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What to say (and not to say) at a funeral

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 07/31/22

When we feel awkward, we often offer clichéd platitudes while trying to comfort the grieving. Here's what to do instead.

As a priest, I go to a lot of funerals. I speak at a lot of them. I spend a lot of time at visitations and talking with bereaved families in my office.

I also happen to be an incredibly awkward person when it comes to dealing with emotions. I struggle to express how I feel and, when in the midst of events that cause strong emotions, I don’t like to acknowledge they even exist. I actually find myself uncomfortable when I’m in an environment where emotions are on display — probably because I don’t understand what I myself am feeling and just want to escape.

Because of this awkwardness, I used to indulge in the habit of stammering out clichéd platitudes when trying to comfort grieving families. I wanted to fix their sadness and was convinced if I managed to say the perfect, right thing it would ease their emotions. So I would over-speak and cast about for the magic words that would lift the heaviness.

It wasn’t that I was inappropriately trying to crack jokes or completely avoiding the reality that a casket with a corpse was right there in the front of the room,. But I was unwilling to face that hard reality head-on, because acknowledging it was also an acknowledgment that death brings with it a complex range of emotions that are impossible to resolve in a single day, if ever.

In the meantime, the awkwardness of greeting a widow who has just lost her husband compels us to speak, to say something — anything — which is why the words we say at funerals are often trite. They can even be unintentionally harmful because, when we offer false comfort and platitudes, those who are grieving may be left with the impression that they should be feeling differently than they are, and that there’s something wrong or uncouth about sadness. It makes it seem as though the socially acceptable way to grieve is to handle it politely and quietly before quickly moving on. The grieving widow is left with guilt that she can’t see the bright side, or admit that at least her husband of 60 years is now in a better place, or at least he isn’t suffering anymore.

But over the years, I’ve learned what not to say.

No platitudes. No easy comfort. No trying to fix it. No minimizing death with false positivity. Most all, absolutely no uttering any sentence that begins with the words, “At least …”

Avoiding those platitudes has a cost. It means that I cannot ignore feelings. I cannot ignore the grief and reality of what it means to love and lose another person, what it means to feel like a piece of your heart has been broken off and buried away in the ground forever.

A funeral is an acknowledgment of great pain, the presence of an open spiritual wound that won’t completely heal. We must be very brave to honestly admit this. But admit it we must, because the lingering wound is the sign of real love, that there is irreplaceable value in lives that are intertwined and there is irrevocable loss when death makes a physical separation. We minimize this reality to our own danger.

There are a few things I’ve learned that I can, and maybe should, say at a funeral.

I tell the family I’m sorry for their loss. I try to share a story of how I admired the deceased in a specific way and refer to an aspect of their character that I want to imitate. Most of all, I let them know I am there to pray with them and commend their loved one to God, that death will not and cannot halt the love that people have for each other.

The best way to pray is through the Mass and, if you’re ever wondering what to do, practically speaking, have a Mass said for the deceased and hand the bereaved a Mass card with the specific date on which it will be offered.

Most of all, grieving people simply appreciate that you’re there. So be ready to listen quietly, without interjecting how you’ll fix it. There’s no fixing it, so be prepared to continue to be there in the future.

Platitudes, the writer Leon Bloy says, are, “a kind of escape hatch for fleeing.” We must not flee. We must not flinch. Speak authentically, even if the words are hard to say. But I’ve found that fewer words are always better, because the reality of who we are as human beings and the love we share is so much bigger than a few words can describe.

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