less emotionally satisfying and may cause problems in the grief process.”
Part-timers: Druck said not to take it personally if someone doesn’t attend all of the planned gatherings.
“Funerals can last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours,” Druck said. “With jobs and kids, people can’t be expected to do the entire schedule of the church, cemetery, reception. If someone makes a genuine, well-timed appearance, even if it’s for a little while, it makes the same statement: It says, ‘Our family is keeping your family in our hearts and we wanted to be represented to let you know that.’ ”