I’ve always thought one did not issue invitations to a funeral, but rather that anyone wishing to pay his or her respects was welcome to attend. However, I recently received an electronic invitation to a funeral (called a “celebration of life” — a chapel service, burial, reception), with a request to RSVP. Is this now the accepted procedure? I guess the family wants to know how many people to provide food for, but at every funeral I’ve been to, you just show up, and if the food runs out, well, that’s not really what you went there for, is it?
M.S. / Londonderry, New Hampshire
Let’s put a pin in that invite and talk about something called “attributional style” for a minute. Humans want to know why things happen; curiosity drives our species. But if we stopped to suss out the backstory and ramifications of every phenomenon we encounter, we’d never get anything done. (Spend some time with a kid in the “Why?” phase and see how productive you are.) Education and experience provide a lot of our “because”-s, but every now and then some new “Why?” enters every life. This is where attributional style comes in. People tend to default to certain ways of explaining things. It’s a big part of what our personality is. And some attributional styles are more helpful than others.
Now back to the invitation: Confronted with a novel stimulus, you went for an explanation that cast everyone else involved as schnorrers. Why? You know these people, I don’t, but maybe interrogate that inner voice a little bit. For that matter, do a little compassion meditation on a hypothetical attendee who does actually care about food at the reception. Say, someone who got up early and drove an hour and sat and stood through a few more emotionally draining hours of ceremony, possibly in heels. If I were planning a funeral, I’d want to make sure that person got some food in her before she hit the highway. Wouldn’t you?
Death services can be public, private, or some mix of the two (i.e., invitations sent, but non-invitees also welcome). If you knew where and when to “just show up” for funerals in the past, you were invited, whether it felt that way or not, and the people who were planning the services had a rough idea of the head count without needing RSVPs. It’s not unreasonable or inhospitable to need that information for practical matters. Fire codes and parking availability and the protocols to protect the vulnerable from COVID don’t go on holiday. Funeral invitations are and have always been about what’s suitable to the particulars of the deceased’s life and the service itself, and to the emotional and practical resources of the bereaved.
As an experiment, try assuming everyone is doing their best with what they’ve got for a week. I bet it will feel good.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.