Diffusing Family Conflict When Planning a Funeral
October 6, 2023
How did that happen?
A beloved family member passes away, and it’s time to plan a funeral. It’s a cataclysmic personal tragedy for surviving family members, presumably binding them together as they share in the grief of their mutual loss. Instead, it has the opposite effect; the planning process morphs into a series of tidal waves of irritations, disagreements, and arguments. Rather than coming together, the family veers toward a total freak-out and break-up.
This woeful story is fictional. But all too frequently, it’s a scene from real-life experiences. Family after family falls victim to the hazards of funeral planning that loom in the fragile aftermath of a death, a vulnerable time when emotions running red hot can often lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and shredded relationships.
Norms vary from family to family. For many, tension is a predictable dynamic where conflict festers barely below the surface, erupting at the slightest provocation. Funeral planning is easily a tipping point. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those harmonious families that rarely, if ever, are at odds with each other. But during funeral planning, even those highly functioning families are susceptible to conflict, which often comes bursting out when death squeezes emotions in its crushing grip.
Families must first understand the underlying causes to avoid arguing over funeral plans. Here are a few of the most compelling triggers for conflict:
Differing Funeral Preferences: Family members may have rigid ideas and preferences about the type of service to plan for the deceased.
Financial Concerns: Diverging opinions about the funeral budget, who should cover the costs, and how the money should be spent.
Religious and Cultural Differences: Choosing the rituals, customs, and clergy for the service when the deceased and family members have different religious or cultural beliefs.
Past Family Issues: Pre-existing tensions, unresolved conflicts, or historical grievances between participating family members.
Decision-Making Authority: The absence of an executor or designated decision-maker with the formal authority to make final decisions when discussions are deadlocked.
Knowing and understanding the causes of conflict is essential to cultivate strategies to manage it. These constitute Arlington’s recommended top strategies for diffusing conflict.
Strategies for Diffusing Conflict
Before doing anything else, realistically assess the possibility of conflict. If a risk exists, get in front of it by adopting some, most, or all of the following strategies.
Encourage open and honest communication among family members. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to be heard.
Consider bringing a neutral third party aboard, such as a mediator or funeral director, to help facilitate discussions and find compromises.
Focus on the deceased’s wishes or any pre-arranged plans, if available, to guide decisions and reduce disagreements.
Assign specific responsibilities to family members based on their strengths and preferences to prevent power struggles.
Be willing to compromise on certain aspects of the funeral service, like music, readings, or floral arrangements.
Agree on a Budget
Establish a clear budget to avoid financial disputes and make decisions aligned with available resources.
Respect Traditions & Beliefs
Be sensitive to cultural, religious, or personal customs and find ways to incorporate them into the service.
If tensions rise during discussions, consider taking breaks to cool off and return to the planning with a clearer perspective.
Seek Professional Guidance
If conflicts persist, consider consulting a family therapist or counselor to help address underlying issues.
Focus on the Purpose
Remember that the funeral is a time to honor the memory of your loved one. Keeping this in mind can help keep priorities in check.
Despite the crucial role that strategies can play in managing conflict, they are essentially reactive. Curtailing or avoiding conflict altogether requires a different prescription: funeral pre-planning.
Diffusing Conflict by Pre-Planning
End-of-life planning plays a significant role in preventing conflict when the deceased leaves specific instructions for their end-of-life arrangements because ambiguity is reduced and the potential for disagreements is minimized. Instructions may also include preferences for burial or cremation, the type of service preferred, music selections, or even specific wishes for the disposition of their remains.
Pre-planning is also a helpful conflict minimizer when the deceased has appointed a trusted family member or friend as the designated decision-maker in legal documents like a will or advance healthcare directive. This person can help families side-step or avoid power struggles and ensure the deceased’s wishes are respected and followed.
Disputes among family members can be averted if the deceased has set aside funds during pre-planning. Clear documentation of the financial arrangements leaves nothing open to interpretation.
Thoughtful and open communication between family members about end-of-life wishes and funeral plans before death occurs helps to ensure that everyone is aligned and provides opportunities for concerns or preferences to be openly discussed and resolved.
Having legally binding documents, such as a will or living will, helps clarify the deceased’s wishes and provides a legal framework for decision-making, reducing the likelihood of conflict.
Seeking the guidance of funeral directors can help to limit conflict. Funeral directors are experienced in handling sensitive situations and can provide valuable guidance to families. They can facilitate discussions, offer options, and ensure the funeral planning process is as smooth as possible.
In many cases, understanding and managing the source of conflict is essential and valuable. Unfortunately, it’s reactive. Alternatively, proactive end-of-life planning is necessary for clarifying expectations, reducing uncertainties, and providing a definitive roadmap for honoring the deceased’s wishes. The byproduct goes a long way in preventing family challenges and conflicts during funeral planning.