What to say at a funeral — and what not to say

Simple expressions of support and a willingness to listen go a long way

Figuring out what to say at a funeral can be hard for even the most sociable people. When a friend or family member is grieving, you don’t want to add to their pain with careless communication. Preparing a few thoughtful words of comfort before the service can help put you at ease and hopefully prevent any awkwardness.

What to say at a funeral

What should you say to a friend who is grieving at a funeral? It’s fine to keep your message simple. “I’m so sorry for your loss” is always acceptable. You can share a warm sentiment or memory, such as “Megan was a wonderful, caring friend to me,” or “I’ll never forget the way your dad’s smile could brighten up a room.” But keep your remarks brief. Others may be waiting to offer their condolences as well, but if the bereaved person engages you in conversation, you can linger a bit longer. The key is to take your cues from the person who has suffered the loss. Be ready to pause and listen, or to move on, if that’s what they need.
If you and the deceased were especially close, family members will probably welcome your sincere expression of love for that person, if you feel moved to share it. Even if you shed a few tears, or the person you’re speaking to starts to cry, that’s okay. A funeral is meant to be a place to grieve openly and release emotion. Just remember that your role is to comfort the family of the deceased, not to receive support from them for your own grief. If you need to excuse yourself during the gathering to regain your composure, do so. People will understand.

The worst things to say at a funeral

Death isn’t easy to talk about, so we often fall back on clichés. Unfortunately, those old maxims may sound insensitive to someone who has just suffered a loss. Don’t tell friends or family members who are grieving that their loved one has gone to a better place. Never call the death a blessing or speculate that it was that person’s time. Avoid saying anything that suggests that the loss of the loved one is a positive thing. Also, now is not the time to encourage someone who’s in mourning to move on. Comments like “You can have another baby,” or “Maybe you’ll get married again someday,” might be offered with kind intent, but they’ll be received as cruelty.
Emotions in the wake of a death can be confusing. Even if the person who died wasn’t exactly a pillar of the community, criticizing or joking about that person during the funeral is disrespectful and likely to cause pain. Saying things like, “You must be so relieved,” “At least you have closure now,” or “I know exactly what you’re going through because X happened to me,” aren’t helpful. Don’t assume you understand or have insight into the emotional state of the person in mourning. Instead, strive to be compassionate and open, allowing space for the grieving person  to share their authentic feelings with you if they choose.
Intrusive personal questions, such as “So how exactly did he die?” or “Why didn’t she try chemo?” probably rank among the worst things to say at a funeral. Similarly, asking about inheritances, wills, life insurance policies, funeral expenses, or other financial matters at the service is inappropriate. If you’re worried that the bereaved may be facing financial or practical difficulties as a result of their loved one’s death, you can offer assistance gently and discreetly in the weeks following the funeral.

Finding funeral words of comfort

If despite your best efforts, you still find yourself nervous and unsure at the funeral, just be honest. There’s nothing wrong with confessing, “I don’t really know what to say right now, but I want you to know I care and I’m here if you need anything.” A hug, a warm handshake, or a pat on the back will also go a long way when words fail.
Finally, remember that grieving is a process that can stretch for months or years. The funeral isn’t your only opportunity to show support for those left behind. You can make a difference by keeping in touch with them and calling to check in. Send a card with encouragement on important occasions, like the birthdate of the deceased. Offer to share a meal or catch a movie. You won’t always say the right thing in conversation with someone who is grieving, but if you faithfully show up to listen over time, your caring actions will speak louder than words.
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Photo credit: iStock

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