Bill was a long-time member of the ELCA congregation I serve as pastor. Prior to pronouncing the benediction at his memorial service, I watched the honor guard play taps and present the flag to Mary, Bill’s widow and second wife. While part of me was – as always – moved by this sight, another part of me thought: “Oh, nelly!”
It was at this point when I noticed that Bill’s daughter, Brenda, sat in the second pew, behind her stepmother and stepsiblings. Her stepmother, Mary, like most widows, sat in a place of honor: the first pew. Her two daughters, Bill’s stepdaughters, and their spouses sat to Mary’s right, also in the first pew. Bill was a beloved husband and stepfather.
However, Brenda was his only daughter, and she sat in the second pew. Brenda’s mother, Bill’s first wife, also attended the service but sat in the back. Thus, Brenda sat alone at her father’s funeral separated from her mother and her stepmother.
This stepfamily’s seating arrangement is one that I should have picked up on before the service even started. I have spent the last five years studying modern families, caregiving, and mourning. Naomi Cahn, a law professor at George Washington University, Elizabeth Marquardt, a divinity school classmate, and I conducted and analyzed over 60 in-depth interviews with mid-life adults one year after the death of their mother, father, or stepparent.
Interviews followed the natural chronology of care and grief:
- the news of a diagnosis or accident,
- the medical, financial, legal and spiritual choices made during the provision of care,
- mourning practices,
- settling the parent’s estate, and
- the adjustment to how life has changed in the year since the death of the parent figure.
Drawing upon our collective experience in hospice care and parish ministry (me), children of divorce (Elizabeth), and elder law, modern families, and trusts and estates (Naomi), we studied their narratives to better understand how the marital and nonmarital choices of a parent shape the experience of elder care and loss. We concluded that many tweaks could be made in the practice of today’s lawyers, clergy members, and family caregivers to better serve the new normal in American families.
One lesson we learned is that seating arrangements at funerals matter. Overall, the interviewees’ narratives about the funerals were told in broad sweeps. They described snapshot memories of specific moments during the wakes and services. Unless they brought the service bulletin or remembrance card with them to the interview, they struggled to recall what scriptures were read, who spoke (unless they gave the eulogy), or what songs were played or sung. They remembered most clearly the faces of those who attended the ritual, and the family seating arrangement for the service.
In chapter six of our book, Homeward Bound: Modern Families, Elder Care and Loss (Oxford University Press 2017), Naomi and I give extensive space to analyzing the seating positions at the funeral. Spatial arrangements assumed great importance for all those interviewed. For stepfamilies, especially, subsequent disputes over the deceased’s estate, and a general fraying of emotional connections, could often be traced to tensions over where they sat (or didn’t sit) at the funeral. A negative experience at the funeral often foreshadowed the stepfamily’s low level of adaptation and reorganization after the ritual.
In contrast, within family systems where the parents had been in their first and only marriage at the time of death, role clarity continued from before death to after. The absence of the deceased parent caused pain and sadness, but mothers remained mothers, children remained children, and siblings remained siblings. While death may have affected their connections, no member risked losing his or her place in the family. At the funeral, grown children sat with the surviving spouse in the front row for the service. Minus the deceased, the family was a coherent unit.
For most stepfamilies, the death of the parent seemed also to mark the death of that expression of the family. Without the mediating presence of the deceased, the role of the stepparent became fuzzy or conflicted. Grown children wondered, “Am I still a stepdaughter? What does that mean?” These feelings of confusion were magnified when children felt the stepparent had not invited them to sit together in the front row at the funeral or stand next to them during the visitation. They took offense and began to put distance between themselves and the stepparent.
For example, one daughter, Candace, recalled arriving at the funeral services for her father and reaching out to her stepmother, Susan. The two had historically had a negative relationship marked by ill will, but Candace wanted to try to connect over the death of her father. As a gesture of compassion, she asked her stepmother, “Do you want us to sit with you, like, as a family?” And Susan replied, “Yeah, that would be nice because I really feel like an outsider with your family.” However, as soon as other people started to arrive, her stepmother “never talked to us again. Never asked us to come sit up there with her—nuthin.’” In defiance, Candace stood in the back.
Even in stepfamilies who had worked smoothly together during the illness of the parent, the kin relationship began fraying during the funeral. Rhonda and her siblings, half-siblings, and stepmother of thirty years, Judith, became a caregiving team in her father’s final months of life in hospice home care. However, the funeral service began to dredge up past hurts. Judith’s extended family attended the funeral but, according to Rhonda, they “never accepted us, because our dad was divorced, and Judith’s family didn’t like that. We were the stepchildren.” When they sat down for the service, Rhonda believed that she and her siblings belonged in the front row, with Judith. Instead,
“Judith’s family and her sisters sat in the front row, and pushed us to the back, and that really upset me….I’m sure Judith didn’t think about it, but why? It’s huge—it pushed me back, it pushed my children back. And we’re his first family. It made me feel so divided because we were shoved to the back.”
Occasionally stepfamilies did work well together; a history of warmth in the relationship between the surviving stepparent and the grown child set the stage for subsequent interactions. One component in our definition of positive stepfamily relations lies in those who, a year after the death, still considered each other “family,” as evidenced by continuing to celebrate holidays and significant events together, including the anniversary of the parent’s death.
For example, Phillip’s parents divorced when he was in elementary school, and his parents were able to foster a good relationship with each other, even though his father quickly remarried. His father even left part of his inheritance to his first wife. Over the years, Phillip grew to appreciate his stepmother, Cheryl, and described how she was the one he turned to for advice on his finances. When his father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, Cheryl kept Phillip in the loop through text, e-mail, and phone calls concerning different treatment options. They were both with his father in the ER after his heart attack when a blood clot killed him. Cheryl included Phillip in making decisions at the funeral home about the service and the burial.
This stepmother and stepson sat together in the front pew at the funeral services and remained in touch in the year since his father’s death. Whereas the emotional connections of stepfamilies who sat apart at the funeral services tended to fray in the year following the death, sitting together reinforced the warmth of Phillip and Cheryl’s previous relationship and built a foundation for on-going support as they grieved his father and her husband, together.
Stepfamilies fill the pews of our congregation, and mid-life stepchildren, like Candace, Rhonda, and Philip, are beginning to step into the caregiving and grieving role for their parents and stepparents. When I forgot to apply our insights to Brenda and her stepfamily, I sought to rectify my mistake. During the repast in our fellowship hall, I sat with Brenda over a Jell-o square and a ham sandwich. I acknowledged that she did not sit in the front row, and I apologized if she felt slighted. She confessed that she did not actually want to sit up front because, “I am more of a backstage person.” Also, she didn’t feel especially close to her stepmother or stepsiblings, so she preferred having her own space to mourn. Regardless, I wanted her to know that her pastor noticed.
Discussing where we sit during a ritual matters. Pastoral directive in planning and conducting the funeral service with a family, with a keen eye to where family members sit, has ramifications for family systems beyond the ritual itself in profound ways. While the discussion can be awkward for all of us and it might bring various tensions to the surface, it might also prevent hurt feelings and loneliness, and serve as a subtle reminder to everyone that they are family.