When Death Comes to TCFM

This packet is based upon “When Death Comes to Meeting” by Pacific Yearly Meeting, as republished in Friends Bulletin in January 1975, and reprinted by Pacific Yearly Meeting in 1980. The main author of this version is Betsy Raasch-Gilman, who added some of her experiences and resources as a hospital chaplain to the packet as well.

I. Introduction

Arnold Toynbee says in Man’s Concern with Death that we cannot write of death, we can only write of the personal experience of mourning. He goes on to say that there are two parties to the event of death, and that this is crucial — the one who has died and those who survive. We are dealing in general with those that survive, yet that still means in facing the event for ourselves or for others that we must have an attitude — a theology, if you will.

We cannot choose to be born. Most of us do not choose the time of our death. Yet death hangs like a shadow over all our lives and the shadow lengthens as we grow older. As with all shadows we find there depth and mystery — to be embraced and absorbed into our lives, part of the eternal truth that gives dignity to humans. We come at last to the clear realization that the aim and solution of life — and death — is the acceptance of God.

— Margaret Brooks
Ministry and Oversight Committee
Pacific Yearly Meeting, 1973

To these thoughtful words we need only to add that no two deaths are alike, and no two survivors’ experiences of the same death are alike. Ministry to survivors must of course be tailored to the exact situation, and there is no one right “Quaker way” of dealing with death. This packet is intended to tell some stories, give some factual information, and help guide TCFM members and attenders in the sad and inevitable event of a death. We expect to continue to learn from our experiences and from the Divine, and to evolve our understandings and practices.

II. Preparation within Meeting

Emotional and spiritual preparation for death

Sometimes death comes suddenly and unexpectedly; in other cases, the person who is dying and their family anticipate the death for months or even years. In still other cases, it may be quite obvious to many on-lookers that a person is dying, and yet their closest relatives and partners are convinced that the person is stable or recovering. The form of ministry varies depending on the circumstances, and on the attitudes of the dying person and the survivors. Shock, intense grief, guilt, and anger may be the primary reactions to a sudden death, while relief, guilt, and sadness usually accompany an anticipated death. No emotion or spiritual question is truly out of place in the event of a death, and a Friend providing ministery can expect to encounter almost anything in the twelve or thirteen months which follow a death.

The person who is dying may or may not want to discuss it much, and the survivors may or may not want to discuss it much, either. The minister can feel relatively confident that her/his simple presence has meaning, regardless of the words which pass or do not pass. Occasionally a person who is gravely ill can unburden him/herself to a friend or minister more freely than to a family member. More often, a person who is dying will turn first to those s/he has always been close to. And a person who has been private about their feelings and spiritual questions all their life will probably be private in facing death, too.

Death is the ultimate meaning-maker in life. An awareness of death can help to focus a person on what is most important in life. One may ask, “If I were to die tomorrow, what do I think I would regret? What experiences would I wish I had had? What would I feel the most satisfied about?” Answering such questions, and then using the next day to forge the kind of life which one will not regret leaving, is a rich way in which to live. Seeing death as a constant companion and friend can help us live courageously and faithfully.

A Quaker chaplain who had worked in hospitals for more than ten years told an incoming class of chaplaincy interns, “If you came here to help prepare people for dying, go back to your parish. That’s where the real preparation for death happens.” He explained that it is in how we live that we prepare for death. If we live with confidence in God and gratitude for God’s graciousness, we will face death in the same fashion. Spiritual preparation for death happens in the whole of living, not in last hours of life.

Practical preparations for final illness and death

It is well for Friends to prepare for death as carefully and as thoughtfully as they do for the other significant events in life, such as birth and marriage. It is an exercise in the fullness of life, and helps the Meeting to sustain the family and follow the desires of the person who dies.

Living wills are a necessity for everyone, not only the elderly. In Minnesota, there is a legal form for a living will which can be purchased at any legal supply store, and the blanks filled in. It is very important to discuss the living will with a health care provider, since a professional can often give information about certain treatments and circumstances which it is hard for a layperson to imagine. A copy of the living will should be given to the primary health care provider, and to one or more family members who are designated as decision-makers in the living will, in the event that the maker can no longer decide things for him/herself. The most important aspect of the living will is that its author discuss her/his wishes with others: with the doctor, with family members, and with the appointed decision-maker.

Powers of attorney are other legal documents which Friends may wish to consider writing up. There are two kinds: durable power of attorney and full power of attorney. The durable power of attorney designates a person who can make medical decisions for the grantor, in the event that the grantor is unable to make those decisions for him/herself. The full power of attorney extends to financial decisions and transfers of property. Friends with degenerative diseases or family histories of stroke and other sudden brain-impairing diseases may wish to make out these documents. They are especially important for unmarried couples (gay, lesbian, and heterosexual), because their relationships are otherwise unrecognized by law. It may also be important for Friends whose values regarding life and death are considerably different from the values of the most obvious caretaker or family member. (In most cases, medical professionals will ask a spouse or child to make the decisions for an incapacitated patient. If a Friend does not wish that person to make their decisions, s/he should make that wish legally known.) Again, the statutory forms for granting power of attorney and durable power of attorney are available in legal supply stores.

All adults should have at least a simple will and testament; several computer programs exist which can make the job of drawing up or revising a will quite easy and inexpensive. Wills need to be reviewed periodically. When a person dies intestate, the legal proceedings can be lengthy and complicated, and the state lays claim to a large portion of the estate. Wills should never be kept in a safety deposit box, since the banks seal the boxes after a person’s death. The personal representative named in the will should have the original copy of the will, so that there need be no delay in opening the estate. When a death is anticipated, it is best to put checking and savings accounts in the name of the personal representative as well as the person who is dying, so that the personal representative can have easy access to money to make funeral arrangements and pay urgent bills. Lawyers can be of great assistance in settling an estate; however, the person who dies can be the greatest assistant by making sensible and clear arrangements beforehand.

Many Friends prefer cremation to embalming, viewing, and an elaborate funeral. The Minnesota Funeral and Memorial Society provides low-cost, dignified cremation services. It is a non-profit membership organization, and Friends can become members at any point in their lives. Members can select from several plans, ranging from simple cremation to an open casket service followed by cremation. Membership in the MFMS can be transfered to other, similar societies throughout North America, in case the person moves. At the time of death, a survivor simply calls one of the funeral homes which provides services for the Memorial Society, or the Society’s office itself for a referral, and a funeral director will assist in making the arrangements. Friends may receive all the necessary enrollment information by writing to:

Minnesota Funeral and Memorial Society
900 Mount Curve Avenue
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55403


717 Riverside Drive S.E.
St. Cloud, Minnesota 56301

Friends may wish to donate their bodies to the University for medical research. Donors should be aware that most such donations are used in medical classes, to teach medical students about dissection. The amount of actual research which can be done on a cadaver is quite small. Friends who wish to donate their bodies to the University of Minnesota for the advancement of medical science and medical research can get the proper forms from:

Anatomy Bequest Program
4-135 Jackson Hall
321 Church Street S.E.
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455


Donation of one’s body for medical research and teaching is different from organ and tissue donation. At the time of death, especially if the death occurs in a hospital, survivors will be asked whether they wish to donate organs and tissues. Except in very rare cases, (mainly cases of brain death), the organs and tissues in question are the eyes, corneas, pituitary glands, skin, and middle ear ossicles. Friends should discuss their wishes about tissue donation with close family members and friends so that survivors have some basis upon which to make such a decision — which can be distressing when it is raised in a moment of crisis by an unfamiliar medical professional. Friends also have the opportunity to declare their wishes each time they renew their Minnesota drivers’ license or ID card.

Friends often comment on how difficult it is to truly observe our testimony of simplicity. No matter what we do, we accumulate possessions to which we attach meaning and which we depend upon for convenience. In the event of a death, however, these treasures can present grieving survivors with heartaches and headaches. The more able we are to observe the testimony of simplicity in regards to our physical possessions, the easier it is for our survivors to settle our affairs for us.

An elderly woman who had collected many beautiful Japanese dishes throughout her long life began to give them away to her grandchildren for birthdays and Christmases. Gradually, she gave away all but the pieces which she used the most often, and which gave her the most pleasure. When she died, her family was spared the task of trying to divide up the collection, and everyone had something beautiful that reminded them of their grandmother.

III. What to do when death occurs

The following is meant to be a helpful list of things to be done by a designated person in the Meeting when a member or attender of TCFM dies, or when a member or attender of TCFM asks for assistance with the death of someone close to them. Many of these items are obvious, but death is a time of confusion and stress, and the obvious can escape us. Often close relatives and friends are disoriented by shock and need gentle guidance from a person who is not as traumatized by the death. This practical guide cannot replace the advice given in various Faiths and Practices, and Friends are encouraged to consult that and other literature.

What members of TCFM can coach family members to do:

  1. Call a doctor, if none is in attendance. The doctor will make out a death certificate, which will be necessary for settling the estate later. In certain cases (suicide, unexplained death, violent death), an autopsy is legally required. Family members may wish to request an autopsy, especially when there is some question about a disease children may inherit, or doubt about malpractice or inattention on the part of the primary physician.
  2. Call a funeral home or the Memorial Society, and check the member’s instructions with them. Funeral directors will remove the body. Usually they will ask the survivors to make an appointment within 24 hours to discuss arrangements. The funeral home usually assists with placing an obituary, though family members should think about what they want that obituary to say. (See appendix A for instructions about transporting bodies across state lines.)
  3. Discuss a memorial service. The timing of such a service is entirely up to the family, especially if the deceased is cremated. The memorial service can be as much as a month later. If family members have already gathered from out of town, it may be best to hold the service quickly, to save them additional travel expense. If there are numerous family members and friends in other places, it may be best to wait a few days so that they can make arrangements to come. If the Friend or their family is Jewish as well as Quaker, Jewish custom dictates that the funeral should be within 24 hours. (See appendix B for more Jewish funeral customs.)
  4. Make a list of family members, close friends, business colleagues, and others who should be notified by telephone. If desired, help to make those calls. Arrange for someone to take turns answering the door or phone, keeping careful records of the calls. Begin a list of persons to receive acknowledgements of calls, food, flowers, gifts, etc., so that thank you cards can be sent later on.
  5. Decide on flowers or appropriate memorial to which gifts may be made. Discuss the disposition of flowers after the funeral (as to a hospital, etc.)
  6. Notify insurance companies. Check carefully all life and casualty insurance and death benefits, including Social Security, credit union, trade union, fraternal orders, etc. Check also on income for survivors from these sources.
  7. Check promptly on all debts and installment payments. Some may carry insurance clauses that will cancel them. Assure family members that they can consult with creditors and ask for more time before payments are due, if the death is causing financial hardship.

What members of TCFM can do for the family and for Meeting:

  1. Notify the clerk of Ministry and Counsel that a death has occured. Start a phone tree, if the deceased or the survivor is well-known within meeting. Put an announcement in the announcement sheet for next Sunday’s worship.
  2. Consult TCFM records for any instructions and wishes a member may have left.
  3. If the family seems confused, conflicted, and open to help, send one or more Friends to the home to help them make decisions and to think about what they ought to do next. Since death can be a time when existing family stresses become even worse, be sensitive to when an outsider’s presence can be helpful and when it may interfere with the family’s communication. Do not, however, give up too soon! Coach the family with the tasks described above, and reinforce careful, inclusive decision-making.
  4. Explain Friend’s customs around memorial services to the family, if they are not aware of them. If the family wants a memorial service in the manner of Friends, help them to arrange it.. Discuss how children may be involved, if at all.
  5. Assist with practical tasks, such as answering the door and telephone, and making a record of calls.
  6. Assist with child care, or help the family make appropriate arrangements.
  7. Consider special needs of the household, as for cleaning, shopping, and cooking, which might be done by Friends. Coordinate the supplying of food and/or meals for the next few days. (Food should be simple and nutritious, especially if there are children in the family.)A funeral director observed that disposable casserole dishes and utensils are a disservice to a grieving family. He said, “After the funeral is over and everyone has gone back to their regular routines, the deep grief sets in for the survivors. If they have dishes to return to their friends and neighbors, they must get out of the house. Then the person who brought the food also has the opportunity to say, ‘How are things going? Sit down for a cup of coffeee; let’s talk.'” This funeral director believes strongly in the value of bringing food in dishes which have to be washed and returned.
  8. Provide information on probate procedings, if necessary, and help family members locate a lawyer, if they need one. (See appendix C on probate procedure.)
  9. If the deceased was a member or attender, prepare a minute of the death for the next meeting for business, and be sure the TCFM recorder makes note of the death in TCFM’s records. Appoint someone to write an obituary for Friends Journal.

Procedure for setting up a memorial service at TCFM:

The important thing in setting up a memorial service is to give warm personal support, and to be creative in arrangements and programing. While a traditional Quaker memorial service would consist of unprogrammed worship, we can and should be flexible in order to meet the family’s wishes if they are not Quakers. The religious practices and ideas of the family must always be respected and the service arranged accordingly. Many factors in the life of the family have a bearing on its needs. The age and character of the person who has died, the ideas and aims, and the roles played in life are different with each individual. The friends and the community and their relationship with the one who has died should also be taken into account.

In every case the memorial service should fit the circumstances and personalities involved. There is no one pattern suitable to all. In most cases there are a few opening remarks inviting the atttenders to speak as they are moved. In some carefully programmed services a whole series of friends and family members are scheduled to speak briefly. Again, the personality and the ideas of the person who has died and the beliefs of the family must be balanced to determine what is suitable. This offers a creative challenge to the person or persons arranging the service. The planners might want to include hymns, instrumental music, readings, a eulogy, or a formal prayer.

  1. If possible, help the family to set a date for the memorial service before the obituary goes into the newspaper so that the time and place can be announced in the obituary. (If this is not possible, the time and place can be printed within the next few days.)
  2. Clear the time slot with the Friend in Residence, if the service is to be at TCFM. (In deciding this, remember that our meeting room can only hold 125 people comfortably. If the deceased is very well-known and many people are expected at the memorial service, it may be wiser to arrange with Macalester College to use Weyerhauser Chapel. Contact the chaplain at Macalester to begin making these arrangements.)
  3. One consideration about timing the memorial service is parking, if the service is to be held at 1725 Grand. The school parking lots we rent are really only available on weekends; even on weekday nights the school often has adult education classes which fill the parking lots. If the memorial service is to be held at a time when the school lots are not available, encourage attenders to park on the service drive along Summit Avenue beside the school, on Cambridge, and in the parking lot behind A.J. Johnson and Sons at night — better yet, to come by bus, carpool, and bicycle. (When we got permission to expand our building without building a parking lot, we promised our neighbors that we would provide for off-street parking for large events, so as to minimize the pressure on Grand Avenue, which is often parked full.)
  4. Ask the family to prepare a biography for the service, and any picture of the deceased they would like to reproduce. As with a marriage, a simple order of worship may be desired. In addition to a biography of the deceased, the order of worship should include a brief explanation of Quaker worship, since non-Quakers will likely attend. (This explanation may be borrowed from the order of worship for a wedding.) Include mention of where memorial contributions should go. Assist the family in getting the order of worship duplicated, if necessary.
  5. If the piano is to be used, check to be sure it is in tune and arrange for tuning, if necessary.
  6. Chose a clerk for the memorial service. That person should prepare to give a short oral description of Friends worship at the beginning of the service, as well as to close the worship.
  7. Contact the Fellowship Committee and ask them to plan for a reception afterwards, if desired by the family. If necessary, assist Fellowship in sending out a call for cakes, cookies, and bars for the reception. (Pie is too messy.) Determine whether Fellowship will need assistance in cleaning up after the reception; at least four people will be needed.
  8. Recruit two or three greeters and as many ushers. Ask the ushers to reserve enough chairs for family members, wherever the family members wish to sit. Remind ushers to fill in seats at the far side of the room first, so that there aren’t empty ones. Hymnals should be spread around the room, if they are to be used. Greeters and ushers should reserve seats for themselves near the doors by placing something on the seats.
  9. Arrange for child care. Meeting’s teens are often willing to help out, and can be paid for their time. Ask them to come fifteen or twenty minutes before the service will start, and to be ready to stay fifteen or twenty minutes late, if necessary, to make the child care rooms ready for next Sunday.
  10. If the service is more than a week away and the deceased or their family are well-known in TCFM, be sure that it is announced in the announcement sheet at the next meeting for worship. If the service is sooner, chose a phone coordinator who will start a phone tree. Assign pages of the TCFM directory to phoners (no more than two pages to a person, if possible). Be sure they have correct information on the time and place of the service (and “no flowers”, if requested). Also give them information about the circumstances of the death so that they can answer questions.
  11. If the family is local, they may want a house-sitter during the memorial service. This is a classic time for burglaries to occur.
  12. Assist the family in purchasing a sign-in book for guests, and on the day of the service place it on the hall table along with a pen. Also place a basket and envelopes for donations on the table, with clear directions on how to address any checks. If donations go to TCFM, ask the treasurer to make a list of the names and addresses of contributors to send to the family, so that the family can write thank you cards. Lay out materials for making name-tags on the table as well.
  13. Arrange any flowers or wreaths. Display any photos of the deceased and family on easels. Place boxes of tissues around the meeting room. Post signs on the doors asking guests not to smoke in the meeting house. Make sure there is plenty of toilet paper and paper towels in the bathrooms.
  14. Set up chairs in the library or hall for overflow crowds, being sure that the double doors can still be opened and people can make their way to the bathrooms and outside doors.
  15. After the service, ask Friends to carry any flowers and photo displays downstairs for the reception.

There may be circumstances under which Friends would delay holding a memorial service for a month or more after death. Nothing in Friends’ practice says the memorial service has to follow the death immediately, or that Friends cannot hold a memorial service of our own even when a funeral has already been held in another faith tradition.

A woman in her thirties died after a three-month struggle with leukemia. Her mother arranged a full Roman Catholic funeral mass and internment, even though the deceased had angrily broken with the church years before. At the funeral her friends knew that she would have hated this kind of celebration of her life, and also knew that it was very important to her mother, a devout Catholic. Her friends agreed among themselves that they would hold a different memorial, and about a month later they gathered again to remember the deceased in a more relaxed setting, with symbols and ceremony she would have found more to her liking. Her mother attended this memorial as well, and the opportunity to share and hear stories about her daughter was very helpful to her mourning. The extra month meant that everyone was able to speak more freely about the deceased — including stories about her more difficult moods and roughnesses in relationships she left behind. By the end of the evening, everyone felt much more complete about her death, and more ready to go on with life. The stiff, cold, impersonal corpse they remembered from the funeral mass had once again become the vibrant, warm, and complex personality whom they had all known.

IV. Ministry at time of death

General observations

Every death is unique, and the circumstances surrounding it are unique. Sometimes TCFM barely knew the person who died and we know the survivors very well. Sometimes the person who died is well-known and well-loved, and we barely know their family members. Sometimes the deceased and the family are all well-known to the meeting. Sometimes the meeting barely knows any of the parties involved. The ministry provided will vary, depending on all these factors.

A young Quaker man lay dying for more than a month in a hospice in Minneapolis. He had been an active member of our meeting, and well-respected for his courageous battle with AIDS. He had edited a newsletter for persons with AIDS and had been vocal about AIDS-related issues in Friends for Gay and Lesbian Concerns.

While he was in the hospice, his family began to arrive. They had been estranged from him because of his sexual orientation, and knew very little about his life, his friends, and his religious community. They took turns staying with him in the hospice, however, and during their visits they became acquainted with their son’s and brother’s friends, including Quakers. Family and visitors shared quiet stories and laughs while the young man slipped into and out of consciousness for a month. When he died, a Quaker-style memorial service was held, with family members participating fully and vocally. The healing accomplished in that time for the family was impressive.

* * * * * * *

An attender at the meeting was married to a woman who had become mentally ill. She rarely came to worship, though the husband and their children did. One day the husband came home to find that she had committed suicide. Among the flurry of telephone calls he made, he notified a member of meeting, who spread the word. Several Friends stopped by his house in the next few days, playing with the children and helping the husband to make decisions regarding funeral arrangements. A casserole-brigade was activated to bring the family food. Since the woman was not well-known in the meeting and her other relatives were not Quaker, it was decided to hold a private memorial service in their home. The husband became a regular attender at meeting in the following months, and one of his sons became centrally involved in First Day School. Quaker ministry, while offered tentatively at first because of the disturbing nature of this death, was welcome and appreciated.

* * * * * * *

A dearly-beloved member of TCFM had a stroke one evening as she lay on her sofa reading and slipped into a coma. When one of her daughters discovered her in this condition the next day, she was rushed to the hospital. People in Meeting were shocked, and some also went to the hospital, where they met the Friend’s three grown daughters for the first time. None of the daughters had been raised in Meeting, none knew anything about Quakers, and they were a little surprised that their mother was so highly regarded in Meeting. During the week that the Friend lingered on, never regaining consciousness, Quakers came and went from the hospital, becoming acquainted with the family. When she died, TCFM arranged a memorial service with the daughters. They were quite appreciative, although none of them came to meeting for worship after that event, or continued any contact with the Meeting. The ministry offered to the Friend and her family in the hospital, and the memorial service later, were very important to TCFM itself, though.

In the immediate circumstances surrounding death (illness, vigils in the hospital, nursing at home, memorial service, and family gatherings), the minister’s main function may be to reinforce the patient’s and survivors’ own faith systems, no matter how shallow, rigid, or odd those faith systems may seem to the minister. If the death seems to provoke a crisis of faith for a survivor, the minister can listen, explore, and offer their own reflections about the same matters. Spiritual awakening, reassessment, or growth may happen slowly, if at all, for the survivors, and not every death results in intense spiritual work. (Nothing prevents the minister from growing spiritually from the death, however!)

Families sometimes pull together in the event of a death, and show each other great love and consideration. Families sometimes disintegrate in the event of a death, and even fight viciously. While we might wish to see a bedside death scene as a time of reconciliation and acceptance, sometimes it is not. Generally speaking, this is not the best time to try to change a dysfunctional family. In the hours surrounding death, the minister is best-advised to simply support members of the family in the ways possible. If the family or some members of the family continue relating to the meeting, ministry and appropriate referral can be done later. As tempting as it is to try to work some miracle in the hours of death, to turn this sad occasion into a joyful one, the minister should probably refrain from trying to “fix” a dysfunctional family at this time.

Another difficult dynamic can occur when the ministers are themselves attached to the person who has died, and find themselves wanting attention for their own loss. The most genuine ministry does come from a place of compassion and empathy with the family’s loss, so there is nothing wrong with a particularly close Quaker friend providing ministry to the family in the time around the death. At the same time, that close Quaker friend should be careful to maintain a certain emotional distance — for instance, to avoid getting into struggles with family members about what kind of memorial service the deceased may have wanted.

These warnings may make it sound as if ministry at the time of death is a minefield full of dangerous missteps. In fact, ministry at the time of death comes quite naturally to most of us: empathy, flexibility, an awareness of our own mortality, and a level head are generally all that is needed. Friends at this time reaffirm warmth, support, and their belief in that of God in every person through a thousand little acts of cherishing, and through the memorial service. When in doubt, the most important and comforting thing to say is, “I’m sorry for your loss.” It can be reassuring to remember that, in such a time of stress and crisis, family members may not remember very clearly anything that we say or do.

“Hospital chaplain?” mused a man, when informed of a Friend’s occupation. “Oh, yes — the chaplain must have been the person who brought us coffee when my mother died.” Chances are good that that hospital chaplain did much more than that for the family: helped them to decide on a funeral home, arranged for a viewing of the body, ran interference with the medical staff, led them in prayer , possibly even packed up the deceased’s possessions for them. However, what the man remembered out of that nightmare of grief is that the chaplain brought them coffee.

Special circumstances and resources

There are some deaths which are more challenging than others. One such circumstance is stillbirth and miscarriage. When parents have been joyfully preparing for the arrival of a new child, the shock and disappointment of losing that life before it began can be overwhelming. (These same feelings may be present when an adoptive couple loses the chance for adoption at the last minute.) Furthermore, these parents are usually young enough that they have never before dealt with funeral homes, memorial services, or such procedures of death. In this circumstance, a Friendly minister can help by being well-informed about options and guiding the couple with compassion and even firmness. A memorial service for the baby or fetus, a picture of the baby, a tree planted in the child’s name, an obituary placed in the newspaper can all be very helpful for grieving parents — even in the case of a miscarriage. Often the grief of a stillbirth or miscarriage can last far longer than anyone outside the family realizes. For very good information about grieving for stillbirth and miscarriage, Friends can contact:

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Center
1421 Wayzata Boulevard
Wayzata, MN 55391


The death of a child is somewhat different from a stillbirth or miscarriage The child has some personality traits, rather than being an unknown person. Usually the child creates some happy stories for the parents before the terribly sad ending. For others, too, the child is a reality and a personality, and others can grieve along with the parents. Once again, the guiding principle for a Friend ministering to parents and grandparents who have lost a child is that the grief is just as real as if the person who died was eighty years old. For parents there may be more than the usual amount of guilt, too — especially in the case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

As in the case of a stillbirth or miscarriage, it may be very important for parents and grandparents to have a complete memorial service. Each child, almost from the hour of birth, is a distinct peronality and enriches a home. The death of a child can draw the family and friends together in mutual warmth and tenderness as almost nothing else can. The memorial should help to express and bring into focus this process of drawing together. If a child does die, let it not die in vain. Friends can be aware for many months afterward that the parents lost not only a child but some intangible things as well: hopes for their family and possibly their sense of security, well-being, and predictability. The death of a child often strikes people as a particularly meaningless tragedy.

Suicide also presents an especially difficult problems for survivors. Sometimes the suicide can be openly blaming of the survivors; almost always the survivors experience guilt, even if the deceased did not try to induce the guilt. Suicide also carries a social stigma not common to many kinds of death. Friends can help by not holding the survivors accountable in any way for the deceased’s actions — even in their thoughts. Friends can repeat again and again that the deceased person’s actions are their own actions, and do not in any way reflect upon the survivors.

Hospitals and other social service agencies often run grief groups specific to these three kinds of losses (perinatal, child, and suicide). TCFM cannot provide everything which survivors may need, and such outside help may be very valuable. Meeting’s main concern always will be with the spiritual questions raised by any death, and the spiritual growth which may come out of a death. Emotional support, especially in such cases of specialized grief, can be found elsewhere, as well as in meeting.

Murder is another particularly horrifying kind of death, leaving survivors with mountains of anger and bitterness. Years of great patience and forbearance is required on the part of the whole meeting when a member’s life is disrupted by murder. Fantasies of vengeance, terrifying vulnerability, hatred, and other emotions may play havoc with a survivor’s spiritual life. Legal procedings may prevent the survivors from putting the death behind them for years. Raising a child orphaned by murder is an unimaginably difficult undertaking, and requires consistent, reliable backing from the whole Meeting community. In the terrible event of a murder, Friends can contact for help:

Center for Grief, Loss, and Transition
570 Asbury Street
St. Paul, MN 55104


This organization runs grief groups for survivors of murder and suicide, paired with counseling for all members of the family. Some survivors of murder are eligible for assistance under the Crime Victim’s Reparations Act of the State of Minnesota. This fund may pay for counseling and assistance to the survivors for years to come.

Expression of grief

The universal need to express grief can be met in different ways, depending on the individual and his or her circumstances and culture. Weeping commonly offers a wholesome release and should not be discouraged. Talking freely about the person who has died also offers release and helps the survivors in adjusting themselves to the new reality which they must face. Failure to find wholesome expression for one’s grief can seriously hamper a person’s adjustment and is a frequent cause of physical illness. The companionship of family and friends is important.

Although psychologists have written much about grieving in the last twenty to thirty years, those who work very long with the dying and their survivors often find themselves asking if there is a “right” way to grieve. There are ways of displaying grief which are more and less comfortable to the minister: it is generally easier to be with a person who cries openly and talks about their pain than to be with a person who flies into a rage and rejects all offers of comfort. Yet both of these are manifestations of grief, and who is to say that one is more cleansing and healing than the other? When a person is in mourning, it isn’t very helpful to have outsiders, no matter how well-intentioned, judging and assessing the quality of their grieving process.

Accepting the reality of death

Despite the fact that individual physical death is a normal, inevitable part of life, we all have difficulty in accepting the reality and finality of it. Funeral dirctors and some clergy hold that the viewing of the “restored” corpse is helpful to the survivors in accepting this reality and in preparing them to face the future.

The drawbacks of this method are threefold. First, it can be much harder on the survivors; second, preoccupation with the lifeless shell from which the breath of personality has departed almost inevitably diminises the attention to the on-going aspects of that personality and thus loses much of the opportunity for positive value; third, it is generally much more costly.

On the other hand, people who never see the corpse of a loved one (such as families of pilots who have gone down behind enemy lines) report “seeing” the dead person on the street for months and even years afterwards — often with a heart-stopping jolt of irrational hope or fear. Viewing a corpse strikes many of us as grisly and unnecessary; it does, however, help the survivors to be certain that death has occurred. For similar reasons, Jewish burial custom suggests that mourners watch while the casket is lowered into the grave, and that they perform a mitzvah by shoveling dirt onto the casket — even though this may make survivors wail aloud. There is no doubt when the funeral is over that the person is dead and buried, and survivors are hopefully more able to close that chapter of their lives.

A young woman was attending graduate school in the Twin Cities when her father, who had been in fine health, suddenly collapsed with a heart attack on the East coast. The daughter could scarcely believe what had happened: her father had been strong and happy and newly married when last she saw him several months before. The funeral service passed in a fog of shock and confusion. When she returned to the Twin Cities, bringing his ashes with her, she sat down in her apartment and examined the ashes, handling the fragments of bone and teeth. Finally the reality sank in for her, and she began to find some calmness and sense of inner strength. She sifted through the ashes several more times before burying them. Although some people might have thought this a gruesome observance, she felt comforted and complete with her father’s untimely death.

Another way to accept the reality of death is to discuss it frankly in advance, and to plan intelligently to meet it. A sensitive and meaningful funeral or memorial service also helps survivors to mark a significant ending and a significant beginning in their lives. Whatever the means used, the acceptance of the reality of the death is an important piece of the recovery process, and at the time the funeral arrangements are made, ministers should encourage the survivors to do things which will make the death more real to them, rather than avoiding or looking away from it.

Occasionally a surviving partner or spouse may startle themselves and/or the people around them by refering to the deceased as if he or she were still alive. For instance, when invited out to dinner, the survivor might reply out of habit, “I’ll check with So-and-So to see if we’re free that evening.” Some momentary forgetfulness about the loss can be expected, particularly in couples who have been together for many years. Unless these lapses are accompanied by other signs of disorganization and disorientation, they are not evidence of mental illness or an imperfect adjustment to the death.

Practical assistance

At the time of death, the immediate family is under great strain. Ordinary things like shopping, cooking, child care and minor chores suddenly become “just too much.” This is a time when thoughtful friends can rally in a coordinated way, with food, errands, child care, hospitality for relatives, etc. Done skillfully, in the right context, this is a comforting and heart-warming experience. Ineptly done, it can be an extra burden. Don’t say, “If there is anything I can do, just let me know.” Instead, find something to do. Furthermore, ask yourself whether your offer to help comes from a generous and open place in your heart, or if you have motives that have to do more with your own ego. There’s a natural tendency to feed off the excitement of a crisis, and sometimes we unconsciously hope to impress someone or earn gratitude and respect with our dazzling ministry. Death is a good time to remember the words of Jesus: “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4).

Assistance with practical matters usually falls within the scope of the Meeting or a social group, but someone is needed to spark the action.

Relief of guilt

At the time of death the survivors are commonly torn between their feelings of love and grief, and the shock and revulsion they feel in the presence of the dead body. It is normal in this situation to recall their shortcomings with respect to the deceased and to reproach themselves. No human relationship is perfect. Certainly guilt is a major basis for most of the costly circuses that families stage around the corpses of their loved ones.

One of the functions of memorial service is to gently and quietly remove this sense of guilt through the process of reaffirmation of values, and to generate a profound sense of identification, which witnesses to the continuity of the personality of the one who has died in the lives of family and friends.

Perhaps the strongest force in lifting the sense of guilt is the acceptance which the survivors experience from their friends. Love and solidarity help greatly. The memorial meeting provides an excellent opportunity to express this.


Suppose an old person has died, one whose mental powers had gone and for whom life had become an unhappy burden. The family experiences a mixture of grief and thankfulness, especially if they have been trying to provide the primary care. They may also feel guilty at the sense of release which the death brings.

One function of the Meeting in this case can be to rehabilitate the image of the deceased by focusing upon what the deceased was and did and stood for in the good years of life. If this is done with artistry and understanding, the survivors will carry this strong, happy image with them for the rest of their lives. Rehabilitation probably cannot be completed simply with the memorial service, and Friends can use the anecdotes told at the memorial service later to continue helping the survivors resurrect their memories of a time when the deceased was a vital, engaging human being.

Identification and affirmation of values

Ministers can also help to cultivate a sense of identity with the person who has died among the survivors. Grieving relatives and friends can be helped to see how they have shared this life and that they are now, in their own lives, the custodians of the values the deceased lived by. In a sense, their lives can be a memorial to him or her. Such an understanding can be helpful to a person who is disturbed and embittered by the reality of suffering and death, and feels that life itself seems rather pointless if death is the ultimate outcome.

At the time of death the survivors are prone to think seriously of the meaning of life and to meditate on its values. They are at that time not only open for inspiration but hungry for it. The memorial service and the months after it therefore should be used for the enrichment and affirmation of life. This is perhaps the most enduring comfort that can be given.

Re-establishing relationships

Death, like marriage, changes a broad range of relationships, as between parent and child, brother and sister, and friends. After a death in the family we are not quite the same people we were. We must therefore rediscover ourselves in a new set of relationships. This relates directly to the process of mourning.

When the shock of grief is overwhelming (and in other cases) there is a tendency to want a small memorial service. But it is wise to remember that if the service is open to all who wish to be there, individual condolences (which are not easy) can be replaced by a single meeting, relationships with friends and the community reestablished, and life can be resumed in a more normal way.

A woman with a serious liver condition was flown to a hospital many miles from her hometown for a liver transplant. The operation did not go well, and she and her sisters and children spent close to two months on a roller coaster of life and death in an unfamiliar city, isolated from their usual support systems. Under the circumstances, the hospital staff became their community, and when the patient died it almost seemed more natural to have the funeral there. The hospital staff strongly encouraged the family to take the patient’s body back to their home town, though, for the funeral. The funeral would give the survivors a chance to reestablish relationships with people at home and tell the story, given that no one had witnessed the intense events which had consumed practically all of their energy for the past two months.

V. Interpreting Death to a Child

With children, as with adults, an understanding of death can best begin in the absence of family sorrow. Parents should help their children become familiar with the world of nature, of which we are a part. Through exploring the woods and fields and by keeping pets, children can have first hand contact with birth and death and have reverence for the whole process of life. There are numerous children’s books, such as The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, which can help children prepare for the death of someone close.

Children can learn (as adults do) that we are all part of one another and that when one of us dies it is the responsibility of the rest of us to carry on his or her life and ideals. That is how we can express our love. This concept can be a great source of comfort and inspiration to children and adults alike and infuse their lives with fresh meaning and purpose. Then, too, death can draw the family together in closer affection. The child should be involved in this as fully as possible; it will strengthen the family feeling and contribute to development even though the child doesn’t understand everything that is happening.

Children should remain with the family during the period of grief. Even a tiny baby in arms should be kept with the family if at all possible, for to be taken away from familiar surroundings and people is more traumatic than to be present during the confusion and expression of grief. A relative or close friend or Friend might help with the physical care of the smaller children, if needed. This is the time that small children have questions to ask and even babies have questions to “feel.” A child will benefit from the parents’ sharing of their understandings of life and death — and even the smallest can be reassured with gestures, hugs, and other non-verbal communication. The tiniest child can be a source of strength and comfort to the adults in the family, both in the need for physical care and in reaching out to those in sorrow. Many people find comfort in the thought that, as one life has ended another one is beginning. The presence of babies underlines that point.

Simple honesty is basic. The physical fact of death should be explained. Evasion or deception or simple analogies such as referring to death as sleep nearly always cause more anxiety than does the truth. Whatever the religious or philosophical outlook of the family, it should be shared with the child, who will appreciate being spoken to straightforwardly about important things. Don’t overload the child with details, and don’t make up a story when answering a question like, “Where is she now?” Just say you don’t know, or that you don’t know how to explain. In either case, respect will be maintained.

It should be made clear to the child that the dead person feels no pain. Children commonly have great fear of pain. Help the child to get all the facts about the death, if necessary.

Be honest about your own feelings and experiences. Don’t expect adult reactions from children. Children’s emotional stages change more quickly and feelings may find expression in odd and sometimes negative ways. This should not be discouraged. It is wholesome for children and adults alike to mingle with friends and talk with them about the person who has died.

During a visitation at a funeral home, an elderly man’s body was laid out in an open casket. His many grandchildren wandered freely among the adults, who talked and cried together. Mostly the children seemed to be involved in their own play, but from time to time pairs and groups of three would go back over to the casket to look again at Grandpa, to touch his hand, or to drop some little present in for him. It all seemed quite natural, and a fitting tribute to this devoted family man.

The child may need to re-tell the story of the death many times; try to be patient and listen. If children report feeling sad or angry or missing the deceased, help them to know that such feelings are perfectly normal, and that you have them, too. Be available to talk about the death for a long time afterward. This can be difficult for a parent, because you may be grieving heavily as well, and not have many resources to give. The child may need a solid support person to help them sort out their feelings and understand the sensations that might be new to them. Friends within the Meeting, in-laws and other relatives who are not as directly affected by the death, and child psychologists may all be able to help the child come to terms with the death.

VI. Care of the Mourning

Considerable attention is usually given to the problems of dying and to helping families at the time of death, and less attention is often paid to the long, arduous process of mourning. Our culture pressures the bereaved to “snap out of it” within a month or two, even though some of those who have lost someone important, especially a life partner, know that their grief work has taken much longer. The mourning period in Victorian England was three years for a close relative: for three years survivors wore at least some article of black every day, and wrote their letters on black-edged stationary. This was to remind other people of their loss. Without these external signals, it is easy to forget that a survivor may still be mourning heavily. In Friends circles, it is particularly difficult for the Meeting to keep in mind that a member is grieving when the person who died was never known to us, and the funeral and burial took place somewhere else. Friends often report feeling neglected and ignored in these circumstances. Long after the rest of the world has gone about its business, the survivors may be dealing with legal fall-out of the death, care of an elderly relative, disposal of the deceased possessions, and/or changes in their own role or status in life. Of course, our ambition is to continue to be sensitive and helpful long after the flowers have wilted and the initial rally of support has drifted away. Even when distance, family dynamics, or religious differences restricted TCFM’s participation in the event of the death, there is plenty of room for us to come through for the mourner in the following months.

The loss event is what we respond to best as a community; it can be easily seen and understood. The loss event triggers loss “non-events”, though, which are far less visible. The depth of the loss is related to the depth of the attachment; blood relationship to the deceased is not a reliable indicator of the strength and length of mourning. Losing someone or something that is the object of attachment may create vulnerability, dependency, (or dogged independence,) imbalance, loss of role or identity, and many other reactions. These “non-event” losses may be experienced in several ways:

Anticipatory grief is the kind described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her important book, On Death and Dying. She worked with people who knew they had terminal illnesses, and in those people she could distinguish five distinct phases to grieving: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and resignation. Furthermore, she could observe roughly the same steps of grieving in the people close to the dying patient.

That is only one kind of grief, though. Vicarious grief is another kind — the kind we feel when a person who is close to us is hurting, even though we are removed one step from the loss event ourselves. Usually, when we are affected by vicarious loss, we are reliving the feelings of some trauma of our own. Hopefully, every time this happens we recover a little bit more of our sense of well-being.

Another kind of loss is chronic loss, when life is punctuated with reminders that “I can’t do such-and-such.” Amputees may suffer from chronic loss, for example. There is also ambiguous loss, when the person who is grieving is not sure whether the loss is irreversable. Families of prisoners of war, parents of disappeared children, families of Alzheimer patients, and people with strokes all may experience this ambiguous loss. Their loss is not clear-cut; the mourners do not know what they have really lost. Divorce and separation can be an ambiguous loss, because typically a relationship deteriorates bit by bit over time, and even the parties are not positive whether the loss is permanent.

Grief is usually divided into three phases: shock, suffering, and recovery. These phases overlap in time but provide us with a useful framework for our thinking.

The shock phase usually lasts for a week or two, and possibly as long as six weeks, after the loss event — in this case, death. People report feelings of numbness, unreality, being cut off from others as if they were surrounded by a glass wall, “being in a fog.” This may be nature’s or God’s way of protecting us against pain too severe to handle all at once.

At this time friends can be very helpful in sharing the responsibility for important decisions, steadying the bereaved so that they will not act hastily or unwisely, and reducing the confusion of visits, calls, and offers of help. (It is generally advised that a person in mourning avoid making major decisions, such as selling a house, for at least a year after the loss. This is not always practical, of course, yet mourners should be aware of the possible impairment of good judgement for some time following a major loss.)

During the suffering stage the grieving person experiences the “non-event” losses with agonizing regularity and sharpness. This is often compared to being on an emotional roller coaster, with months of ups and downs. The bereaved may feel almost as though things were as they used to be, only to be plunged into depression an hour later. Certain physical symptoms are very common: weariness and restlessness; either a feeling of a heavy weight in the chest or abdomen or of emptiness; constipation or diarrhea; insomnia; decrease in appetite; lowered resistance to disease. Especially when the bereaved has nursed the deceased through a final illness, these physical symptoms can be very disturbing. A physical check-up may help to set the mourner’s mind to rest.

It would be ideal if each mourner had at least one friend who was willing to listen and be available through the loneliness of this period. The mourner needs to tell the story of the death and memories of the deceased over and over. She or he needs understanding and acceptance, no matter what kinds of feelings are expressed. Most people are uneasy with listening to these feelings because of the pain that is stirred up in them, and they hasten to comfort. However well-intentioned, this is often perceived by the mourner as a way of saying, “You shouldn’t feel the way you feel,” or “Don’t tell me about this,” which only increases guilt and distress.

One way in which the survivors can tell the story without wearing out their listeners is to write it out. Friends of the person who has died are hoping for news of the family and the circumstances of the death. The healing value of such sharing to the nearest of kin and to the recipients of the news is hard to overestimate. The following is abbreviated from a letter actually sent:

My dear family and friends:

I am writing to share with you the very great change that has taken place in our lives.

While we understood that the lymphoma reduced ______’s resistance to infections, we did not expect that an infection would act as quickly as that which took his life on Sunday afternoon, the ______ of ______.

The love and care of a great many people have sustained us. That Sunday evening some of _____’s brothers and sisters and in-laws were able to come over. Later several from the Friends Meeting came to help make plans for the memorial service. A friend took me to the airport to meet my sister and to pick up the boys from college. Friends from the League of Women Voters, relatives and neighbors brought in food. I had not realized how helpful this could be. (Our experience was that it was long on desserts and short on salads — which you might keep in mind when it is your turn to help.) The cookies were great for snacks.

The memorial meeting for worship was on Thursday afternoon. That day I felt a great sense of release for _____ — and even of joy for his new life and the reunion with others he loved who had gone before. I felt able to offer comfort to those who joined with us in the service and did get to speak to a great many. During about forty-five minutes of silent worship three Friends felt moved to speak. I felt that everyone was participating in a truly worshipful silence.

_____ would have enjoyed the crowd of about 250 relatives, Friends from several Meetings, neighbors from the past as well as the present, ACLU members and others. Our Meeting provided coffee and cookies for those who were able to stay a while.

In lieu of flowers we suggested contributions to the AFSC.

_____ and I had expected to leave this house and yard in favor of something smaller — and this makes the move more imminent for me. I hope something will work out in the next six months.

With love and best wishes,

Guilt and remorse are almost univeral to grief. So too is anger, which may be directed at anyone — the doctor, the Meeting, other family members, the deceased, (who went away and left the mourner to cope with life alone), and God, for allowing such suffering. There is often a panicky fear and feeling of helplessness.

The depression and self-centeredness that are necessary parts of the work of this phase may make the mourner irritable and hard to get along with, so that friends feel alienated just when they are most needed. Grieving may cause difficulties and absenteeism on the job, too. It may take so much effort to be pleasant company that the mourner would rather be alone. Each person is different, and some do work through their grief better by themselves, but most seem to need someone to be with them in their suffering. Most of the work will still be done alone, but regular contact with a friend who makes no demands for sociability, and who gives support in the difficult job of feeling the feelings can prevent serious problems later. There is a temptation to escape grief by denying the feelings, which may lead to physical or emotional health problems and a lessened ability to cope with future crisis.

“My mother is being such a pain!” exclaimed a Friend in exasperation, seven months after her father died. “Nobody can say or do anything right! She just picks, picks, picks, picks, picks at me and my poor brother, who lives with her. She’s mad all the time at everything and everyone. I don’t even want her to come and visit next month; she’s so unpleasant to be around! But my brother needs a break. I know this must all be part of the grieving process, but when will it ever end?! Will she always be like this?” The only comfort friends could offer to this daughter (who, of course, was still grieving herself, and often acted as angry as her mother did!) was that the worst part of the grief hits in the five to nine months after the death.

* * * * * * *

A hospital chaplain was facilitating a grief group for three young couples who had all had stillborn children or late-term miscarriages at roughly the same time. As the months went on, the parents seemed caught in endless, bitter repetitions of the sad stories of their losses, combined with angry comments on all the insensitive people who couldn’t understand why they still felt so badly. The chaplain was wondering whether this rehearsal of grief and grievances was really doing anyone any good when suddenly things changed. One of the couples, although very frightened about losing a second baby, announced that they were pregnant. Another of the women decided that she would renew her credentials as a social worker in order to work with parents who had lost young children. The third couple brought cake and cookies to the support group meeting, thanked everyone very sincerely, and said that they no longer needed to attend. With very little warning the support group broke up, amidst assurances that everyone would still keep in touch and much gratitude all around.

The recovery phase starts with the first decisions that must be made after the death, and continues until the mourner has built a new life. Little by little what has been lost must be replaced with new activities, friends, interests. Life will never again be as it was, the loss will never be forgotten, but a full and happy life can be reconstructed. C.S. Lewis likened his bereavement to losing a leg, saying he would always be an amputee, and he could learn to walk again.

Friends can help with this process by foregoing the temptation to give advice and solutions. Some direct advice, when requested, is appropriate. Too much takes the business of living out of the hands of the mourner and weakens an ability to go on. In the suffering stage, one should use any means possible to show understanding and feeling. In the recovery stage, it is often valuable to use questions to draw out answers to problems. The questions may be like, “What have you thought of that might help you?” Never argue with the answers. If they seem unwise, simply ask, “Have you thought of anything else?” Gradually this person will form a plan of action that can be encouraged.

It seems that there are four tasks to healing, two of which have clearly spiritual dimensions. The first is accepting the reality of the loss; the second is adjusting to the changes it means. The third task is reaquainting oneself with hope. The longer the dying process has been, the more the survivors have had to handle the double-edged sword of hope. Often families and patients readjust their hopes over and over during treatment for an illness or injury, and sometimes they can become quite wary of ever hoping again for anything at all, for fear that they will be disappointed. Yet life without hope is a bleak prospect. Friends who minister to and support the bereaved can be alert to the cruel aftermath of dashed hopes, and help the bereaved to begin to rediscover hope in new sources — particularly, in God, in justice, in love, in an afterlife, and/or in truth.

The fourth task of healing is reuniting with our deeply-held values and passions, the things which make continued living worthwhile. Although the world will never quite be the same without the deceased, the loss will take less and less emotional energy from the survivors. Ministry here can take the form of helping the bereaved to identify the things they find most meaningful, the things which the deceased found most meaningful, and ways to live out those values and passions, even in a radically-changed environment.

Sometimes there are worldly matters which make it difficult for a survivor to put a death beind. If the deceased was unprepared for death, the legal complications can go on for years. Friends who have administered estates before may be able to offer some advice and assistance, but nothing can replace the help of a competent attorney and tax accountant. Similarly, the death of one parent may mean that their children are faced with problems regarding the health and care of the other parent. Here again Friends may be able to share their own experiences, and social services will probably be the best source of information and help.

This is only a brief and generalized outline, and each person is different. In cases where the death had been expected, much of the grief work may have been done in anticipation (as described by Kubler-Ross). In the case of younger people with full lives, the recovery process may be shortened by resuming the activities they had before. Parents of young children sometimes don’t have the luxury of long periods of mourning.

One further caution: many mourners are hurt by the reluctance of their friends to talk about the dead. The intention may be to spare them unnecessary pain, but the result is a stiffness in the relationship that increases the loneliness of the mourner. It comes across as if the lost one were not only dead, but already forgotten. When the mourner can freely talk of both pleasant and unpleasant memories of the dead, the overcoming of grief is well on the way.

Indicators of complicated grief reactions

  • Occasionally a person has such a difficult time with a death that Friends are unable to provide all the help that is needed. Here are some symptoms which might suggest that professional help could be useful for the bereaved. All of these symptoms are normal to some extent and for some period of time; when they persist for more than a year and/or to an exaggerated degree, Friends may be wise to suggest additional resources to help with the grieving process.
  • The bereaved cannot talk about the loss without intense grief (sadness, rage).
  • Minor events (such as misplacing one’s keys) trigger an intense grief reaction.
  • Frequent reference to themes of loss in casual conversation.
  • Unwillingness to make changes in the daily routine and environment which might be necessitated by the loss.
  • Psychosomatic symptoms.
  • Assuming the physical symptoms, personality traits, and/or behavioral patterns of the deceased.
  • Radical changes in life style which reflect impulsive or poor judgement, or withdrawal from others.
  • Self-destructive impulses.
  • Unaccountable sadness and difficulty functioning at certain times of the day.
  • New or exacerbated phobic reactions (such as to heights, crowds, or closed spaces).
  • Avoidance of talking about the loss or participating in rituals around the death.
  • Denial of the reality or impact of the loss.
  • Rumination regarding self-worthlessness.

In addition, here are some indicators of complicated grief reactions in children: Once again, normally grieving children may show some of these symptoms for a time; abnormal grief is generally a matter of intensity and duration.

  • Major drop in grades below the previous norm.
  • Prolonged depression.
  • Withdrawal from the activities of a normally-active child.
  • Chronic somatic complaints with no biological cause.
  • Death fantasies, wanted to die to join the deceased.
  • Complete denial of the traumatic event.
  • Repeated angry outbursts in a child who was not generally angry prior to the loss.
  • Low self-concept and self-esteem.
  • Persistent anxieties.
  • Persistent blame or guilt.
  • Patterns of overactivity with aggression and destruction.
  • Compulsive care-giving and self-reliance; not allowing anyone to help them.
  • Complete unwillingness to talk about the death or the deceased.

VII. Death of a Beloved Person

In facing the death of a beloved person, Friends are brought to the most drastic questioning and affirmation of our religious faith. Although life instinctively avoids death, death is not the opposite of life. It is necessary to the ongoing, changing nature of life; it is of the essence of the process.

Our attitude, then, must be one of acceptance and a realization that life is in time and that with death the aspect of eternity, not as a continuation of time but as another dimension of being, is brought before us — that dimension where quality and meaning lie. Death, with its finality, makes this very clear. This is not to say that when we lose someone beloved we should not grieve. We do; and we should be allowed to grieve. We and those who undertake to comfort should not pretend. We have lost the living presence of one we knew and loved. There will be loneliness and longing known only to those who have been through it. There may perhaps be guilt and self-reproach, which have to be lived through until their sting has gone. With reverence and simplicity we return the body or its ashes to the earth. The eternal aspect of the life is God’s, not even dependent on human memory for being.

With the death of a beloved person, part of us goes, too. From this time on we realize how much of us is on the other side of that boundary. “They live in one another still,” wrote William Penn. Throughout our lives, the realization of how much of the beloved still lives with us will cause renewal of the pain or loss. Yet the consolation of the realization is great. It brings understanding of the meaning of the Eternal. We and those we have lost participate in something other than the dimension of time. “They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies.”

Despair seems ever to lie in wait. But the positivist attitude is not the last word. We have some awareness of all that we don’t know and never can; we are not the measure of all things. And the courage to face despair, if needs we must, and to endure brings us finally to the recognition of the transtemporal. It may or may not be to belief in the immortality of the individual soul. It may be to a sense of the meaning of the more widespread view of death as initiation, as a kind of resurrection of the sprit, now part of the eternal fabric. We have lost, but the life of the beloved is not lost.

We are brought to the discovery of the Eternal always with us, the Spirit in which we live and those who have died have lived, from which comes the creative power that shapes the world, in which we participate in time and beyond it. This is the triumphant affirmation of early Friends which, with a different background, we now reaffirm. If, to the best of our ability, we live in this Life and Power, death will not be seen as Nothingness; we can face it with some hope of ultimate serenity, and trust our beloved dead to that tremendous mystery.

Appendix A: Transporting the Deceased across State Lines

When a person dies in one state and the funeral or memorial service will be in another, Friends may need assistance in arranging the transportation. This appendix is written for the members of Meeting who are trying to offer such assistance.

Generally speaking, a corpse cannot be taken across state lines without some kind of treatment of the body. The simplest and most inexpensive route is to have the body cremated where the death occured. If the deceased was a member of a memorial society, the survivors can call that society and get a referral to a funeral director in the state where the body is. If the deceased was not a member of a memorial society, the survivors can call 1-800-CREMATE for a low-cost referral. Many funeral homes offer cremation as an alternative, and if the survivors are not worried about the cost, it is easiest to call a funeral home out of the telephone directory. The ashes will be given to the family in a container which they pick out, and the family can take them home.

If the family wishes to have a public viewing before cremation or burial, the body must be embalmed in the state where the death occured, then transported to a receiving funeral home in the state where the funeral will be held. The family does not have to find a funeral home in an unfamiliar place, however: they can call a funeral home at their destination (the receiving home) and that funeral director will contact someone in the state where the body is to pick up the body and embalm it for shipping.

The family may be concerned about cost, since they will be dealing with two funeral homes and two bills. When they call the receiving home, they can ask that the mortuary use Inman Nationwide Shipping, which can make these arrangements cheaply. Inman Nationwide Shipping will not talk to the consumer directly; they will only talk to morticians. Inman’s number is 1-800-321-0566, in case the receiving mortuary does not have it. In 1997, Inman’s charge for picking up a body, getting permits and the death certificate, embalming, and delivery to the airport was $575. There may be an additional mileage charge if the Inman agent must travel any great distance. By comparison, the price for this service is likely to be anywhere from $750 to $2,000 or more when approaching a local funeral home directly.

The funeral home may or may not release the embalmed body to the family to be driven home in a private vehicle; the legality of this varies from state to state. If the family cannot take the body themselves, the body may be flown home or driven home in a hearse. The funeral parlor will charge round-trip mileage for their hearse. The airlines will require that the family purchase a special shipping container, which can either go around the body itself, or can go around a casket. The funeral parlor may have some used shipping containers on hand, and if cost is a concern, the family may ask for a used container. Most airlines offer a “bereaved rate” for immediate families flying somewhere for a funeral, and the family may be able to take advantage of that discount.

It is very rare for a health insurance policy to pay for the shipping of remains, although in isolated instances the family may get some assistance in returning home themselves. A life insurance policy, of course, can be used to cover these expenses, though the check is usually not available for a few days. (The company must see the death certificate first, and the death certificate is provided by the funeral parlor — Catch 22.)

Two terms may be useful in talking with funeral homes. They are “Forwarding Remains” and “Receiving Remains.” Both of these are package deals which funeral homes are required to offer by the Federal Trade Commission. The price for picking up a body from a hospital or nursing home, embalming it, putting it in a shipping container, and delivering it to an airport is all in the package of “Forwarding Remains”. The price for meeting the airplane on the other end, filing the death certificate and permits, and transporting the body to the cemetery is all included in the “Receiving Remains” package. Generally, these packages are much cheaper than the individual charges for these services.

Many Friends have an aversion to funeral homes and morticians, for good reasons. However, when a family is in a state of confusion and grief, and in an unfamiliar location as well, funeral directors can be of real assistance. They are, for all of their faults, used to being with people in states of shock and grief, and can actually offer comfort, guidance, and solid information.

Appendix B: Jewish Funeral Customs

TCFM has a few members who are Jewish as well as Quaker, and this appendix is written to familiarize Christian Quakers with Jewish funeral customs. Obviously, if a Jewish Friend dies and his or her family wants to bury the Friend in the Jewish manner, they will make the arrangements. This appendix exists merely so that Friends have some knowledge of the customs and can work with the Jewish family (if desired and appropriate) in order to dovetail our two traditions.

Working with the family to dovetail our two traditions may be easier to say than to do. Even Reform Jewish rabbis may be reluctant to adapt the Jewish funeral service to include other features, and the Jewish funeral home in the Twin Cities (Hodroff and Sons) is more oriented towards the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish practices. However, accommodations can be made, if the family and the Meeting both wish to do it enough. Friends need to be especially sensitive in these circumstances, for Jews may feel insulted if a Jew is buried with non-Jewish rites. While some members of the family may welcome Quaker involvement, others may disapprove. One role which Christians may take without much controversy is pallbearing. This, of course, does not particularly fit with Quaker tradition!

Jewish custom calls for burial within 24 hours of death; Reform Jews may lengthen that to 48 hours if there are good reasons to do so. Cremation is completely forbidden by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, although liberal Jews may consider it. The family will often sit with the corpse in their home or in the funeral parlor, but there is no visitation by friends before the funeral. A plain pine box is traditional for Jewish burials, and the casket is always closed at the service. Flowers are discouraged; memorials should be directed to the temple, the Meeting, or to a benevolent interest of the deceased. Funerals are usually held during the daytime.

There is usually a eulogy at a Jewish funeral, and a brief time for silent prayer. Otherwise, the service is structured by tradition. When the rabbi knows that many non-Jews are likely to attend the funeral, she or he will likely make an effort to explain what is happening and include people even when the service is conducted in Hebrew. A liberal rabbi will probably be open to having more silent worship in the funeral service if the family so desires, though the rabbi may be nervous about Christian hymns and Biblical passages being sung or read in temple. Since Friends’ worship is Spirit-led, we cannot really promise that such a message could not emerge from silent worship. These concerns and theological differences would have to be clearly and sensitively addressed in the planning.

After the funeral service in temple, the entire party is invited to go to the cemetery for a graveside service. Traditionally, this is the most important part of the celebration, and the rabbi is the only person who speaks during this part of the ceremony. Non-Jewish elements may be included in a graveside service, though the cemetery is Jewish ground just like the temple, and the same concerns about Christian symbols and songs apply. Also, the cemetery custodians may need to be included in this phase of planning, as well as the rabbi and the funeral director.

As at Christian funerals, there is often a meal following the funeral, to which all are invited.

For seven days following the funeral, the family may sit shivah in their homes each evening. Shivah is what we might call a prayer service, combined with food and stories about the deceased. It can be a very healing and tender time, and Reform Jews are generally open to Christians attending shivah; times and locations for shivah are announced at the funeral service.

Suicide is still strongly disapproved in the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish traditions, and a person who died by their own hand may be buried away from the family plot in a corner of the cemetery. Reform Jews take a more understanding and lenient view of suicide.

Appendix C: Probate Proceedings

This is a brief sketch of what is involved in settling an estate. In the great majority of cases, the assistance of a lawyer and a tax accountant is recommended. One caution, though: the personal representative of the estate must follow the proceedings closely, and constantly remind the lawyer and the accountant of relevant deadlines and follow-through. Especially with a small estate whose settlement drags on for a time, the attorney will probably lose interest and focus, and it is up to the personal representative to make sure that progress continues. (In Minnesota the executor or executrix of an estate is called the “personal representative.”)

First steps

  • Find and review the will, if there is one.
  • Locate and gather the deceased’s personal and business records; if necessary, seek help from the person’s family members, employer, attorney, accountant, broker, and business partners.
  • Determine whether a family allowance, to be paid from the estate’s assets, is necessary for the surviving partner and/or children.
  • Take measures to protect assets such as automobiles, jewelry and real estate, and make sure sufficient property insurance remains in place.
  • Save the stock listings in the newspaper for the day of the death. Any stock and mutual funds owned by the deceased will be valued at the price it commanded that day.

Initial legal filings

Check with attorney and/or probate registrars to determine whether administration of the estate is necessary and, if so, whether an informal, unsupervised process or a formal, court-supervised process is required.

File an application with probate court for formal or informal probate and appointment of executor. The filing fee is $150, and application to be appointed personal representative must be made in person at the county probate office. If the deceased owned property in more than one state, the personal representative will have to file for appointment in each state.

Obtain several notarized copies of the “letters testamentary” appointing the personal representative (when the letters are issued by the probate court). These will have to be sent to banks, insurance companies, and other places. Photocopies of the notarized letters will be good enough for some uses.

Arrange for newspaper publication of notice of probate commencement and notice to creditors; mail a notice or news clipping to parties named in the will.

Gather assets

  • Have the post office forward the deceased’s mail to the personal representative or next of kin.
  • Examine financial records to find all bank accounts, stock and bond holdings, insurance policies (including credit life insurance on any credit cards, loans, or savings accounts), outstanding loans or other debts owed to the deceased and any rights to stock options or deferred compensation. Notify all financial companies to convert these accounts to the name of the estate.
  • Inventory and close out any safe deposit boxes. (The bank will require the letters testamentary document in order to gain access to the safe deposit boxes.)
  • Arrange for an appraisal of real estate, antiques, jewelry, and other non-cash assets of the estate.
  • If the deceased was an owner or partner in a business, decide how best to handle his or her interest.
  • Determine whether death benefits from Social Security, veteran’s rights, pensions or profit-sharing plans are due.
  • Prepare an inventory of all probate assets and their value at the date of death; file it with the probate court and mail copies to the partner and other beneficiaries under the will, and to creditors or interested parties who request it.
  • Gather information on non-probate assets as well (such as life insurance policies payable to individuals), to determine whether the gross estate totals close to $950,00. If so, a federal estate tax return is likely to be required.
  • Open an estate bank account to collect probate assets and pay estate bills.

Pay debts and taxes

Estimate the amounts necessary for administration expenses — filing fees, attorney and accountant fees, publication and mailing costs, fees for the personal representative’s service (if any — and seriously consider charging for your time!)

  • Apply for a federal identification number (SSN) on behalf of the estate.
  • If there are expenses from the last illness, determine whether they are covered by Medicare, health insurance, or hospitalization policies and make sure those plans pay up.
  • Investigate creditors’ claims or bills and, if the estate is clearly solvent, pay those not rejected. Creditors have four months from the date of publication of the creditor’s notice to submit claims, and the estate can’t be closed before then.
  • Prepare and file the deceased’s final personal income tax returns.
  • Determine whether assets will need to be sold during probate administration to meet debts, taxes, and expenses.
  • Prepare and file estate tax returns if required, plus yearly fiduciary income taxes for the estate (forms 990). Prepare and file employment-related tax returns, if the estate pays the personal representative for their time.

Closing the estate

  • Prepare a final account, showing collections and disbursements.
  • If it’s an informal probate, prepare a closing affidavit; if it’s a formal, court-supervised probate, file a closing petition and there will be a court hearing and resulting order.
  • File the final account with the court and send a copy to all beneficiaries.
  • After ensuring that debts and taxes are properly paid, make distributions to beneficiaries according to the will or state law. (Personal representatives can be held liable for losses if they distribute property incorrectly.)
  • Obtain signed releases from all the interested parties.
  • Prepare and file the final fiduciary income tax returns, and cancel the federal identification number for the estate. Close all bank accounts.

Appendix D: Physician-Assisted Suicide

The Society of Friends has no formal stand or testimony on the morality of physician-assisted suicide. It appears to be the emerging consensus among older members of TCFM, however, that society must allow for the practice of physician-assisted suicide. Personally, many of those older Friends have expressed a wish to be helped to die if they are suffering with pain which cannot be controlled or an irreversable disease which will only lead to greater debilitation, loss of dignity, and dependency.

In this as with other medical issues, we must continue with prayerful and thoughtful discussions. Some of the queries we must consider include: Where does our tradition give us clues about God’s will in this matter? Where might our tradition contradict itself? How are we to discern God’s intention in a world where medical advances make it possible to almost crowd God out of the picture? How should we act if a person seems inconsistent in their desire to die? How should we respond if the plea to end life comes at a time of great (though probably transient) pain? Must these cases be decided on an individual basis, depending on the circumstances, or are there some general considerations which we can lay out in advance of the crisis?

Written by Betsy Raasch-Gilman
Twin Cities Friends Meeting


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