Skipping out: How do you explain you don’t want to attend a close relative’s funeral?

Guest post by Kirstenlf
Matchbox - '63 Cadillac Hearse
By: leapkye – CC BY 2.0

I moved one ocean away from my family recently, and my grandfather is about to pass. Here is my dilemma: social convention has it that you should attend a close one’s funeral, but what if you don’t want to?

I don’t plan to attend for several reasons: time, money, but above all, I really want to avoid all the funeral-related drama, and hypocritical celebrations of how “great” a man he was. All the public and intimate displays of mourning are icking me out. I don’t feel I can handle it.

But just because I’m skipping a funeral, doesn’t mean I will not honor what good memories I have of him in my own way, on my own, or that I will not support my family as much as I can.

So how do you explain you don’t want to attend a close relative’s funeral? Any ideas? Thank you! -Elodie

I’ve thought about this topic a lot over the years as I lost each of my grandparents in turn (I hate the term “passed”). It is such a complicated issue. For me, the logistics never changed; I never could afford to travel the six hundred miles. It was always a financial burden, so there’s the “control” in this argument. But, as my feelings for the four of my grandparents spanned the spectrum, I offer my experiences up to illustrate my varied reasons for attending. Maybe the reasons I found will help someone else to sort it out for themselves.

When my first grandfather died, it was a no brainer. I was with him in the room when he died, so of course I stayed for his funereal. He was a kind man and I respected him a great deal. My parents were in Europe when he had his stroke, so literally traveled to Ohio with a jar of coins on the seat next to me, praying I’d have enough gas to make it. When he died, I was already there, but I would have used the coins to attend his funeral, too, because he was the head of our family and there wasn’t a year in his life when he didn’t travel to visit us no matter where we lived in the world. It was not easy for him to have done that. He worked for the phone company his whole life. He had a third grade education. But he came because he felt a responsibility for us and he loved us and he felt it was the right thing to do. Being there for him was the least I could do. It was certainly the very last thing I could do for him.

When my grandmother died, I was devastated. Even typing this out has me choking back the sob that instinctively rises in my throat. It’s been nineteen years and I still miss her. She was the only member of my family who ever made me feel worth or love. I made the sad and mournful trek back for her funereal because there is nothing in this world that could have kept me away. I wrote her eulogy on a napkin in the backseat with my seven-year-old son beside me. It is no exaggeration to say that I would have hitchhiked to be there. She meant the world to me and I knew it was my last chance to show her how much I loved her. At the last moment, after the pall bearers had been called in to move the casket from the funeral home, they stopped. My brother turned and nodded to my son who then walked over and grabbed the front handle, leading the five grown men out into the sunlight carrying my grandmother to the church. Everyone who saw what happened gasped. My tiny son in his little double-breasted suit was bearing as much of the weight of the mournful crowd as his little body could stand. No matter what would happen to our family afterward as the world and time and distance moved us to separate corners, that moment was one that everyone remembers. I’m not a religious person, but I still believe that it is also the one moment that I know for sure my grandmother could see.

And then the other side of the family began to die. When my grandfather on that side died, I attended his funeral more as an obligation. I really had no connection to the man other than blood. I can’t recall more than a smattering of sentences passing between us during my whole life. I just felt like I was supposed to go. Even though he was essentially a stranger, he was a decent man, and so I went. I was sad that a man who had lived such a full life was gone. I certainly respected him as a provider for his family, but I didn’t really know him that well. I’d only seen him a handful of times during my lifetime.

I should interject here that my participation in these ceremonies is not an expectation that couldn’t have been stalled. My brother has not attended a single family funeral. For him, it hasn’t been a matter of being opposed to the concept of funerals. He has attended funerals of friends. He just doesn’t, um, feel like he has to go. He believes the question is more about his own feelings rather than the feelings of the mournful. I’ll say, people were definitely shocked when he skipped the first funereal. But now no one even expects him to show. On the one hand, he made a decision for himself and he doesn’t care what other people think. On the other hand, he doesn’t care, which I find exceedingly sad.

My last grandparent to die was my mother’s mother. This grandmother was not a nice person. End of. I have little to no feelings for her, even today, and not a single good memory. But I still attended her funereal. Am I a hypocrite? Some might say so. Certainly, everyone was shocked when I appeared. But, I’ll be honest, I didn’t do it for her sake. I went there to support my mother, even though my own mother and I also do not have a familial relationship. At best, we’re tolerant of each other. But the thing is, I had empathy for her and didn’t want her to feel like no one cared that she’d lost her last parent. It’s not her fault that she’d inherited her mother’s parenting skills. At least, in the case of my own mother, she is cognizant of her failings. That recognition means to me that she was a crappy parent simply because she was never parented, not because she was a sociopath like her own mother. So I went. I stood there and I was respectful. I watched my cousins cry and I wondered why they were shedding a single tear, but I kept my feelings to myself. And then I went home knowing I had done the right thing.

I described these four very different funerals and my reasons for attending because, at the end of the day, I think it’s about doing the right thing for someone at the very last opportunity you have to do so. If money, distance, logistics of any sort are not the reason for staying away, consider going. The funerals I attended of people I loved and respected and will miss until my own last breath were a place and a moment in which I could quietly honor them and all the love they created. For the funerals I attended for people I didn’t necessarily respect or care about, I attended to show support for people that did love them because those people needed to feel comforted and, in my mother’s case especially, needed to feel validated. Let’s be real: Bad people are mourned, too.

Funerals are ceremonial ways in which to honor those who’ve died and/OR the people who loved the dead. It doesn’t have to be both. I guess my point is: It’s not about you. [Please don’t read that as a jab.] Just think of it as your last opportunity to be a good person for the deceased or their loved ones, even if you don’t care much for the person that the deceased proved to be.

So how do YOU handle the idea of skipping the funeral of a family member?

Comments on Skipping out: How do you explain you don’t want to attend a close relative’s funeral?

  1. I decided not to go to a number of funerals in my extended family. Why? I never wanted these days to come and I do not want to be reminded in public just how final it all is. I don’t want others to see me in case I break down and cry! Now, I guess some family members might think I’m “troubled”, “self-centered” or whatever if I don’t go but I don’t care. One family member told me “The number of people who attend a funeral indicates just how good of a person they were.” I told him “That is not true. You can be a good person but only knew a few people in your life.” They agreed. But the next time the subject came up they said the same thing. What a mental defective. I could care less what others think.

  2. I did not attend the funeral of a friend of my grandparents several years ago. I regret not attending. I use to visit when I was younger with my grandparents every few months before I became a teenager. I didn’t really see them too much since then, but I remember he did visit with his wife a not more than a couple of years before he died. He was a nice man and was always smiling and laughing. My grandparents and uncle saw him when he was in hospital in his final days suffering with cancer. He died not long after. My grandmother said I probably shouldn’t attend the funeral perhaps because it was a bit of a sad thing to see. I have never been to a funeral, but I will never miss another of anyone who I have any fondness for.

    I am not religious, and after thinking it over, I feel like it was dishonorable not attending his funeral. I also talked to his wife a couple of years later when I answered my grandparents phone. I did not even give her my condolences or mention her husbands name, I honestly did not know what to say, and also the fact that she doesn’t understand English very well. The funeral was a chance for me to give my last respects to his personality in this life, and I did not take it.

    It is not good enough to shy away from these things, if death bothers you, you do need to get over your laziness or opinions about ‘rituals’, and consider how you would want others to honor you. Death is inevitable, and it offers us lessons to understand the important things in life, and puts other things into perspective. There is hardly an excuse, even if it’s your own wedding or your children’s wedding, it all needs to be put aside until last respects are made, then you still have time for marriage. It’s not only about the family or others, but also about yourself. Once your wisdom grows, certain truths become obvious. In the end you will need to live with the choices you make.

  3. The non-religious aspect of a wake and funeral is to bring closure to one’s own self (come to grips with the fact that they’re gone) and to support the family. My response as to whether one should or should not attend a wake or funeral really depends on their relationship with the family who will be there and will need the support. Are you close to them and want to ease their pain?

    Now, that said, I cannot approach the coffin (anxiety/depression… not sure what it is, but the tears choke me so hard I pass out every time.) So hard to support a family from the back of a room, but they do acknowledge I’m there and thank me for coming as it means alot to them. And that is why I attend. I very much understand that there may be those who want to attend, but either for time/money or emotional reasons simply cannot. A phone call can mean just as much.

  4. I think grief is personal, attending a funeral isn’t the only way to express it, nor is it the only way to honor someone. Support your family by letting them know you are a phone call away. Honor your grandparent by doing something in his memory. When my mother in law died, I planted a rose bush in a public garden in her memory. I’m the only one who recognises it, but it’s there and I know it, when I walk past it I see it and acknowledge her. When I pass, I’ve asked for no ceremony of any kind. I would prefer my daughters to merely sit around and listen to Springsteen. As long as they re loving and supporting each other, I need no other accolades.

  5. My father & I have been estranged for 15 years, I didn’t even invite him to my wedding. He’s now dying of cancer, I recently met with him because my brother said our Dad seemed to want to see me. It was an awkward meeting, he didn’t say much & I had chosen not to poke at old wounds & to leave apologizes up to him if that was what his purpose was (it wasn’t).

    I have no love in my heart for him left. I’ve mourned the Dad I stopped having when I was 10, when he left to have a better life (yes still bitter but for so much more than just that he left). The man he became from mourners. I was 11 into my adulthood is someone whom had no interest in his children.

    He has less than a year left according to the doctors, I’m now faced with the dilemma/debate do I go to whatever memorial service is held. I don’t like my Father’s wife, we’ve had words in the past & I’ve refused to see him in her presence.
    Do I let all sour memories & feelings die with him & attend the memorial as his daughter. Or do I avoid feeling out of place amongst actual mourners.
    If I don’t go I know the families will just think I’m a bitter stubborn person but the man they know isnt the same man I know.
    What do I say if I do go.
    Dammed if I do, Dammed if I don’t

    • Dont go. I have a similar story with my brother, dying of cancer. We have never been close, even as children and he turned out to be a negative insulting jerk. I do not know his family that well. I call them, they never call me. I dont expect they would come to my funeral either.

  6. A distant Aunt of mine recently died. She was in her mid 80’s and I met her once nearly 50 years ago. She had nothing to do with our family.

    That side of the family (my father’s) I was never very close to due to geography & life in general. Most of my relatives, cousins etc. I haven’t seen in over 30 years plus.

    Anyway at the funeral, which I did not attend, one of my cousins dressed down my 80 plus year old parents about my non attendance and not being there to “support the family”.

    Well I’m peeved at him. My parents for one do not owe him or anyone else an explanation about my decision, nor in fact do I.

    Secondly, speaking of “family support”, my wife and I never heard squat from any of these people when our son & daughter were fighting for their lives when they were 4 & 5 due to an incident they were involved in.

    Nor did my brother ever hear from any of them when he was fighting stage 4 cancer.

    Nor did we hear from any of them when my mother was fighting stage 4 cancer.

    Bottom line families are complex and your decision to attend or not attend a function, whatever that might be is YOUR decision and no one else’s business or concern.

    Anyway I’ve invited my cousin to call me if he really needs an explanation and also so we can discuss his selective memory and his inappropriate conduct with my parents.

  7. I would just tell them you’re sick with the stomach flu or the flu and can’t get out of bed or just that you’ve come down with “something”. You’re an ocean away, they’ll never know. It’s hard to tell people the truth because they can’t handle the truth.

  8. I made the decision to skip my aunt’s funeral (viewing and funeral). I was on the fence about it because part of me wanted to show respect for my adopted mother’s sister (adopted mom passed a few years ago).

    The reason I decided to skip was because my cousin made a very hurtful remark 2 days before the funeral on Facebook. It was the deceased page (my aunt) where everyone was virtually gathering to share memories about her mom.

    I posted a photo of my aunt with her parents (my grandparents). Long story short, everyone loved the photo and commented in a positive way. It truly was something people found helpful.

    But that didn’t last long…

    That’s because my cousin decided to reply and announced to everyone via my post that she was “first born grandchild” and was loved the most by our grandparents. Remember, this was the funeral for her mom and on a page for sharing memories.

    Everyone saw what she wrote – including the other grand kids.

    After I read that, it sent me a message that I wasn’t welcome and wasn’t really considered part of the family. My brother also read it this way and also decided to skip. We did send flowers.

    I do believe in attending funerals. That said, there are times when going is more harmful than good. Here are a few good questions to ask yourself before making the final decision to attend.

    1. “Would they come to my funeral”? If the answer is automatically “no” that should tell you something.

    2. Was the person ever in your life in a meaningful way? How about the family of the deceased? If the answer is no, that should inform your decision.

    3. If you know you aren’t really welcome or going to the viewing stirs up too much emotional pain that is deep and raw, it’s something to consider. Screw being “nice” to people – particularly of those people have inflicted emotional harm upon you. There are limits.

    Thankfully, many people now a-days are opting for simple memorial services instead of the long drawn out funeral stuff.

  9. Thank you all SO much for your helpful input. My sister-in-law died of cancer Saturday in the Netherlands. I want so much to go over (we live in South Florida) and help my little brother (her widower) and my other brother and sister-in-law.

    But my husband is in the middle of tests and treatment plans for a recurrence of cancer, having a procedure the day I should have traveled, and very apprehensive at me being away overseas for three days.

    My decision is made. I will stay put and get up at 4:00 am Thursday to be with them in spirit during the service. They will have one another to lean on, and everyone else attending. I’m still very distraught but I know I’m doing the right thing.

  10. I have been through the long illness of my father, who labored for eight years before finally passing. Then later; it was my mother who was facing her last moments. My years of working with the elderly as a nurse, learning that death is a very clarifying experience; as they approach it – many find it to be liberating – to be honest; even feeling free to speak their minds – to let go of “socially acceptable” limitations on manners. Facing death, what else is there to fear- they ask? I know, from my experiences, this is what I’ve seen. So, honesty is what I would offer – especially at this sober time. Nothing less. Speaking to our loved ones/special friends they deserve our honest emotions and thoughts. If they know us at all, they will consider our words as truths that are stated simply in love, and in honor of their life – giving meaning to how worthy the relationship truly is. Funerals are hard, At that time, what you do is part of what you take away as your last remembrance of this person and their life. Grief can be shared, or not, to be a group activity of a celebration of one’s life and their purpose is a honorable way of saying good-bye, after they are gone. Yet, while they are here – to be honest with them is a clear way of showing respect and love that they would want.

  11. Better to stay alive and safe then arrive dead at anothers funeral.

    Sorry don’t mean to sound like a jack ass, but well I’m kinda in the same boat. My cousin (much older than I) has been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. His doctors gave him at most three months time, he has three surviving kids and a grandchild. He’s mostly comatose, well err in a state where he isn’t really around I guess. I refuse to go see him to pay my respects, while I feel for him and his state. I also don’t acknowledge death in the same manor as most folks do. If this makes me horrible meh can’t please everyone.

  12. My grandmother passed away yesterday. I don’t want to go to the funeral either. I barely speak if not at all with most of my family. I just don’t want to see or have the lame small talk with many of them. This is my mother’s mother. My own mom doesn’t speak to me. Why should I go? I feel like I’m setting a poor example for my kids, but also the opposite if I force myself to do something I really don’t want to do. Not sure how I will celebrate her in my own way, we weren’t all that close either. She was a grumpy old lady a lot of the time. I really don’t want to remember her that way. I do have a message still on my phone from 3 years ago where she said love you at the end. That’s enough for me.

  13. My youngest sister was killed last night in a car accident, in Jan she was going to have her first grandchild, we are all in shock. I live in Africa and it will be very difficult plus expensive for me to attend her funeral. I don’t like funerals and agree with some posters that funeral homes make lots of money. In Sept. my husband and I made our funeral arrangements and to have a bare minimum funeral cost us $11000. This is with the cheapest casket and no flowers, just a graveside service. When someone dies unespectally, then the family members want the best of everything and pay a lot for it. Every body mourns in their own way, I would rather sit here in Africa and remember the good times we had. My last conversation with her, she was jumping all over me about another problem in our family. She was a good sister and touch many lives and would give all she had to help people in need.

Read more comments

Join the Conversation