There are roughly 2.5 million funerals a year in The United States, according to a May 2011 report by The Federal Trade Commission cited by The International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association - (http://www.iccfa.com/). This staggering number creates ample opportunity for the reunion of many estranged relatives during a time of sorrow. A death in a family can be a wonderful chance to make amends or it can become the much needed excuse to find a scapegoat in an estranged family member who happens to show up for wake and funeral services. The latter is not going to help anyone feel better. It is far better to focus on making amends, perhaps in honor of the person who died, but this is not easy in times of deep stress and emotional upheaval.
To cope with a family member who has been completely non-participant in the family for years, it is better to approach their desire to be at a wake or funeral as an act done in good faith. This person is probably nervous and cringing at the thought of estranged relatives pointing fingers, snickering, and rejecting their presence. The prodigal family member may very well be mourning, too, but in his or her case, no one cares, because they are too busy recalling why they became estranged. It is better to allow this person to mourn freely, because the deceased played a role in this person's life, and no one can judge one person mourning the death of another. In fact, it is severely inappropriate to diminish the value that one person's life has had in another person, even more so amongst family members, estranged or not. The first step is always to let everyone mourn as he or she sees fit without limitations, restrictions, or judgment.
How to cope with estranged family members also depends on who died and who is estranged. For example, even the worst parent reserves the right to mourn his or her child, even if everyone in the family believes the child would not want them there. The same must be said for any child who loses a parent, regardless of age, since the death of a parent can oftentimes affirm the unfortunate and tragic reality that a reconciliation between parent and child will never occur in this lifetime. There is no need to throw resentment or accusations into someone who shows up at a wake. It only makes this person feel worse, and that's not adding any type of honor to the one who died. No matter how estranged, family is connected by bonds that are as deep and mysterious as life itself. Other family members need to respect that they do not know everything involved in the estrangement, and clearly, this person would not have shown up if the death did not have an impact. Respecting another person's need to mourn is the best way to cope with a family member who has been gone for a long time.
Sometimes, wakes and funeral services create emotional situations. Death is a difficult time for all affected. It also becomes harder when stress is amplified by the need to deal with a shunned family member. If the situation is severe, or if the sentiments are exceedingly negative, here are some standard ways of handling family losses without stirring the pot of drama, altercations, and stress during a time of remembrance and mourning of a loved one.
1. Contact the estranged family member first. Do not let them feel that they would not have even known about the death. Email, write a letter, call, or hunt down the person through social networking. Make an effort. If all else fails, the person can later find out that others in the family did indeed try to notify them.
2. Warn family members and instruct them in the expected behavior. Do not encourage family to gossip and plot against the estranged family member, as it will create a "them versus me" feeling the moment that the person arrives. It is best to encourage others to be polite and possibly create the impression that treating the estranged family with respect would honor the deceased and make the deceased happy.
3. If cooperation looks like it will be low, express concerns to the funeral service directors. Request ample rooms with ample seating and different locations for people to mingle. The worst thing for a group of angry relatives is to stick them all into a crammed one-room funeral home with a dead person. It's a formula for disaster.
4. Use the children. They are innocent and usually clueless about family brawls. When the estranged family member arrives, it is a nice idea to introduce them to the children of the family. This way, the person can benefit from the unabashed friendliness of children and teens while feeling that they are connecting with blood-relatives in their time of need (and vice versa).
In the end, no loved one would want a scene of hate at a time when they should be honored for the life that they lived. It is best to make great efforts to keep the peace and be dignified in mourning, even amongst the least likable family members. To honor a person's life is to be able to say that their death brought a family feud or estrangement to a close - finally. There is no greater testament to a deceased loved one.