What should I say at a funeral?
Nobody likes to go to funerals. It’s sad. People are crying. There’s a dead body in the room. There are flowers everywhere. And worst of all, you never know what to say.
In the United States alone more than 6,000 people die every day, which means that over time the average person will not only experience their fair share of loss but interact with lots of others—friends, family, coworkers—who are grieving a loss.
Many find it difficult to know just what to say in the face of death. As a result they either say nothing. or they say something...unhelpful.
So how should one act at a funeral? Does Christian spirituality, in particular, offer any guidance on what to say and how to help?
First, one of the simplest and most appropriate gifts you can offer to someone who has experienced a loss is to AFFIRM THEIR GRIEF. Recognize, through your words, your presence and your posture that the loss of their child, their spouse, their parent, or friend, must be a source of tremendous pain.
Often, people of faith will say things that do the opposite—that subtly pull the rug out from under a person’s grief like, "We should be celebrating—He’s with the Lord" or "She’s in a much better place than we are." While well intended these words imply that those who are grieving should feel bad for feeling sad.
Such words conflict with the Christian teaching that death is the enemy, something that, yes, has been defeated by Christ but stings us until His return. In the Christian worldview, mothers were never meant to bury sons. Husbands were not supposed to place their wives in hospice. The world was not intended as a place to escape in favor of heaven. Sin entered and ruined something good.
When death happens we should mourn it and grieve it. We should let people cry and be sad about it. We should not kid ourselves that we are somehow okay with it. We are hurting. For good reason. And, for Christians, the only answer is for Jesus to return and fully, finally fix it.
Second, we should avoid EXPLANATIONS. In the face of every tragedy there is one question everyone wants to know the answer to: why? And it is tempting to try and answer it by positing that perhaps God "needed another angel" or that the Lord was protecting the departed from something worse.
But here’s the truth: you can say such things but you don’t know those things to be true. And the end result is never comfort but always confusion. When we try to explain God’s intentions we end up making God the enemy. For example, why would God want someone's child to be in his presence more than he wants that child in her mother's arms? Is God so callous and greedy that he'd rather ruin a mother's life than lack yet another "little angel?"
So, if you’re a Christian stick to what He has made clear: Death sucks. God is God. Jesus is fixing it.
Third, just be PRESENT with them. Forget trying to say the right thing and, instead, focus on being near and available for those that are hurting.
This is especially true in the days and weeks after the arrangement are over and the grieving are expected to "move on.” Visit them. Call them. Be present with them.
Ancient Judaism has a practice called, “sitting shiva.” When someone died it was expected that friends and family would come and simply sit with them—often on the floor or on a low stool to represent that they’d been brought low, together, by grief. And there are no words. Just sitting, with them, in silence.
The rule with Shiva is that you do not speak unless the mourner speaks to you. You see, often our well-intended words get in the way. Our efforts to “comfort” them is really about making ourselves feel better.
The truth is that what people need most are not words for their grief, but to know that though this person they desperately loved is gone that they are not alone in their grief.
C.S. Lewis—the legendary author and thinker—wrote in "A Grief Observed" about the death of his wife, and of the overwhelming sadness he experienced. He said, “Her death is like the sky; spread over everything.” Those who’ve lost someone will understand what those words mean.
What can you say to someone in the face of such sorrow?
What about simply, “I’m sorry. I love you. And I’m here.”