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The lost art of condolence

New Yorkers take a condolence letter writing class with a funeral director

The lost art of condolence

Amy Cunningham in the Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery in New York (Karsten Moran/The New York Times/Redux)

A New York moment:

At the New York Public Library branch on East 63rd Street, a roomful gathered to hear from funeral director Amy Cunningham about how to help those grieving a recent death, and specifically how to write a condolence letter. The event was part of Reimagine End of Life, a citywide festival on death that I’ll be writing about more fully in the future.

As a way of showing what not to do, Cunningham began by reading comments offering condolence on Facebook, the primary way families she works with receive condolences. She urged her listeners to write a letter for every death that touches their lives.

“We’ve fallen out of having etiquette and manners, and everyone is at sea,” she said.

Cunningham, sporting bangs and tortoiseshell glasses, was in journalism for 35 years before going to mortuary school. She knows how to write. For a condolence letter she advises: Write a rough draft, keep it short, be direct in your language (don’t say “passed away,” say “died”), and be honest. If you don’t know what to say, say that. Don’t say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” say, “I’m here for you.”

Write it by hand if possible, and keep a special box of stationary for this purpose. Your goal is not comfort, because the recipient is in the throes of grief: Your goal is to “reach out, acknowledge the death, share a story, reflect.”

Also, she said, don’t offer open-ended help like, “Tell me what I can do.” People who are grieving need binary choices, like, “I could take you out on Tuesday or Friday.” Don’t mention your own losses, or assume you know how the person is feeling—even if someone had a difficult relationship with the deceased, he or she is probably still grieving.

Someone asked a question: What if a mother committed suicide, and the daughter this person was trying to console was enraged?

“Oh my,” said Cunningham. She paused. “Underneath the rage is a lot of grief and a lot of disappointment.” Treat the daughter like a grieving person, she said.

Then turning to deaths from long-term illnesses like Alzheimer’s, she said: “Even if the death was expected, you can’t assume they’re in a relief state. My mother, we waited a long time for her to die. And even when she did die, it was shocking. The grief is large.”

The Victorian tradition of condolence letter writing provided Cunningham with guidance. She read condolence letters from Emily Dickinson, who would write multiple notes to one person over time and send nosegays with the letters. She noted how a typical Victorian condolence letter would begin, “I do not mean to intrude on your sorrow, but I can’t help it.” That’s the style to go for, she thinks: persistence short of obnoxiousness. She handed out two stamps to everyone in the room.

Worth your time:

The Los Angeles Review of Books interviews Alan Jacobs about his Christian faith and political framework. I found his comments about Marilynne Robinson very interesting.

This week I learned:

The legendary chess world champion Garry Kasparov discouraged Fabiano Caruana when he was a young boy from pursuing chess as a career. The Brooklyn family ignored Kasparov’s advice, and now Caruana has a chance to be the first American world chess champion since Bobby Fischer. Three weeks of chess matches between Caruana and the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, begin on Friday to determine the next champion.

Culture I am consuming:

Everything I can find from Twinkie Clark, the longtime gospel singer, producer, and organist. Somehow I had never listened to her work, though I had listened to her sibling gospel group, the Clark Sisters. I’d suggest “Awake O Zion” or “My Soul Loves Jesus” if you haven’t listened before.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org