Good Grief: Living Funny at Funeral Visitations

Funerals themselves aren’t funny, and neither are the visitations that happen along with the funerals. They tend to be sad. They tend to be melancholy. They’re generally not well-liked. In my mind, however, funerals and funeral visitations especially count as one of those funny things people do. And as long as people are involved, funny things do happen at these visitations.

For introverts especially, and for anyone who is averse to awkwardness, really, these things can be challenging. There are many things I’ve wondered about (and maybe you have too, with regards to funeral visitations). You might wonder what the different parts are, why people say some of the things they do, why we have these things, and maybe even what to do with your hands. You might even be wondering how I came up with this idea to write about funeral visitation: “That’s a funny (aka strange) thing to write about. How did you ever come up with such a topic?”  I don’t tend to sit around thinking of morbid topics to write about, so this came up because I experienced it recently in my real life from the “being visited” side (family), rather than the visiting side (friends, distant relatives). And yes, there were some funny and awkward moments that I’d like to make light of. I might also mention some tips for surviving (because nobody’s having fun, really) funeral visitations.

The Funeral Visitation

There are a number of things that come up as challenges at a visitation, especially for introverts. Number one, is we have to talk to strangers. We don’t have to talk to them for very long, but we do have to talk to them. Some of these “strangers” may not be completely unknown to us, or they know who we are but we don’t know them; like your dad’s long-lost fourth cousin twice-removed. Even some of us who are a little bit outgoing wonder what we’re supposed to do with ourselves. Stand up or sit down? Stand close to the deceased, or far away? Read the cards attached to the flowers, or don’t read the cards? Speak normally or whisper? Stand close to the box of tissues or keep some in your pockets? And for goodness sake, what do I do with my hands?

I may not have all the answers to these questions, other than to say: it depends. It depends on you, and it depends on the situation. This is simply a taste of the things that were running through my head based on my recent experience.

The Line

               Typically, there is a line that relatives stand in, facing the centre of the room, emanating outwards from the deceased. Depending on your relationship with the deceased and your stature in the family, a number of questions come up such as: Where do I line up? And if I’m lined up over here with my cousins, are we allowed to cross the floor to say “hi” to the family over there? I make jokes about this because it reminds me of parliament when politicians cross the floor. It seems like a big deal at the time, but it really isn’t because they all seem the same. If you’re having trouble living funny at a funeral visitation, you can plane games with the line. You now have a fun game to play. What you do is this: You greet to people on one side of the room just to shake things up, and then you go back to “your side” (in my case the side with the nieces and nephews) and watch the visitors do double-takes, or acknowledge your cloak of invisibility (ignore you because they saw you before).

Some of us introverts don’t mind as much the type of visitation where you can mill about the room. Visitors can talk to the people they want to talk to, and avoid the ones they don’t want to talk to.

Talking to strangers at a visitation – over and over, you get to say who you are, how you’re related to the deceased person, over and over. I got pretty good at this – “I’m a niece”.

“I’m a niece, thank you for coming”.

“I’m a niece. That’s my mom over there”

“I’m a niece. We’re all nieces and nephews on this side of the room.”

And because I can’t help myself, I might include a joke (take your pick): “I’m a niece. I was her favourite” or “I’m a niece – I’m the youngest” or “I’m a niece. I’m the prettiest one”.

“Hi, I’m Kathryn. Thanks for coming.”

And to my sister next to me I say: “It must be almost the finishing time. What time is it? Only 3 hours to go? Nice. I need a drink”.

Someone who knew your person a long time ago will tell you stories. The problem is, that we may be thinking: “That’s cool, I won’t remember what you said because I’m wallowing right now, but good story.” I don’t think people expect you to remember all of these things, especially if there were a lot of people at the visitation.

Other people, you’ll just see their face and burst into tears. There’s no rhyme or reason for this at the time, but it’s a good time for that person who made you cry to make a joke. With some people, I need to avoid looking at them not because there’s anything wrong with the way they look, but I will definitely catch it (the sadness) if I see them looking sad or crying. It’s not you, it’s me.

Another person (a distant cousin) will describe to you where they fit in the family tree and how that links up to your part of the family tree, and how those family trees make up the bigger family tree. This person then realizes that they’re holding up the line, so they can’t stop to draw you a diagram.  And anyway, my brain was starting to melt at this point, so thank goodness the next person just came and gave me a hug.

Disappearances

It is appropriate to disappear for a period of time to give yourself a rest from the visitation activities. Maybe a considerate and thoughtful aunt brought some snack and something to drink (not that kind of drink, we don’t need any more drama).

It’s time to make yourself disappear.  So, you go have something to eat, something to drink, suck on a breath mint, do a few other important things, and suddenly it’s thirty minutes later when you return to your place in the line. It’s a solid recovery strategy, believe me. If you’re a person still in the line and have temporarily stopped looking sad but instead look friendly, you can now field inquiries. The conversation might go something like this:

I’m a friend of……Is she here?

Yes, she is…well, she was.

Oh, okay, so she’s around.

Yes, but where did she go? I don’t know, but she’s around here somewhere. I know I saw her for real, she’s not a ghost.

Sitting down

It’s a long four hours in these visitation line-ups, so sit down before you fall down. The martyr/ saint is not you today, it’s the person in the urn or casket at the front of the room. Take some time to rest, because you need to take care of yourself too.

Looking sad

It’s inevitable that sadness will enter into your day if you are a family member of the deceased. If you do this right, people won’t spend a lot of time talking to you. It appears that the sadder a person looks, the more contagious they are and the sadness spreads.

Awkward Moments

Sometimes you’re part of or witness to awkward moments, and sometimes you get to hear about them from others. For example

Some of my cousins were talking about the “funny” people they met and the “funny” things those people said at the recent family funeral visitation. We began comparing stories, and it became a competition. One talked about the awkwardness of describing their relationship with the deceased, another about visitors noticing the resemblance (or lack thereof) to their parents, and many other awkward moments. When my story-time came up, I mentioned that one man (who probably needed an eye exam) said to me referring to the woman standing next to me “and this must be your daughter” – it was my sister, who is only two years younger than me. “You win” said my cousins.

Catching up….

….with people you only see at funerals. That’s just plain awkward, and there’s always the chance to say: “next time we see each other it should be at something other than a funeral.”

At a visitation, you also have the chance to catch up with people you haven’t seen in years, which is almost as awkward as only seeing people at funerals. It may mean violating the rules of the line, or extending your break and interrupting the flow. For example, make sure whoever is in charge of line-management doesn’t see you jumping the line to run over to catch up with someone, then getting what is perceived as a dirty look from a visitor for holding up the line. That is, if you like the person you are violating the line rules for. If not, you’ve got a reason to avoid them, and possibly an additional excuse (I mean, reason) to “disappear”.

While funeral visitations have their inherent challenges and are often quite sad, there are some funny moments where we can see the light start to shine through. Not only do these funny moments help us see the lighter side of dark situation, they also give me something to write about.

Want to read more? Feel free to check out my other articles while you’re here.

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E-mail kathryn@kathrynreichheld.ca Hours Contact me anytime and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.
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