Attending a funeral is not for the faint hearted. It is normal to dread going to a funeral. Some people have a genuine fear of funerals as part of suffering from necrophobia and/or thanatophobia. Necrophobia sufferers are afraid of things associated with death, and thanatophobia is a fear of death and the dying process. Even without suffering from these two conditions, funerals can immobilize anyone through social anxiety, or just difficulty in expressing emotions. The many symbols of death, rituals, abundant floral displays, somber atmosphere, and music involved in a funeral can trigger many emotions. Let’s face it – funerals often have crowds of people attending and some people feel discomfort with specific people who may be attending. Funerals are often moments when the reality of someone’s death becomes reality. It can become very overwhelming to think about saying goodbye. These are all rational fears of attending a funeral.
As per my previous blog, “You Can’t Catch Death”, let me remind you that death is not something that is contagious. Yet, some people do still carry this irrational fear. Other people might have an irrational fear of simply seeing a dead body in general. This might possibly have roots from their childhood. If parents don’t prepare their children for all the sights, sounds and experiences linked to a funeral (see my previous blog “Children and Funerals”) then the experience may trigger a deeply rooted fear of seeing dead bodies in their adult life.
You may be concerned that you will say or do the wrong thing when you speak with the grieving family, and you will make their pain and grief worse. One blog I read (see source 1) offered some great tips about how to handle the anxiety you might be facing once you have made the decision to attend in person.
1. Rehearse what you’ll say (You might want to review my two previous blogs “Conversations with mourners- What to say to mourners/What not to say to mourners” for specific suggestions)
2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions (I suggest funeral directors and on-site death doulas are great places to start)
3. Dress in (appropriate) funeral attire (You might want to review my previous blog “The Colours of Mourning”)
Here are some other things to think about to calm your anxiety. Do you need to attend the funeral alone? Perhaps attending with another support person would help. It is also completely acceptable just to make a brief appearance to speak to a family member and then leave after a few minutes or at a specific part of the funeral service.
Are there specific elements of the funeral, such as an open coffin or a post-funeral ceremony, such as the coffin being lowered into the ground or taken to the crematorium, that are your emotional triggers? Is there a place that you can go on site, away from people, just to collect your thoughts? Remember that it’s healthy and normal to have strong emotions about death, and it’s okay to take some time to sort through and experience these feelings.
Perhaps visualizing and rehearsing how you will cope with challenging things in advance will lessen your anxiety. Take lots of deep breaths. Would sitting close to an exit door help? What mindfulness techniques can you practice before and after the event? Do you have a plan for post funeral, such as going to a coffee shop? Find and/or develop appropriate coping techniques that work for you and use them.
Talk about your fear of attending funerals with someone you trust. If you can understand fear, then you can work toward overcoming it. Necrophobia, thanatophobia and social anxiety are real conditions that can be treated by a trained mental health provider.
Please don’t force yourself to attend a funeral if you are not able to do so for whatever reason. It isn't disrespectful to not go to a funeral for personal reasons. There are other ways, other than in person, to support the family. (I provided some suggestions in my previous blog).
In conclusion, do what works best for you. Understand and accept your feelings. Be gentle with yourself.
1. https://www.joincake.com/blog How to Attend a Funeral If You’re Feeling Fearful: A Guide, Updated 5/11/2022, by Dr. Alejandra Vasquez, JD, CT, Certified Grief Counselor
2. https://austins.co.uk/ OVERCOMING YOUR FEAR OF FUNERALS
3.https://blog.hefuneralhome.com/What are the Reasons for Anxiety About Funerals? August 17, 2020
4. https://www.connerbowman.com/Overcoming Fear of Funerals. Conner-Bowmen Funeral Home and Crematorium, April 7, 2019