I went to the wake of a friend's father last night. I'm always at a loss for what to say at funerals. I didn't really know anyone there, other then my friend, so I just people watched for a while. Then, I checked out the flowers. He was holding wooden rosary beads. A rosary made out of those tiny roses is nice too, but do you any idea how much that costs? The flowers made me think of my great-uncle's wake. Similiar families, although my friend's "out-Italians" my family by a magnitude of 10. Anyway, when Uncle Micky died, my siblings and I decided to pool our resources and send flowers. Then my sister suggests, since flowers die, wouldn't it be nice if we sent a plant arrangement instead? I left the details to her and ponied up my money.
The thing about my uncle, he was a terrible alcoholic. Later, as an adult, I heard some stories, but as a kid I only knew that he was perpetually cranky and I was a little afraid of him. A year before he died, he went into our community hospital with some ailment and wound up coding, being resuscitated, coding again, another resuscitation and then getting a million complications, including infections. When my aunt didn't make him a DNR, we thought she was crazy. I mean, the man had abused his body for decades, we didn't think he'd survive another code. Just to prove how stubborn he could be, he not only recovered, he made it home. My aunt recalls that the next year with him was a really good year. He certainly was nicer and funnier than I'd ever seen. Goes to show, you can play the odds in medicine but you never really know what's going to happen.
My aunt and uncle have four sons. They're my family's version of the Marx Brothers. Remember them? I think their names were Groucho, Harpo, Marco and, uh, Squiggy. Anyway, these four had an act they could take on the road. They're still the funniest guys I know. Nothing is sacred with them. If you take yourself too seriously, they'll skewer you, but they're hysterical. Anyway, we're at the wake and I look around for our "plant arrangement" amidst the enormous and lavish flower pieces. Then I see this, I don't know, some sort of tropical vine in the corner with a big bow on it. One of my cousins spots me. "Hey, thanks for the vine. I thought it was one of the funeral home's plants, then I realized you guys sent it." His brothers join in for the kill. I think there are jokes about jungles and Tarzan, I'm not really paying attention as I scan the room for my sister. She spent 75 bucks on that?
We do, all, eventually have a good laugh. We try and imagine what Uncle Micky would have said about it, which leads to reminiscing about him. Cranky, and alcoholic, that he was, he was a character and soon his sons have us laughing. Which is, if the person was old and lived a good, long life, a fine way to go about waking someone. I hope I'm enough of a character that I have folks cracking up at my funeral. If you know the person, this is always a good thing to talk about with the family-remembering them, remembering the good times you had.
What not to say? Well, I would caution you to never, ever say "I understand" unless you have been through something very similiar. My friend's dad was home with hospice care for the weeks before he died. My grandmother also died pretty quickly and was at my mom's home under hospice care. My mom and I took turns staying up at night with her. It was hard on everyone, hard to watch her dying, but worth it, knowing she died surrounded by her family.
I wouldn't offer platitudes, either. "Well, he's in a better place" or "God must have needed him more than we did" or whatever people try to come up with to rationalize the person's death. The best bet is sincerity. Say you're sorry for their loss. I like to say to people at funerals that I'm there if they need me, but I think there's too much going on at that moment. If you know of something you can do in the days around the funeral, then make a concrete offer. Can you take their kids for a while so they can make arrangements? Drop off food, run some errands for them. One nice thing to do, after the funeral is over and everyone stops dropping by is to not forget them. Like send them a card and some flowers on the next holiday or on the anniversary of their loved one's death to let them know that someone else remembers, too. Not everyone grieves, right away, either. My sister in law lost her younger brother a few years ago and I remember, almost a year later, she broke down at a family picnic crying. She just needed someone to listen to her.
Meanwhile, my aunt still has that plant. She told me it takes up most of her sewing room, it's grown so big. I'm haunted with the thought that everytime she waters the thing, she thinks about her husband's death, but she seems to have a good sense of humor about it. A trait she has passed on to her children, evidentally. I think she's even going to name it.
But in the future, I'm going to stick with flowers.