Short answer: Absolutely Not. There are many other ways to support the family.
To elaborate, it is understandable that not everyone can or wants to attend the funeral. In this article, we will discuss reasons for nonattendance and alternative things you can offer in lieu of attending.
Reasons to Not Attend a Funeral
Complex Relationship - If your presence will upset the family of the deceased, it is okay to not show up. If you feel uncomfortable or think that others might be upset by your presence, it is perfectly acceptable to not show up. If you really want to attend but don't feel comfortable, you can say goodbye on your own terms instead of attending the service. You can also have your own private memorial. Read “32 Ways to Memorialize Your Loved One” to help overcome grief. Remember you can also talk to a counselor for help dealing with the grief since you weren’t able to express it at the funeral.
You Are Not Close to the Deceased - You might not have been close to the deceased and feel uncomfortable attending.
Event is Not Open to the Public - Not all funerals are open to everyone. Make sure you pay attention to what the death notice says. If it’s not open to the public, usually it will state what you can do instead of attending, like make donations payable to a certain charity the deceased supported.
You Can’t Take Off Work or Get Bereavement Leave - Death sometimes comes with no warning. If you have a really important work event or can’t get bereavement leave, it is understandable.
Personal/Professional Obligations - If you have important obligations that occur during the same time as the funeral, it's understandable to not attend.
Health/Mental Health Condition - It is okay to miss the funeral if you are ill or taking care of someone who is sick and can’t find a caretaker to cover for you. It’s also okay to not attend if you have a mental health condition like agoraphobia, panic disorder, necrophobia, or feretrophobia and are not ready to attend a triggering event.
Distance/Money - Sometimes living too far away and not being able to afford the extra expense for the bereavement flight, gas, time, hotel, or food is an acceptable reason to miss the memorial service.
Too Emotional - Some people feel like they can’t handle being at the funeral of a close loved one. First, understand that there is no such thing as TOO emotional. Honestly, you may be “under-reacting,” as the death of a loved one can be very traumatic. Start by identifying your emotions. What are you really feeling? Do you not want to accept the fact that he/she is gone? Are you afraid to face death? Are you afraid you will break down and cry at the funeral? Remember, it is not shameful to cry or break down at funerals. This is the whole reason for funerals - to help people grieve, cry, share stories, talk/listen, and come together with other people who care. Funerals can help people along the grieving process. Think about how you’d feel a year from now. Ask yourself first if you’d regret not going to the funeral. A year from now, will you feel like you made the right choice? Then make your decision from that viewpoint.
Funerals do bring a lot of emotion to light. Relationships, life, and situations are very complex and the right choice isn’t always clear. Just remember that there is no wrong choice. As stated in the previous bullet point, no matter your reasons, you can always think about how you’d feel a year from now. Would you regret not attending?
While you shouldn’t feel guilty if you don’t attend, you should still offer your support to the family in another way like the methods below.
How to Offer Support If You Can’t Make the Funeral
Visit the Grave on Your Own - If you didn’t attend due to complex relationships, it’s okay to visit the grave on your own time to give yourself space to cry and say your goodbyes. If you’re having a particularly hard time dealing with your grief, you can seek counseling. Many people benefit by verbally talking through their emotions with others. You can also talk about it with a loved one. For more information on how to deal with grief, visit this article.
Call/Visit the Family - This is a simple, meaningful way to show support to the family of the deceased. By calling/visiting the family, you can offer your condolences and give both of you time to express feelings of grief that you will miss by not being able to attend the funeral. This is the appropriate time to tell them that you can’t attend the funeral. Keep your explanation short and sweet.
This is also a great alternative if you live too far away and can’t travel. If you were close to the family and the deceased, it is fine to make more than one call to discuss feelings if you feel the need to and IF the receiver wants to talk about feelings. If you are not sure if your call is wanted (as some people just want to be left alone when dealing with grief), just ask, and don’t get defensive if your call isn’t wanted. It’s not personal.
Send Flowers - In many cultures flowers have different meanings. To learn which flowers are appropriate to send to a funeral, visit this flower symbolism article here. You can also ask your local flower shop for arrangements for funerals. The only time flowers are not appropriate to send is if the funeral notice specifically asks for no flowers. Usually, they will say you can donate to the charity the deceased supported in lieu of flowers.
Mail a Sympathy Card - You can offer your condolences via a sympathy card. Your card is enough on its own, but you may want to include something extra like flowers. Other items you could send include: family/friend photographs with the deceased, a gift card for takeout/food delivery, money to help with funeral costs, or a donation to a cause that meant something to the deceased. To find out how to write a well-written sympathy card, read this article.
Donate to the Charity as Directed on the Death Notice (if applicable) - Sometimes, on the death notice or obituary in the newspaper, there will be a charity mentioned that people can donate to in lieu of flowers or gifts. You can donate to the charity and then write the family a sympathy letter explaining that you were sorry you couldn’t attend the funeral but were happy to donate in the honor of the deceased.
Bring the Family Food - After the loss of a loved one, cooking is usually the last thing on someone’s mind. Bringing a family a meal is especially helpful for people who have young children or a big family. It’s best to let the family know what's in it when you drop it off, especially if the food contains any common allergens. It's important to note that meals tend to be wanted rather than sweets. A family can live without sweets, but not a meal. If you don’t cook, you can also purchase food from a favorite restaurant and drop it off. Whatever you bring, ensure it is in disposable containers or a dish you don’t want back.
Help with Housework - Grief can be a depression pit, zapping the strength to do regular household chores. Besides depression, planning a funeral and getting the deceased’s financial accounts, assets, and home in order is a huge burden. An offer to help them with their housework is very helpful. Just make sure to not offer anything you aren’t willing to actually do. You don’t want to let someone down who is already struggling. When in doubt, ask the family what they need from you. Some chores you can offer to do include, but are not limited to:
Grocery shopping for the family
Cleaning the home
Picking up kids from school or dropping them off at events
Mail a Care Package - This is a great option if you are far away from the grieving family. Consider what you’d want if you ever lost someone close to you. What about a warm blanket with a meaningful saying and their photo printed on it, a favorite snack/drink, or other memorial gifts? These small tokens of kindness can offer so much comfort to those you love.
Follow Up After the Funeral - If you didn’t hear about the funeral until after it already took place, it is okay to follow up with the family afterward. The family doesn’t stop grieving just because the funeral ended. Grieving can continue for months, even years. Being there for someone when others have moved on shows them that they are in your thoughts. You can stop by, call every other week to check in, offer help when you can, or just be there for those you love.
When it comes down to it, don’t overthink formalities. Any effort you put in is sure to be appreciated by the deceased’s family. After all, it is the thought that counts!