I don't want to walk you up to the casket!
September 6, 2007 6:32 PM   Subscribe

How do I tactfully avoid having to accompany people to the casket at a family member's funeral?

I am not comfortable at open-casket funerals, mainly because of the way my family handles them. I may soon be attending the funeral of an immediate family member. In my family, as each guest arrives, they are shortly expected to walk up to the casket with an immediate family member. In turn, immediate family members are expected to accompany each guest to the casket.

I don't like to get closer than the front row of seats in the funeral home when the casket is open, which it almost always is. A lot of people in my family insist on standing directly in front of the casket, talking about the person, sometimes even draping their fingers over the side! And then there are always those "oh, (s)he looks so good! (S)he looks like (s)he's just sleeping!" comments. Those make me even more squeamish. I also hate walking past the casket as the funeral ends, where you're supposed to look at the body and pay your final respects, but because I don't see any tactful way to sneak out before going through that little line, I usually just suffer through it.

So how do I tactfully say "no, I won't be walking you to the casket to pay your respects?" (Yes, there are other family members who can do so, but I might be asked as well.) And how do you reply when they make those tactless comments about the body looking good?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Say exactly that, or maybe "I can't do that, I'm sorry." People are pretty understanding in general about this stuff. I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by tristeza at 6:37 PM on September 6, 2007

I was just at a funeral. It was my husband's grandmother, so not even really a relation, but she did always ask after the cats. I don't know your age - if you are young, say college or highschool age, they may not ask you to do this at all, because it's really the purview of the older family members. But, if you are old enough to pay your own bills, there is a good chance that you're going to be asked to do it. When I was 20, I didn't have to go to see my own grandmother's open casket because my mom knew it squicked me out - but for the funeral I recently attended, I had to go up to the casket.

You are going to probably think you are going to pass out, if you are like me. I hate the open casket affair so much, it's really nearly visceral. I managed to hold it together. I think you're probably just going to have to find a zen place to be in your mind, and then just steel yourself and do it. There is no way to be tactful about this unless you have someone going to bat for you keeping you from having this duty in the first place. For most things I would say that you shouldn't be forced into doing something you don't want to do, but if this is about your grandmother, then this is about your parents' grief, not about any phobia of yours, and unfortunately that means you have to deal.

Yeah, it sucks. As for what you're supposed to say to people who say the body looks as if it's asleep, I would say just make sort of affirmative noises. You don't have to actively agree or disagree. They're probably just trying to be nice, because honestly, and this is one of the reasons I loathe open casket funerals, what else are you really going to say? "Wow, she sure looks dead." Yeah, not so much.

So, in short, you're probably going to have to suck it up and deal. Since I just did it, I know it's possible, and I also know it's not fun. But you will get through it.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:42 PM on September 6, 2007

oh, i am so sorry. i know how you feel--my immediate family goes for closed caskets, but other relations go for open, and it's always been terribly uncomfortable for me.

for the tactless remarks: ignore them. they're harmless, nervous verbal discharge. it's amazing what comes out of people's mouths when confronted with death. you kind of have to let a lot of the rules slide, or else you'll go mad.

as for the tradition, i can see two options. one is devious, the other confrontational. each has its merits, depending on your family dynamic.

1. sprain your ankle and/or throw out your back. now you can station yourself in a chair at the entrance to greet visitors and hand them off to a family member to visit the casket.

2. firmly tell your immediate family that you cannot do this. (if you really can't, tell them you'd rather miss the funeral than view the body.) tell them that right now in your head is a crystal-clear memory of [familymember doing some happy and/or positive thing] and you treasure it so much that you can't let this casket be your last memory of him/her. offer to stand at the door and greet visitors and send them toward the casket, but that you won't actually walk them to the casket. tell them you love them and loved [familymember] and right now you just have to process it in your own way.

people are generally pretty understanding. everyone's so wrapped up in their own grief, it doesn't matter. the choreography is just a way to impose a little order in a situation where the order of things has so abruptly changed.

i'm so sorry for your loss. take care of yourself. this is a rough business, and it always changes you a little. hang in there.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:59 PM on September 6, 2007

For my father's funeral a few weeks ago I was pretty much co-ordinating things with the mortuary staff, the priest, the church staff, and so on. I was too busy most of the time to do too much thinking. If someone wanted me to do something I didn't want to do, I was busy, and I also was in a position to ask someone else to do it.

My advice is two-fold: First, make yourself busy. Second, if someone asks you to take on this additional task, graciously and firmly say that you're sorry; you simply can't; maybe Aunt Mable or Cousin Charlie could do this; etc.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:50 PM on September 6, 2007

Look, not to be tactless here:

By the time the mortuary does what they do, the person is simply going to look like a wax figure. If you can simply think of the deceased as a wax figure, perhaps you can handle things better.

I am a bit confused-in all the wakes and funerals I have attended, I had to escort my own self to view, if I cared to do so.

Anyway, the bottom line is it doesn't really matter what your family does, if you do not want to be near that casket, YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE. It's okay.
posted by konolia at 8:01 PM on September 6, 2007

Don't bother bringing it up beforehand. (Because once you get there and do door-greeting duty for awhile, who knows, you may find that you feel compelled to walk with Aunt Mabel.)

If you don't want to approach the casket, just say that you can't and defer to another relative. If anyone makes noises like you're shirking your duty or not behaving correctly, just murmur something regarding everyone grieving in their own way. No-one will fuss at that.

For the line and the sleeping comments, I second affirmative noises.
posted by desuetude at 8:05 PM on September 6, 2007

i'm very upfront about this. i tell folks that isn't the dearly beloved departed aunt so-and-so lying there, aunt so-and-so is in a better place now and i'm here to celebrate her memory. the object in the casket is a corpse, and corpses give me the willies.
posted by bruce at 8:20 PM on September 6, 2007

If someone asks you to walk them up to the casket, just say, "I'm not quite ready to go over there yet," and give them the puppy eyes. No one will push you. If they tell you the deceased looks good, just nod.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by jrossi4r at 8:27 PM on September 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

My condolences. I second saying you're not ready to go over there. I don't come from an open casket background. However, when a relative was recently dying, one relative aggressively pursued me and asked me to come to the hospital to say goodbye. (The dying relative was unconscious.) I said, "No. I'm pregnant. I don't think it's a good idea. I've already said goodbye." This relative and a few others pursued me again and again. They even phoned and wanted me to talk to the unconscious dying relative on a cell phone. I just said, "No, I've already said goodbye." I got a lecture about how I was in denial. But guess who was spending her days calling funeral homes and cemeteries to make the burial and funeral arrangements? Me, not them. I wasn't in denial. I'd just already said goodbye and I didn't need to see my relative in a compromised state when I was pregnant. I preferred to remember him as he was when I'd spent a few hours with him three weeks earlier. I stood my ground, because I knew I wasn't in denial and that I had spent a lot of quality time with the relative when he was awake.

So, stand your ground. If you don't want to do it, just say you're not ready to do it. Don't let anyone push you to do it. If they're doing that, it's really about them, not you.
posted by acoutu at 9:30 PM on September 6, 2007

Everyone handles death in their own way, and I would hope that your relatives would respect the fact that your way of handling death is by not having to see the body of the person who has passed. Calmly explain that it is against your wishes and detrimental to your moving-on process.

Please don't lie or make up some fake reason why you can't do it. Simply explaining that it makes you upset or uncomfortable should be enough.
posted by Brittanie at 11:09 PM on September 6, 2007

I'd go with a curt "I'm not comfortable with this / going up there."

I highly doubt anyone will be bothered by your wishes.
posted by efalk at 1:40 AM on September 7, 2007

Meet the person at the back of the room, probably near the door, maybe near where the seating starts.
Accompany them up the aisle slowly to the casket and make conversation about your relative along the way.
Stop where your comfort level stops, and gesture with your arm or a nod of your head toward the casket. They should get the message that you're not going to accompany them.
If anyone asks why you're not attending the casket, just say what efalk says: "I'm not comfortable going up there".
posted by disclaimer at 4:09 AM on September 7, 2007

Walk as far as you are comfortable, then turn to the person you are escorting and say, "I'll give you a moment with "insert-deceased-name." That will allow the person you are escorting to say his goodbyes privately.

If you're religious, you can always stop and pray. Very few people will disturb someone involved in prayer.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by 26.2 at 6:46 AM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

When my uncle died there was an open-casket viewing before the closed-casket funeral. Due to the large generational gaps in my family I thought of my uncle as my grandfather. As this was in Spain the funeral happens within a day or two maximum so there isn't that much time to psychologically prepare for the whole thing and I really didn't want to remember the man that I thought of as my grandfather like that, so I just declined and sat down quietly. No one seemed bothered and I wasn't pressurized to do so. Had I said something earlier, it might have been an issue but in the moment it was fine; I suppose everyone else was caught-up in their own emotions.
posted by ob at 8:12 AM on September 7, 2007

Thank you for asking this question. I've never been expected to walk up with anyone, but in the funerals I've attended, everyone is expected to cross by the casket as they exit. I have never found a way of saying 'I don't want to go look at the corpse' so I managed in each case to grab a male relation and bury my face in their shoulder while pretending to be crying.

My attitude was greatly soured by the fact that both my grandfather and father in law has explicitly stated they did not want an open casket and both bodies ended up being put on display. A lesser transgression was my grandmother's body being put in dark red lipstick. I couldn't bear it. It was like having a doppelganger of my grandmother mimicking her.
posted by happyturtle at 2:49 PM on September 7, 2007

possibly try phrasing it in the positive, rather than as a "not" statement ... that is, "I'd prefer to stay here at the back of the chapel" or "I'll be here to greet with folks as they come through the door" or better yet "I'd prefer to remember the deceased as they were when they were alive"

i was fortunate enough that no one noticed I skipped out on going up to my grandmother's open casket. in the months before she died, she had told me how scared she was for her health because she lost a lot of weight. I knew she would look radically different than I remembered her (it had been many years since I'd seen her, since she lived in an out-of-the-way place and I was in California). I know many people took turns going up, I simply stayed toward the back and chatted with all the relatives I hadn't seen in ages.

Another level of my reticence in going near a casket was due to me bumping into and actually moving slightly askew my brother's casket. He would have been amused, but I'm sure family would not have been...
posted by kuppajava at 11:15 AM on September 8, 2007

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