It's not easy to know what to say at a funeral. However, you may find it helpful to think about the person who died and how you feel about them.
Even people who are rarely at a loss for words may find themselves tongue-tied at a funeral. They not only don't know what to say, but they are also afraid of what not to say to those in mourning.
Whether you were extremely close to the bereaved, or don't know the mourners that well, or didn't even know the deceased at all, deciding on the appropriate words of comfort can be tricky.
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Following are some of the best things to say at a funeral, depending upon your relationship with the deceased and survivors.
What to Say to Someone Before a Funeral
After a death has occurred, it is essential to acknowledge that loss when speaking with the bereaved person.
We may feel awkward 'bringing it up before the funeral but remember, you are not reminding them of their grief.
You are permitting them to be open about their feelings with you if they choose to do so.
You may choose to send a card, which allows for a few well-chosen words, but a phone call or brief visit is often very much appreciated too.
Things to Say at a Funeral Service
If you are attending a funeral service, it is appropriate to offer your sympathy to the family.
If you don't know them very well, a simple 'I'm sorry for your loss' is fine, although it is often better if you can say something about the person who has died, for example:
"I'm so sorry that you've lost your Dad (his name), he was a lovely man, and I know we'll miss him very much.'"
Saying something personal that kindly remembers the person who has died and what they meant to you is usually appreciated.
Examples of appropriate things to say to family members of the deceased:
- If you are an extended family member or very close friend, express your love for the deceased and the family. "I loved Uncle Joe so much. He was a kind gentleman." "I just want you to know I love you."
- If you were a good friend of the deceased, you could tell the family that he/she "was just like a brother/sister to me." Of course, you need to be careful not to offend the actual brothers or sisters of the deceased.
- "He/she will be greatly missed" conveys how much you appreciated the deceased. Family members enjoy hearing stories of how their loved ones made a difference. You can follow up this statement with an anecdote of a fond memory of the deceased.
- For those who genuinely have difficulty in these situations, if you have a photo of the deceased, bring it with you. Then you can offer the image (or a copy of it) to the survivors and share the story behind the photo.
- Being honest is a safe bet. "I'm at a total loss of what to say, but I want you to know that I am so very sorry."
- Depending on the person, you can offer a bit of humour. Share an inside joke or a memory that will elicit a smile or laugh.
- Sometimes focusing on the emotions of the bereaved is too tricky. In that situation, focus on the good qualities of the deceased. "She had such a beautiful singing voice." "He was such a kind, caring person."
- Offer to help, but give the bereaved the space they need. "When you're ready, I'm here for you. I'm only a phone call away."
- Offer words about the deceased in terms of your relationship with him/her. For example, "He was a wonderful mentor to me at work," or "She was there for me when I went through my divorce."
- For a dear friend in mourning, show signs of empathy. Say something to the effect of "When you're in pain, I'm in pain."
- And of course, the words that are always appropriate are, "I'm so sorry for your loss."
Things You Should Not Say at a Funeral
There are, however, some things that should not be said at a funeral. It is advisable to avoid platitudes such as 'well, s/he had a good life' or 'they're in a better place now.
We want to try to recognise a bereaved person's grief, not to minimise or trivialise it.
It may well be that the person who has died lived a long, happy and meaningful life. Still, to those left behind (for example, a bereaved husband whose wife of 50 years has died), the length of the person's life could never have been long enough, and the impact of the grief on them cannot and should not be minimised.
Even if you have suffered a similar loss, it is important not to say things like 'I know how you feel'.
The fact is, you don't. You can only know how you felt when you were bereaved; you should not assume that other people feel the same way.
By saying things like 'I know how you feel', you shift the focus of attention from their feelings to yours.
There may come a time when you can share helpful tips about how you felt when someone died and what helped you, but it is rarely the right time to have these conversations at a funeral.
You never want to say anything negative or disparaging at a funeral. This is not the time to gossip, tell jokes, or call attention to yourself.
This is the time to employ your speech filters. The family is already grieving, so don't make it worse during the funeral or visitation.
You also don't want to make light of the person's death.
Some people do this, thinking that it makes it easier for those in mourning to deal with it, but it doesn't. All it does is make you seem insensitive and uncaring.
Here are some examples of what not to say:
- He's in a better place.
- You're better off without him.
- I know how you're feeling. I lost a great-uncle a few years ago, and it was awful for a while.
- You'll feel better soon.
- Now that he's gone, you can get on with your life. It's time to start having some fun. (after a lengthy illness)
- Do you think you might remarry? (to the widow)
- At least he died in his sleep and didn't have to suffer much.
- You'll get over it soon.
- Don't cry.
- It would help if you were strong.
- God only gives you what you can handle.
- At least you had him for a while.
What to Say to Someone After a Funeral
After a funeral, it is often the kind words of comfort from the people who attended that the family remembers for a long time.
One of the saddest times for the family members who just lost a loved one is the period after the funeral.
This can be days, weeks, months, or even up to a year. At first, they have to get used to not having the person around.
And then they have to celebrate holidays and deal with birthdays and anniversaries that they once honoured with the person who is no longer with them.
Sometimes we are truly lost for words and cannot bring ourselves to say something personal because we fear that we may break down or upset the bereaved person.
When this happens, you may want to say something like, 'I don't know what to say or how best to help you, but I wish I did.
This is often an honest way of telling people how we feel and reassures the bereaved person that you care and will be there for them.
The adage "do unto others" may not apply to things to say at funerals.
Everyone reacts to grief in his or her way. While you may think others would like to hear detailed stories about the deceased, this may be too painful for some.
Take cues from their body language.
Here are some things you can say and do later to offer comfort:
- Call a couple of weeks after the funeral and invite the person over for coffee.
- Bring a plant or tree that can be put in the yard in memory of the deceased.
- Send a "thinking of you" note.
- Invite the person to spend a holiday with you so he or she won't have to be alone.
- Remember that grieving is a natural emotion after losing a loved one. Don't make light of it. Give the person time to process the feelings.
Some people, even in grieving, are too polite to voice their objections.
It's essential to monitor the bereaved reaction to what you're saying and, if you see them recoil, cut your comments short and give them some space.
As with any conversation, be sure to listen to the other person. If they tell you that "now's not the time" or "I don't want to hear about that now," respect their wishes.
If you don't have the gift of coming up with spur-of-the-moment comments that are always on point, learn a few expressions before you go to prevent saying the wrong thing. Here are some words that might help. Tweak them to make them fit the situation.
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How to Help Someone Grieving
The other thing that people often say at a funeral is, 'if you need anything, just let me know.
While this is usually well-meaning, it does place the responsibility for asking for help onto the bereaved person. If you want to help, be specific in your offer.
How exactly you can help will, of course, depend on the individual.
Grief can be exhausting, and the bereaved person may appreciate some relief from daily tasks, e.g. cooking, childcare and shopping.
You may like to offer to help them with paperwork, as there can be a lot to sort through after death, and this can feel overwhelming.
Practical assistance like this can be a good way of demonstrating that you are there for them.
Actions very often speak louder than words. When the funeral is over, suffering people may need and appreciate practical help and emotional support for a long time afterwards.
How Long to Talk With Family Members
The length of time you should spend talking to the family members will depend on how well you know them.
If you are close, you may stand with them longer. However, if you don't know them well, you should express your sympathy and politely move on such others will have an opportunity to talk to them.
If you're close to the family, it isn't necessary to hold a lengthy conversation. Sometimes just your physical presence brings comfort to the people who have just lost someone.
Tips to Say the Best Things at a Funeral
Prepare yourself to speak before a memorial service. This event will be an emotional time which can make it challenging to find the right words.
Write Your Thoughts Down
Never speak at a memorial service unprepared. You may feel you know what to say, but when the time comes, you could be overcome with emotion or grief that you will forget.
Take some time and organise your thoughts. Ask friends and family members to share memories as inspiration.
You can also look at old photos, videos or letters for ideas. Take all this inspiration, then write from your heart.
Make drafts and put final thoughts on note cards you can fit in your pocket or purse.
Make Personal Statements
There is no universal phrase that makes grief-stricken people feel better, so try for words to show you care or can be helpful in some concrete way.
Make statements about the person you are talking to or the deceased, not cliché phrases or things about your experience with grief.
- I'm sorry for your loss, it won't be easy, but you won't be alone.
- You'll always have your memories of him to make you smile.
- I can't take your pain away, but I can be here to talk or reminisce if you want.
- She was a great person who added so much to every life she touched.
- Take time to cry and to remember the happiness you felt with him around.
- I'm not sure what to say; I want you to know I'm here for you if you need me.
- I can't honestly say it will get better, but I know it will get a little easier as time goes by.
- All these people paying their respects are a testament to the kind of man he was.
- I wish we were together under different circumstances, but I'm glad we're together.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Whether it's in front of a mirror or with your best friend, practice what you will say. Videotape or record yourself so you can hear what you sound like and how you look.
Make sure to stand up straight and look at your audience. If this makes you nervous, pick a spot or two in the room and keep those as your focal points.
This is especially important if you're speaking to a group. Whether you were selected to write and or read the main tribute, or eulogy, or the service includes an opportunity for members of the crowd to share personal memories, practice what you're going to say. Keep your memory brief to allow time for others to share and start with a phrase like:
- When we were kids...
- The first time I met...
- My favourite memory of John was...
- I knew Jane as an (insert adjective) person this one time...
Use Visual Aids
This may sound like something you would use while giving a speech in English class, but visual aids help.
Books, photographs, or even a favourite baseball cap are good visual props and give you something to talk about.
Remember, your speech will inspire others to talk about the deceased person too.
Specific Things to Say at a Memorial Service
When words fail you, try these tried-and-true tips for coming up with something to say should you be asked to speak at someone's memorial.
Incorporate Poems and Sayings
You can also read a few funeral poems or recite some of the deceased person's favourite prayers or quotes during your memorial speech.
While this ceremony is a celebration of life, it is also a time to say goodbye.
Reading and hearing inspirational words can help not only you but those in attendance with their grief journeys. If you like, copy the poems and hand them out at the service as keepsakes.
Remember that Memorial service readings are typically short and sentimental.
- Memorial death sayings are short, uplifting phrases or quotes from famous people.
- In celebration of moms, use Mother's Day memorial poems.
- In memory of a grandfather, poems pay tribute to the oldest men in the family.
- For a Father's Day memorial service, consider a poem in memory of dad.
- Ethnic poems about grief offer a multicultural perspective and celebrate the deceased's belief system.
Use Multicultural Sayings
While the expression of grief is a primarily personal experience, it can also be culturally expressed.
In some cultures, death is viewed as a sad loss, while in others, it is a joyful awakening. Before offering any words specific to a particular culture, be sure you fully understand their meaning and specific context.
Include culturally appropriate blessings or quotes in formal speeches. When offering words of comfort, consider phrases that are more celebratory or avoid getting too personal.
- The Buddhist focus on reincarnation warrants a peaceful phrase like, "I offer this good deed (name specific deed you have done) in the name of (deceased's name)."
- "Her spirit is one with nature" might be appropriate for a Native American service.
- A regular donation is required at Chinese wakes where you might say, "My deepest respects are paid."
- In traditional Italian rituals, loved ones help the deceased leave the earth, so you could say, "May he go forth from this world in peace."
- Hindu cultures view death as a part of life, not a sad loss, so an acceptable phrase is, "I wish her soul finds its next destination."
A Celebration of Life
Similar to funerals, memorial services are a celebration of the deceased person's life. Music is played, and family members and friends take turns reliving memories.
A slideshow or photo collage is displayed with images of the individual and his or her family and friends.
Slideshows are usually played with the loved one's favourite music in the background. Memorial services are not ordinarily solemn events, and attendees leave with a whole heart.
Words of Love
A memorial service is the last chance to say goodbye or celebrate the deceased as a group.
Take the opportunity to share your thoughts and feelings with others as a means of remembrance and healing.
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Whether you write down what you're going to say, or you use a suggestion or the words of famous writers, what you say at a memorial service will be appreciated by grieving friends and family if you speak from the heart.