How to Keep Out Unwanted Guests at Family Funerals
Are Funerals Public or Private?
When planning a wedding, it's easy to ban unwanted family members — simply don't invite them. The bride and groom, bride and bride, or groom and groom (and possibly their parents) get to choose who does and doesn't share the special day. No invitation = no entry.
But what about funerals? Although they are also highly personal occasions, they typically are wide open. Anyone and everyone who knew the deceased could come and pay their respects.
If you are in the position of planning a funeral or memorial service for a loved one, you have a lot to do in a short amount of time. If there have been estrangements, feuds, or tensions within the family, you have those to contend with as well.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Can you restrict attendance?
- Should you restrict attendance?
- What if the person you don't want at the funeral is an immediate family member? How would you achieve that restriction?
5 Ways to Restrict Funeral Attendance
There are five different levels of restriction and, I daresay, variations within each:
1. Make the funeral (typically a religious ceremony) open, but make the interment (burial) for family only.
2. Make the funeral ceremony open, but make the after-party invitation only, and disassociate the interment (if applicable) from the day's activities.
3. Announce the death with a notation that the funeral is private.
4. Publish the obituary after the funeral and interment have already occurred.
5. Don't have a funeral at all. Have a memorial service scheduled some distance in the future. Don't promote it. Make people call you to find out your plans. Then, you can decide on a case-by-case basis who you want to invite.
Each of these suggestions has its pros and cons — especially number five because the last thing you will feel like doing while trying to grieve your loved one is to try to remember who you did or didn't speak to and who you did or didn't tell about the memorial service. Oy! Too much work!
Should You Restrict Funeral Attendance?
Only you can answer that question. The following are a few scenarios in which limiting the guest list should be considered:
1. Your Loved One Has Stipulated His/Her Wishes in Advance
Both of my parents were very explicit in their instructions. Well, technically, Mom was explicit. Dad simply said, "I want all the same readings and songs that your mother had." Easy-peasy.
Neither of them put any caveats on who could or could not come to their funerals. That would not have been their way.
2. Budget Constraints
Let's face it. If your loved one was so popular that 350 people might show up to bid him/her adieu, it may not be financially feasible to invite them all out to eat afterwards. Of course, not everyone who comes to the ceremony will have the time/inclination to go to lunch.
Socially acceptable ways around this "problem" include:
- Having the reception at the church or house of worship. Have everyone adjourn to an anteroom to have coffee, cookies, and fellowship. You'll probably capture more of the audience this way as they don't have to get in their cars and drive somewhere.
- Have the interment directly following the funeral. This way, you will lose some (or all) churchgoers to attrition. You will then lose some of the cemetery-goers, especially if the drive to the ceremony is long and the interment service is drawn out. In short, you will end up with a smaller group for the after-party.
Remember, you can make the interment private, thus cutting your ultimate number down to a couple dozen or fewer.
3. Geographical Undesirability
This probably goes under "can you restrict" rather than "should you restrict," but I'm leaving it here, as it calls for some value judgments.
Let's say a patriarch lives for 40 years in Smithtown, RI, but when he becomes elderly, he moves in with a daughter in Flagstaff, AZ. He dies in Arizona, but his roots are in Rhode Island. For argument's sake, let's say that the matriarch predeceases him and is buried in Rhode Island. Where should the daughter have her dad's funeral? Do you see where I'm going with this?
If she chooses Arizona because Dad has made some friends out there, the funeral will have very few guests. If she chooses to bring Dad back to lie in eternity next to his wife, it will be financially limiting (considering the cost to get herself, her family, and the corpse across the country).
Is there a right answer? Is there a wrong answer? Yes and no.
Can You Ban a Family Member From a Funeral?
I've written extensively on family betrayal and estrangement. Many of you know that this subject is quite near and dear to my heart, and, after receiving more comments than I ever expected on my related articles, I see that I'm not alone (not hardly!).
So, what about those black sheep of the family?* Can you prevent them from coming to pay their last respects? (Given their prior behavior, this would be something of an oxymoron as "respect" is seemingly not in their vocabulary).
*The feud may not be with a family member. It could be with a business parter or ex-business partner. For the sake of brevity, I'm using family member as my example. Extrapolate as needed.
I am genuinely curious to hear how others have handled this or plan to handle this when the time comes. Here are some of my thoughts and ideas on the subject based, of course, on an all-too-real situation in my own family. You can hope that the person in question "honors" their previous estrangement and stays away of their own accord, but this is risky. You can't count on estranged family members to behave in a predictable or rational manner. There's a reason the word "strange" is embedded in estrangement!
What Your Unwanted Guest May Do
- They may not recognize their estrangement from the deceased. Even though they haven't seen or spoken with their mother/father/sister/brother/child for 17 years, in their mind, they are fully entitled to sit in that front row and bawl like a baby. Denial is a powerful tool.
- They may see the funeral as an opportunity to either vindicate themselves or atone for their past behavior. They may feel like this is their last chance to make peace with the deceased by either offering forgiveness or seeking it.
- They attend to spite the other family members to whom they are also estranged.
- They show up so that no one can later accuse them of not being there. This typically is financially motivated (read: inheritance) and has nothing whatsoever to do with their feelings (or lack thereof) for the deceased.
There are probably many other motives. Not being an estranged family member myself, it's difficult for me to think like a black sheep who would crash someone's funeral.
Ways to Handle the Black Sheep of the Family
Let's say your resident black sheep has the audacity to show up. For whatever reason, you choose not to exclude him/her from your loved one's funeral. Now what?
Let's get the Christian solution out of the way first. There is no disputing that this is the best for all concerned. If the prodigal son or daughter chooses his/her parent's funeral to reappear into the fold, take it as a good sign. Assume that he/she is there with good intentions. Realize how difficult the estrangement must have been on him/her all this time. Understand that he/she is a broken, damaged soul in need of forgiveness and treat him/her like any other guest.
2. Ban Them
If you happen to know that the deceased would roll over in their grave if they knew that the black sheep relative dared to show up, that's a different story entirely. We have a similar situation in my family. My mother-in-law has made it patently clear that she does not want anything to do with her daughter. She chose not to attend her daughter's recent wedding. She has not seen her daughter in over a year. She freaks out when the daughter's name is mentioned. I think it's safe to say that if she were alive, she would not want to see her daughter at her funeral.
But, of course, by the time we're planning her funeral, my mother-in-law will only be with us in spirit. So we will be interpreting her wishes and adding a healthy — or unhealthy — dose of our own injured feelings. Nowhere is it written that the daughter is not to attend. So the call will be ours. Needless to say, in over two long, intense years of family feuding, I've had plenty of time to think about this.
My Plans to Mitigate This Situation:
1. As the family eulogist, I could offer my services. Having honed my not-quite-personal but, nonetheless, biting insult skills right here in the HubPages forums, I'm confident that I could make a few pointed jabs without invoking a slander suit. It would be a challenge, but it's nothing like the challenge my "dear" sister-in-law has put us through already!
2. We had my father-in-law's after-party at our house. That is now tradition, and we see no reason to break with it. Accordingly, it is a safe assumption that the wayward daughter wouldn't dare show her face at my door. If she does, I would take great pleasure in slamming it in her face. She is not welcome in my home under any circumstances.
No, wait. I take that back. In the unlikely event that she offers to make amends and is genuinely repentant of her sins against her mother and brother, I would definitely want to hear her out.
3. We have also tossed around the idea of forgoing a church service entirely. Since the family church no longer exists (it was sold), and my mother-in-law has no affiliation with any other church, we'd have to shop for a place to hold her funeral. That seems a little odd to me. Our hope is that we can invite the family pastor (assuming he's still with us when the time comes) to our house for a memorial service.
You may call this plan diabolical; I call it practical and efficient.
Note to self: It's not about you.
The important thing is to make the event a fitting tribute to the deceased. That's what really matters.
Whether you invite the universe or keep things private; spend lavishly or go the simple route; include or exclude certain people, do it from your heart. If you follow your heart, you will end up doing the right thing.
It is probably premature, but I would like to say that I am sorry for your loss. I am doubly sorry that in your time of sorrow you have to think about such a crazy idea as banning your own family member from the funeral! I hope my musings have given you some comfort.
All the best to you and your loved ones.