Dysfunctional family funeral
February 23, 2012 1:22 PM   Subscribe

Non-deist, non- spiritual funeral for dysfunctional family

My mother was discovered dead yesterday. She had lung cancer and heart problems, so not unexpected.

Me and my two local sibs are meeting with funeral director today, here's the thing (s).
None of the family are church goers
My mother refused to speak to me over last decade though I tried reconciliation a number of times
Some other sibs in other parts of country who may or may not be coming to funeral - well, they get on with my brothers but not me so much
Despite the distance & as one brother puts it, her toxicity, I am grieving

So 2 questions: what are appropriate (non religious) honest but not insensitive funeral things to make part of ceremony?
What do I need to be doing to make things as comfortable as possible for those relatives who will not be happy with me being there (perhaps hypocritically in their eyes)
posted by b33j to Human Relations (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm really sorry for your loss, B33j.

The first thing that comes to mind for me are readings from favourite poems, books, etc., rather than readings from a religious text. I had a good friend approach me after I sang "Pulling Hard Against the Stream", asking if I would write out the words for him. He wanted to read it at a friend's funeral who had been atheist and a Marxist.

I've heard similar suggestions from other friends and family members, such as reading "Invictus" and whatnot.

In terms of the tension that you figure might be present because of family dysfunction - my attitude is that it's your mom and while you don't have the most cordial of relationships with your siblings, you have as much right to mourn her loss as anyone else does. What I would suggest is that you be prepared to a) ignore any snide comments that may be sent your way and b) defuse or defer any confrontations that look like they might happen. You can point out that it's inappropriate to fight during a funeral and suggest putting off the argument till afterwards, for example.
posted by LN at 1:34 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss.

As far as the non-spiritual thing goes - that's what the meeting with the funeral director will be all about. You don't necessarily have to have any kind of religious element if you don't want. My father just did something super-simple when my grandfather died - he did have a local minister give a sermon, but only because the minister was our next-door neighbor (and Dad took him aside and said Grandpa wasn't so much with the church going, so he toned down the religion part of it).

At my other grandfather's funeral, the officiant invited any and all to come forward with any stories about Grandpa during the service; that can be a wonderful "here's what we remember about her" thing to do, and can remind everyone that the purpose of your getting together is about your mother, rather than anything else.

As far as the relatives who may not be happy with your being there -- fuck them, honestly. I mean, I doubt you'd be wearing red and handing out party hats, so you have every right to be there and be grieving just as much as they do. It's compassionate of you to be concerned for them, but -- honestly, she was your mother too, and you're grieving, and this is important to you, and they need to figure out how to make room for YOU rather than you trying to make allowances for THEM. ....Just about the only thing I'd do would be to not initiate any conversations with them (i.e., don't you be the one to go up to them and say "Hi, we haven't seen each other in a while, how are you,") and to be polite and cordial if you're standing next to each other at some point, but that's it. (And if anyone of them comes up to you and says "how dare you show up" or some such bullshit, you can go ahead and be as emotional as you want.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:35 PM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

My condolences on your loss. One approach that has worked in my circle has been to hold "memorial services" in some space that evokes something the deceased enjoyed. I've been to services in a college lecture hall, dog park, beach, and bowling alley. Several of these events gave pride of place to poster-sized photos from fun times and other celebrations. At another, there were some of the deceased's belongings set up in a little tableau with family photographs. Take care of yourself.
posted by carmicha at 1:37 PM on February 23, 2012

Oh I'm so sorry b33j. Of course you're grieving. You have every right to be there and it's not your responsibility to make other relatives comfortable who aren't there making you comfortable! This was your mother, you will be grieving both her, and the relationship you weren't able to have with her. Any relative who would begrudge you the freedom to do that doesn't deserve your concerns about their comfort.

As for a secular service, music. Lots of music, and lots of people being given an opportunity to speak in lieu of a cleric-led service.

I wish you all the best in the coming days, weeks, and months.
posted by headnsouth at 1:38 PM on February 23, 2012


Play this.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:40 PM on February 23, 2012

Best answer: My condolences.

1. Try to choose two or three songs to use during the ceremony. Play the first song to get everyone quiet and in their seats. Have someone from the family (not necessarily a child, but maybe a sibling or a cousin) welcome everyone on behalf of the family. Have them tell a short story to break the ice. Play the second song. Read the obituary. Have a person with a prepared eulogy. Have them write it down, but leave room for speaking off the cuff. When the eulogy is done, ask if there's anyone else who has something to share (HERE'S THE TRICK: have two people with prepared statements or stories. No one wants to go first, but once the floor has been opened, people will share more freely.) Third song. Have the funeral director thank everyone for being there. Dismiss. Drink and food at someone's house afterwards.

2. It's not your job to make relatives comfortable. If you feel like it, acknowledge your problems that you had with your mother and repeat your regret that you never made peace. Beyond that, nothing more is required of you.

Feel free to email me with any specific funereal questions that may come up.
posted by ColdChef at 1:40 PM on February 23, 2012 [20 favorites]

What do I need to be doing to make things as comfortable as possible for those relatives who will not be happy with me being there

If there are people in your family who will use your mother's funeral to express their displeasure with you, you don't have to worry about making things comfortable for them. Why? Because you're not the one making things uncomfortable for them. The issue that they can't put aside for a few hours is their problem and you can't be responsible for solving other people's problems. Especially when you're trying to arrange your mother's funeral and they are not. I assume you know beforehand who is likely to give you shit, so just make sure you're ready to play it cool, if you can. If you can't, well, it's your mother's funeral and that's an emotional get-out-of-jail-free card.

If you really want to keep the peace, plan something with the siblings and relative you get along with to have someone step in if Uncle Frank or Great Aunt Clara get out of hand.

Good luck. It'll be over before you know it.
posted by griphus at 1:41 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On the subject of music: trust me, no more than three or four songs. Unless they're playing in the background while people congregate. Songs played during a memorial service are sometimes awkward. You notice lyrics that don't fit, and what are you supposed to do during the long musical parts? Stare around the room? As someone who's conducted hundreds of funerals, any more than three or four songs is difficult to pull off. (and no "Freebird". It's nine minutes long and more than half is lyric-free)
posted by ColdChef at 1:45 PM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

So sorry for your sudden, traumatic loss.

Stick to celebrating her "Life" and "Love." Share memories, tell stories. Provide lots of family albums and pictures and artifacts from her life to evoke them. This will be significantly affirming and healing for the non-spiritual and any spiritual alike.

Generic answer to those who may give you trouble about being there -- "Everyone deals with grief and loss in their own way. I'll let you have your way, please let me have mine."

Instead of a "sermon" you might consider having a trusted grief counselor speak briefly about handling grief in a healthy way and give the those gathered the "room" to grieve as they need to. If she was indeed "toxic," you might want to seek advice about how to facilitate the process of forgiveness with someone who is not longer with you. I know various religious ways, but I'm sure there is a secular equivalent (forgiveness is more about what you hold onto within yourself than about what the other person does or says.)
posted by cross_impact at 1:54 PM on February 23, 2012

A friend of mine, an atheist, died a few years back. His funeral was a celebration of his life, highlighting his occupation (he was a Harley Davidson mechanic), his hobbies (from easy riding to speed boat racing, from playing with his grandchildren to fishing with his children), his love and trust of people. The speaker at the ceremony was his hospice guide, some of his friends retold his favorite jokes, his wife talked about his last week of life. The music played was classic rock, his casket (he preselected it himself) had dozen of Harley Davidson emblems, and his send off was accompanied by the roar of 50 bikes.

It was beautiful and moving, a true celebration for the living. Just make sure that the good things about your mother life are highlighted and use her favorite songs. Don't worry so much about your right to be at the ceremony, people usually do behave. It is the afterward that can be upsetting, and there is no reason that you have to stay and be nice to rude people after the interment is done.
posted by francesca too at 2:02 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

A relative of mine began a eulogy by saying, quietly, "My mother was not an easy person to live with." That was his nod to her fairly difficult personality, and the challenges it posed to family relationships. The rest of the eulogy focused on positive or funny memories of her--the message was something like: She was difficult and we loved her, and we remember these things about her, and we miss her. I mention this because I think it was a good example of how to be honest about a complicated situation. You may not want to speak, or that type of statement might not be appropriate for your situation, but I think there are definitely ways to avoid pretending that everything was perfect in the family while still participating in a memorial service and grieving.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:07 PM on February 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry for your loss now, and for your loss ten years ago.

This is a pretty good outline of how many people structure secular funeral services.

There are some good suggestions for secular funeral readings in this AskMe thread.

Another poem I think is lovely at secular memorial/funeral services is Robert Frost's After Apple-Picking.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:18 PM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

My late dad wrote a number of poems of elegy and requiem, but most of them reflect his own Christian spirituality. This is one that doesn't, except in its title:


The world was better for their presence here.
A reason for flowers was what they gave
While they were here alive. Despite the grave,
Their memory will live, will grow more dear,
Indeed, as years go by, because the sheer
Loss cannot be repaired and thus to save
A little from our knowing them we have
Somehow to never let them disappear.

We must remember how they stood and smiled
Although they saw just what was going on.
To them the human was not thus defiled,
This even though observing one upon
A journey to the stars they were beguiled
As if they were divine. They are not gone.

-- James E. Sullivan, 1928-2010
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:23 PM on February 23, 2012 [13 favorites]

What do I need to be doing to make things as comfortable as possible for those relatives who will not be happy with me being there

Make sure there are chairs, so they can sit down and shut up. It's a funeral and they can behave themselves or they can leave.

If anyone tries to manufacture drama with you, don't engage. Just respond with "I'm sorry for your loss" and/or "I'm sorry, I won't do this here/now" and let them be the assholes trying to start shit at a funeral.

I am very sorry for your loss, and hope you don't feel like your grief is somehow illegitimate because the relationship was difficult. She was still your mother, you have every right to your grief.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:38 PM on February 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am so sorry for your sudden loss. My father died rather suddenly last year and while these things are never easy, there's an "I am not ready for this shit" aspect that can make them seem even less so.

What do I need to be doing to make things as comfortable as possible for those relatives who will not be happy with me being there

Nothing at all, fuck 'em. My dad was a lifelong alcoholic and there were a lot of people including myself and my sister who had what we could politely call complicated relationships with him and with us. I asked an AskMe question myself about dealing with some of this and got some good advice. We had a public memorial service and a private family-only funeral.

We handled the non-denominational memorial service fairly well. It was at my father's house, a place many people hadn't been, and we opened it up with "Thank you all for coming, it means a lot to the family to have you here. Tom would have enjoyed having so many people to his house so he could have ignored you all at once." which lightened things up a little bit because it was loving but also honest. People are a lot less "Oh he was a SAINT" then you'd think at these things. Here is my advice to you.

- If you can, have a friend or someone to bring with you who can help you politely exit conversations you do not wish to be in. It's always okay to just say "Oh I think I have to check on the thing..." and rush off, or hide out in some other room for 20 minutes.
- agree with ColdChef of course about people and their prepared statements. You do not need to say anything at all if you don't want to. My sister and I welcomed people and provided a guest book and otherwise didn't participate and that was okay.
- when people asked what they could bring, we said "flowers" and that was fine. People liked to be included, flowers are simple and it dressed the place up some
- we had a lot of photos of my dad from all stages of his life and tried to find photos of him WITH many of the people who were at the memorial

Mostly keep in mind that even though the last ten years of mom+you were not good, the time before that probably had some redeeming aspects, and you probably have some insights into her and her personality that people who knew her later in life wouldn't know. My dad was already a crusty hardass by the time a lot of people knew him and people enjoyed our "he used to build these crazy marble coasters in the basement" stories. You have a role. Again, I am so sorry.
posted by jessamyn at 3:01 PM on February 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

My condolences bjj3. This on top of the year you had in 2011, makes for a very stressful period. Please give yourself lots of space and time to feel what you need to feel.

My mother refused to speak to me over last decade though I tried reconciliation a number of times

What do I need to be doing to make things as comfortable as possible for those relatives for yourself...

How dare they blame you for your mother's intransigence! If you do cop any flack (and I sure hope you don't), say something like - "yes, I tried to make amends and reconnect with mum but she wouldn't let me. Now I feel so sad." If they go on, say "I don't want to talk about it anymore." Repeat "I don't want to talk about it" as much as required. If this is your siblings saying this, perhaps soften it with "I don't want to talk about it now, maybe later when I've had time." And consider that your estranged siblings might reconsider their views and position toward you after this event. Leave the door open...

Take care, sweet.

Oh, and if you need someone to conduct the service who is not the funeral director, they have funeral celebrants in Brisbane.
posted by Kerasia at 3:21 PM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

What was there about your Mom that you want to celebrate and honor? Was she a great cook, fabulous dancer, could swear like a longshoreman? These are the pieces that build the eulogy. It's nice to have a mix of funny anecdotes and honest praise.

There are prayers that have genuinely wonderful meaning. I like the Lord's Prayer, and I have no religious belief.

The funeral director will have resources as well. Maybe instead of prayer cards, you could give out flower seed packets, and feel that there will be a little more beauty in the world.

http://www.creative-funeral-ideas.com/funeral-readings.html (looks like a good site in general)
posted by theora55 at 5:33 PM on February 23, 2012

I'm sorry for your loss. You have a right to be at your mother's funeral. If anyone else has a problem with it, it's THEIR problem.

If you think someone could get overtly nasty, you might want to talk to the funeral director about it. They probably have some experience with gently removing disruptive family members and/or staging the funeral in ways to keep factions apart if necessary.
posted by elizeh at 7:49 PM on February 23, 2012

I'm so sorry, b33j. I know it was a fraught relationship but she was your mum and now she's gone. So, so hard. I'd try to find a poem if you're up to speaking in public. Something really apt. There is excellent poetry out there that sums up all kinds of things that are often so very difficult to put into words. I wish I could offer you links to them but I can't. I know they're out there, though.

Your siblings, who have been in contact with her, should be the ones to organise the bulk of it. I think they wouldn't expect anything more from you than you are able to give. I can only guess how conflicted this whole thing is for you. Your siblings will know. Leave the organising to them.

You show up, you do what you can as far as saying something in public goes (or not - sometimes speaking is impossible), and then you mingle with assorted relatives and friends after. As judgemental as people sometimes are, it's often surprising how the most unexpected people can react to situations in ways that you would never believe possible, based on past experiences. Speak honestly to anyone who says anything about your past relationship - it sucked but you miss her. She was your mother.

Condolences, sincerely.
posted by h00py at 12:57 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

We put together both a cremation service and a memorial service for my non-religious father.

3 pieces of music that reminded us of him. One happened to be religious but we figured that was irrelevant if we were using it for another reason.
1 poem about people living on in the way they influenced others
His brother chose to say a few words (~2 mins)
His father in law said a few words (~2 mins)
The rest was silence and thinking time. It was very short and very simple. We only had immediate family there.

Dad was a teacher so we needed to have something for this colleagues, pupils and the members of his close community that he had taught over the years. He sang in 2 choirs so we had them all there too. There were ~5 pieces of music, chosen by me but agreed with the choirs. There were three speeches from people who had known dad at different periods of his life. A couple of people wanted to do readings but I don't remember what they were. We had the everyone sing one of the songs from the cremation since it is well known. We had a revolving slideshow of photos of him from his whole life going on throughout the whole thing.

To be honest the most powerful bit of both services was just being there and the content could have been anything that was vaguely appropriate. The people that touched me most were probably those I didn't know before. I had several very moving conversations (and hugs) with pupils of dad's, who were devastated to lose him and wanted to tell me about how he had affected their life. Hopefully you will find that people are wrapped up in their own reactions. If they are hostile to you, you can probably mostly just walk away with an 'I'm sorry'.
posted by kadia_a at 9:20 AM on February 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you for all your advice and kind words.

The worst of the situation that i anticipated is that my brother Andrew is angry that I'm helping my brothers Cam & Phil deal with all the issues, help plan the funeral, sort through the letters and diaries and photos, deal with the lack of a will and so on. He believes our mother would not have wanted this, and it's true. My motivation is to see Phil & Cam supported (it's incredibly difficult for them right now), but while I do not like Andrew (and he does not like me), I do not want to make this time any more difficult for him (and it is very difficult - while living far from her, he was probably her favourite child and they had a special bond).

I've arranged a private viewing for myself, and if necessary, this will be all I need, but being aware that whether or not I attend the funeral, people in my family will be hurt makes it very hard, and I'm very unsure what to do. I do understand when people say whether I should go to the funeral is up to me and it's about me, and my needs, but really - my needs, my main motivation is to cause the least amount of tension for all of my suffering brothers. I don't know what to do.
posted by b33j at 3:44 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fuck Andrew, seriously. You're not taking over the funeral planning, you're supporting Cam and Phil. If you want to put it to Andrew that way, do it.

Have you talked to Cam and Phil about what to do? Try having a talk with them about how you want to grieve, but you also don't want to cause any tension for everyone and you aren't sure what to do. That may get either Cam or Phil to THEMSELVES go to Andrew and say "dude, get over yourself, seriously."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:56 PM on February 24, 2012

Response by poster: Why shouldn't I consider Andrew's feelings? I really don't understand this. It's because it's part of my life philosophy not to do further harm, not because he's making me do anything.
posted by b33j at 4:00 PM on February 24, 2012

Andrew is not considering YOUR feelings, is he? Why are you extending him a consideration he's not extending to you?

I understand you not wanting to do harm, but PLEASE, count YOURSELF among the people you don't want to do harm to.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:14 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry - that came out a bit harsher than I intended (at least it's reading that way to me now). I hope I didn't cause you any discomfort -- chalk it up to my being defensive on your behalf and angry you have to go through this at this exact time.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:43 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: No, honestly, I keep hearing this from other people and I respect their points of view - I'm not offended "Andrew is an arsehole so you needn't consider his feelings." I'm not considering his feelings for his sake, but so that I act in accordance with my values.
posted by b33j at 8:38 PM on February 24, 2012

I hear you on acting in accordance with your values.

But that doesn't mean you have to put up with shitty behavior. It doesn't mean you can't stand up for yourself and acknowledge and take care of your feelings and yourself.

I'm so sorry for your loss. I had a difficult relationship with my mom, too. I'll try to say more if I think it's helpful when I'm on my laptop rather than my phone.
posted by rtha at 5:56 PM on February 27, 2012

Response by poster: The funeral was beautiful, my closer brothers and my niece spoke, I did a damn fine powerpoint, the music was sweet - it was really a lovely way to say goodbye. Brother from hell stayed at the back of the chapel (I didn't even see him), refused hugs from my sister-in-law and niece, and generally was his normal self. After it was over, I came out, hugged my close family and left very quickly.
posted by b33j at 2:17 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

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