The Final Farewell
One short sleep past, we wake eternally.
- John Donne
Today is September 11th. I have spent the morning watching the network television stations cover the one year anniversary of the attacks. I listened to NPR's live coverage of the services during my morning commute. Now, as I sit at my computer, I have turned off the world and listen to the quiet of the day. Pulling together my reference material, I can hear a large plane climbing towards its cruising altitude. Many of the international flights from Logan fly north along the shore before turning toward their destinations. My mood is very somber. I read a bit about death and burial for a variety of religions. Death, like all life-cycle events, has etiquette guidelines to direct our behaviors.
Deepest Condolences ~ When learning of someone's death, it is our responsibility to contact the family and friends of the deceased to express our condolences. Reasonable attempts should be made to attend the funeral service as a showing of support to those in mourning.
Death Gatherings ~ The ceremonies with which we mark the end of someone's life are as varied as the ways we have lived. Some funerals opt for the deceased's favorite music as a celebration of life; others offer prayers and mark death as a somber passing. For the major religions, you may find the following:
Buddhist: somber ceremony marking the passing into the next reincarnation.
Christian: somber ceremony, but do not mourn as the deceased is now with Jesus.
Hindu: somber ceremony marking the passing into the next reincarnation.
Islam: somber ceremony marking the passing into the afterlife.
Jewish: somber ceremony with mourning and grieving (varied thoughts about reincarnation and the deceased's soul).
Quaker: somber gathering, which may or may not have an organized service (varied thoughts about reincarnation and the deceased's soul).
Please note that this is an intentionally high-level listing. When attending a funeral for a religion with which you are unfamiliar, please take the time to find out in advance what will occur. If you are close to the mourners, you can ask them directly. Other avenues for research include the funeral home, the church/temple/mosque, your local library and the internet.
Say Something ~ Many people are uncomfortable around the entire topic of death. When approaching those in mourning, we fear saying the wrong thing; so much so that sometimes we say nothing. Mourners need to hear that you care. The typical expressions of condolence are: "I am so sorry to learn of your loss" or "You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers."
Food and/or Flowers ~ To express sympathy, it is common to send something to the bereaved. The typical offerings are flowers and food. Buddhists and Hindus prefer only flowers be sent. Jews prefer food to be brought to the family. Christians, Muslims, and Quakers accept both flowers and food. All appreciate donations. When there is a preference, most mourners include in the obituary which charities they have chosen for donations in memory of the deceased.
Black and White ~ When attending a funeral, most religions prefer you dress in dark, somber colors. Clothing should be conservative. For many religious services, women should be sure to cover their arms, toes and sometimes head. All jewelry should be kept to a minimum. Jewelry containing religious symbols different than that of the deceased, should be hidden or very discrete.
Before And After The Event ~ Some Catholics will have a "wake" for people to pay their respects to the deceased prior to the funeral. Family members and close friends will attend the burial. Most mourners do not expect funeral attendees to witness the burial. Many do expect funeral attendees to pay their respects at a home after the burial. Generally, those conducting the funeral service will provide information about the burial and condolence calls. Most Jews sit "shiva" at home for a week after the funeral. This is a time to remember the deceased and offer condolences to the mourners.
In The Year To Come ~ For many bereaved, the shock of the death and the whirlwind of activities surrounding the funeral occupy their attention. It is only in the weeks and months to come that true mourning and loss begins. Be sure to call, visit, write and offer words of encouragement to the bereaved in the long days to come. If you are close, be sure to keep in touch around holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Those in mourning will appreciate your kindness.
As I finish this column, it is now September 18th. A week ago, the afternoon skies turned grey and cloudy mirroring the sentiment of the day. This afternoon, the sun is shining and my window is open. In addition to the planes from Logan, I can also hear the laughter from the elementary school playground a block away. While it is important to grieve and mourn, it is equally important to remember that life does go on. I am leaving my office early today. My sister and brother-in-law just had a beautiful baby girl and I am off to visit my brand new niece.
Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I was away on business and learned upon my return that I missed the funeral for a friend's father. I feel terrible; I do not want them to think I skipped the funeral. Should I just send flowers?
A: Call your friend immediately to express your condolences. You should let them know that you were away and did not know about the death and funeral. With that said, make sure to focus the conversation on them and how they are doing. Make plans to see one another so that you can express your condolences in person. After you have spoken with your friend, you can send flowers to show you are thinking of them.
Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ My sister recently passed away. Since she did not die of old age, many people have asked how she died. It was just morbid having to explain the circumstances around her death. Why are people so nosey?
A: Unfortunately, people can be rude in a number of circumstances, including funerals. Often people ask how someone young died because they fear their own death. They hope that they can justify something about the deceased's behavior or situation that is different from their own creating a sense of security (albeit a false sense). Etiquette dictates that you are not obligated to answer every question you are asked. This means when someone asks "How did your sister die?" you can answer "I am going to miss her so much" or "It means so much to me that you came" or "I just cannot believe she is gone." No further explanation is necessary.
Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ My co-worker's mother just passed away. I am not close to this co-worker, but see her often in the hallway. I feel like I should be saying something, but I am not sure how to approach the topic. I don't want to make her cry at work.
A: You are right not to ignore her mother's death. There are three things you can do. You can send her a card with your condolences, either to the office or to her home. You can make a donation in her mother's memory. And/or, the next time you see her in the hallway, stop and say "I am so sorry, how are you doing?" This opens the door to let her know you are thinking about her, but if she does not feel comfortable sharing her feeling with you, the question is benign enough that she can answer "fine" and change the topic.
Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ The funeral is over; I am just starting to sit down to write the thank-you notes to those who expressed their sympathies. Do I need to send notes to everyone who attended the funeral, sent cards, made condolence calls, sent flowers, sent food and made donations? Who should I be thanking?
A: Typically, thank-you notes are sent to those who sent flowers, sent food, made donations, took part in the funeral, traveled from afar to attend the funeral, and helped with arrangements. Often, the family of the deceased will have note cards printed. These cards are often bordered in black and may include a prayer or quote. You can then add your handwritten thank you to the printed card. Some families also send the thank-you card, without any additional note, to anyone who attended the funeral or sent a condolence card.