Q. The son of a casual friend died today. It has come as a complete shock to the family. He was a charming, handsome, and successful young man who will be greatly missed. I am a Christian, but the family is Jewish. I don’t want to say anything disrespectful by accident at the funeral--or sound trite. Also what should I expect at the funeral?
A. Many people are anxious about attending any funeral, but it can be especially difficult when it’s your first funeral in the particular religion. It’s easy to feel like a fish out of water and worry that you will say or do the wrong thing. Regardless of the religion, you’re always safest when you stick to just a few words unless you have a close relationship with the bereaved (or knew the deceased well). In the latter case, you can talk about the person knowledgeably. In your question above, you’ve actually said very appropriate words for the situation: “He was a charming, handsome, and successful young man. He will be greatly missed.” That’s a very comforting statement to those who loved him. Another possibility in a tragedy is something like “I don’t know what to say to you. This is such a loss.” These words speak to the enormity of what has happened, and help family members feel understood. They will then either simply thank you for being there--or pick up on your words and talk. All you have to do is listen. I would not mention God or religion. On the other hand, you can say something like, “My prayers are with you.”
Jewish funerals are usually held in a synagogue or funeral home the day following the death, Today however, some Reform Jews may schedule it a few days later, especially if the family is far flung and people must travel great distances to attend. A rabbi leads the service, which may run 15 minutes to an hour, according to the book How to Be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious Ceremonies. During the service, attendees will stand up at certain times. Watch what they do and follow suit, which happens to be good advice at weddings in other religions, too. Appropriate dress for men is a jacket and tie. Conservative dress in muted or dark colors is recommended for women.
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
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