Q: Some time ago, my wife and I found ourselves at the bedside of her dying grandfather. As death was coming quickly and surely to the old gentleman after 95 years of good health and mental clarity, numerous close relatives visited his bedside during his last two weeks. We wonder if Miss Manners would address herself to two questions of deathbed etiquette, as follows:
1. Grandfather had immigrated from Poland in the '20s. A kind and simple man with "Old Word" ways, he had always had special respect for such ceremonies as birthdays, weddings and funerals. As we sat by his bed, wondering how we could reassure and comfort him in his final days, it occurred to my wife that Grandfather would be pleased to hear about plans for his funeral -- about the fine ceremony, the lovely flowers, the location, all the relatives who would gather to honor his memory, and so forth. We were uncomfortable with the idea of bringing up that topic, however, and we never mentioned it, but in retrospect, I truly believe the old gentleman would have taken delight in hearing about the plans for his funeral. Does Miss Manners feel one could be justified in broaching such a topic to a dying man?
2. Grandfather remained mentally alert until the final moments, though he became too weak to respond verbally, and seemed to appreciate his visitors. The visitors, however, felt quite unsure about how to behave during the long vigil. Some chatted away among themselves (in Grandfather's native language, Polish) under the assumption that Grandfather would find this diverting and relaxing. Others felt that to be disrespectful, and concentrated on communicating remembrances and eulogies, which the chatterers felt were morbid and pointlessly distressing to the old man. Still others thought that silent solemnity was the most appropriate behavior for a vigil.
The same conflicts in viewpoint unhappily arose again when my grandmother passed away. What, if anything, can Miss Manners tell us about proper behavior during deathbed vigils? If the dying person seems senile or unconscious, should one behave differently?
A: Miss Manners suggests that you put yourself in the place of the person you wish to honor and please -- temporarily, of course. In that case, it seems to her that:
1. You may bring up the subject of your funeral if you wish, but you certainly would not wish others to bring it up for you. This only leads to speculation as to how far down the line of natural events their minds have traveled. The suspicion that the next ceremony, that of reading the will, and the one after that, of distributing the property, is what is really on everyone's mind, is unavoidable. Therefore, while it is true that some people do enjoy discussing their own funerals, your wife was quite right to refrain from initiating such a topic.
2. You would not want to be faced with an impatient audience waiting for your deathbed scene to develop, but you would not want to be ignored, either, as if you were quietly expiring at someone else's party without being able to attract anyone's attention.
Those keeping a deathbed vigil may find that they must carry the weight of the conversation as the guest of honor is likely not to feel up to it. But it should be done with some sense of the occasion. Here is where it is delicate to give the person some sense of the way he will be remembered, with affectionate compliments and reminiscences addressed to the subject if he is at all capable of receiving them, and in a subdued manner to one another, if he is not.
Under the circumstances, Miss Manners thinks she would find it more reassuring to now her influence would remain with the bereaved than to hear the menu for the wake.
Feeling incorrect?Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.