Not sure whether to attend your Great Aunt Eddy’s funeral? If you, like countless others, find yourself having to decide between going to some distant relative’s funeral or staying home, you're not alone.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Why Do People Feel Fear or Anxiety About Funerals?
- How Can You Decide If You Should Go to a Funeral?
- Tips for Overcoming Anxiety If You Choose to Attend
- Tips for Paying Your Respects If You Choose Not to Attend
Having a fear of funerals is real, and it’s called necrophobia. It’s more than just being afraid of attending a funeral, though. Necrophobia is also about being afraid of dead things and those associated with death like coffins, cemeteries, and tombstones. Like the above, thanatophobia also causes a fear of death and the dying process. Together these fears can immobilize you.
COVID-19 tip: Because of social distancing and travel restrictions, not all funerals can take place in person. If you're invited to a virtual funeral, you might feel more comfortable attending than you would an in-person event. However, virtual funerals also come with their own challenges. If you're hosting a virtual or hybrid funeral, we recommend using a service like GatheringUs to help overcome those hurdles for yourself and your guests.
Why Do People Feel Fear or Anxiety About Funerals?
Let’s explore why some people are afraid of funerals and simply refuse to go. Sometimes fear and anxiety have the power to overtake your rational thinking. When you learn more about how these fears affect you, you’ll be better able to take control of them.
Some of the reasons you may feel fear or anxiety when it comes to funerals are that you may have a deep-rooted fear of death or seeing dead bodies. For many people, this goes back to their childhood when forced to attend funerals without explaining what they are or why people die. For others, they may fear that death is something that you can catch. These types of irrational fears are usually culturally based and have no rational basis.
How Can You Decide If You Should Go to a Funeral?
If you don’t know if you should attend a funeral, consider your relationship with the person who died and the family. Sometimes it’s regarded as a sign of disrespect in certain cultures for you to skip out on paying your last respects to the deceased. The family also may find it offensive that you didn’t show up to offer your support and condolences.
If you’re one of those people who are empathetic and become overwhelmed when they’re surrounded by sadness and mourning, it may be a good idea for you to pay your last respects in other ways. You should never feel forced to attend a funeral.
If you think that not going may create disharmony in the family, consider sending a representative on your behalf, like an adult son or daughter or your spouse or partner.
Tips for Overcoming Anxiety If You Choose to Attend
Once you’ve figured that you should attend the funeral, go over in your head what you should expect once you get there. To begin with, prepare yourself for meeting up with friends and family you may not have seen for years. They will likely want to catch up with everything that has been going on with you and your family. You may also find yourself face-to-face with someone you’d rather never see again. Plan for these situations so that you have an escape when things get uncomfortable.
The following tips will help prepare you for what to expect and how you can overcome your anxiety.
Rehearse what you’ll say
One of the most anxiety-producing things about going to funerals is having to pay condolences to the family. For many people, this can be awkward because they simply don’t know what to say in these situations.
If this sounds like you, keep it simple. Try practicing saying some of these phrases to use when it’s appropriate to do so:
- I’m so sorry for your loss. I know this is a very difficult time for you.
- My sincerest condolences to you and your family during this difficult time. My prayers are with you and your family.
- I’m so sorry that you lost your dad/mom. I can’t imagine what you must be feeling. My deepest condolences for your loss.
- Please accept my deepest condolences on the loss of your son/daughter. May you find peace and comfort in the days and weeks ahead.
- Please accept my sincere condolences. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
Prepare a eulogy
You may have been asked to write a eulogy on behalf of the family, and you may be experiencing severe anxieties over what to say.
The following is a list of what you may want to include as you prepare for what you’re going to say:
- Make a list of all the good things you remember about the deceased.
- Decide on whether the eulogy will be serious or funny.
- Introduce yourself first as you begin to read the eulogy.
- Include memories of special moments personal to you and the deceased.
- Include some of the deceased’s most significant accomplishments, lessons you’ve learned from them, and words of wisdom they’ve given you.
Take a deep breath
Before you walk into the funeral home, prepare yourself for what you’ll see. It’s common at funerals for there to be an open casket viewing of the deceased. Prepare to see a dead body in a casket. If this gives you anxiety, stay clear of the casket, and pay your last respects from the back of the room.
You’re not obligated to walk up to the casket or to give any explanations for not doing so. If it makes you feel any better, remain out in the general areas of the funeral home and avoid entering the viewing room.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
The social anxiety that comes with seeing people you haven't seen in years or meeting members of extended family for the first time may cause you to feel physically ill. There’s nothing wrong with asking someone whom you don’t recognize for their name and association within the family.
Keep it real by admitting that you don’t remember them or that it’s been so long that you hardly recognize them. They’re probably thinking the same thing about you and are too embarrassed to ask.
Dress in funeral attire
Another bit of advice in helping you overcome your anxiety is to dress appropriately for a funeral. One of the last things you should worry about is whether you feel comfortable in what you’re wearing.
It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed in these types of situations. You won’t want to feel self-conscious over having worn jeans when everyone else in slacks. Dressing inappropriately for the occasion may draw unnecessary, added attention to you. Try and blend in.
Tips for Paying Your Respects If You Choose Not to Attend
No one should ever feel forced to attend a funeral. This is a very personal decision, and it’s not expected that you attend a funeral just because you’re part of a couple, for example. It’s also okay for you to go alone or not go at all.
If you choose not to attend, there are other socially acceptable ways of paying respects without going to the funeral.
Sending flowers to the funeral home or gravesite is standard practice when unable to attend in person. Don’t feel obligated to send the biggest funeral spray or the most expensive one.
If all you can afford to send is a potted plant, send that along with a sympathy card expressing your condolences. You don’t need to offer an excuse for not having attended the funeral. Consider looking online for a florist that delivers or calling ahead to one nearby to the funeral home.
Sign an online memorial
The modern way of paying last respects is by sending online condolences. But the advantages are somewhat double-sided. Yes, it’s convenient to go online and post a few words expressing your regrets for their loss, but it takes away from the personal nature of an in-person visit or telephone call.
If you opt for sending virtual condolences, consider following up with a card in the mail, a phone call, or sending some flowers to the family.
Send a condolence gift
A personalized condolence gift is one that the family can treasure for years. These types of gifts usually have the name of their loved one who died, and the date of birth and death etched in.
Some of the more popular types of sympathy gifts include:
- Personalized sympathy card
- Memorial garden stone
- Memorial jewelry
- Spiritual books on loss
Donate to a charity
Consider donating your time or money to a charity that was close to the heart of the person who died. Perhaps they were an avid bird watcher or animal lover.
If so, check out the local Audubon Society and consider donating to them or volunteering your time at a local animal shelter. These are great ways to keep your loved one’s legacy alive by giving to a charitable cause on their behalf.
Install a bench
An excellent way of paying your last respects from afar is installing a memorial bench near the graveside for the family to enjoy when they go pay their respects.
Having a place to sit near the grave will come in handy for years to come, and the family will surely be thankful for such a thoughtful gift.
Overcoming Your Fear of Funerals
The fear of attending funerals can keep you from some of life’s most significant occasions and rob you of the ability to say your final goodbyes. You may never completely overcome your fears enough to allow you to attend a funeral without feeling anxious.
But with careful planning, you may be able to successfully set aside your phobias long enough to make a brief appearance. If nothing seems to work for you, there’s nothing wrong with choosing not to attend.