"The Essential Guide to Types of People at a Funeral" by Kasey Butcher Santana

Kasey Butcher Santana

Kasey Butcher Santana

Kasey Butcher Santana is a writer and caretaker of a small alpaca farm where she and her husband also raise chickens, bees, and their daughter. Kasey earned a Ph.D. in American literature and has worked as an English teacher and a jail librarian. Recently, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Great Lakes Review, Passengers, Archetype, The Ocotillo Review, and The Hopper. She is a Nonfiction Editor for Kitchen Table Quarterly and you can follow her on Instagram @solhomestead.


The Essential Guide to Types of People at a Funeral

Our condolences on your recent loss. Perhaps you are planning a funeral, unsure of how to manage interacting with others during this time of acute grief. Maybe you are on the fringes of the deceased’s social circle and do not want to commit a faux pas. This guide intends to help the reader interpret human behavior at a funeral, offering key cues to avoid social missteps.[1]

On the occasion of a funeral, visitation, or wake, individual humans typically dress in similar black or dark-colored clothing, making it harder to parse differences in social status. Furthermore, usual measurements of status are superseded by proximity to the deceased and their next of kin. If we treat individual specimens as part of the complex emotional ecosystem of a funeral, we can better understand behaviors that may seem odd, and find where we stand in the pecking order of mourning, fulfilling our role in the group. 

The Chief Bereaved 

Where to find: Social activities of the funeral center around this individual—usually a romantic partner or parent of the deceased, but sometimes a close friend or companion. They are best identified by the movement of other people toward and around them, as well as by the offerings made to them of food, seating, and tissues. If more than one individual believes themselves to be the Chief Bereaved, passive-aggressive competition may emerge. 

Behavior: Varies from stoic restraint to unsteady wailing. As the Chief Bereaved’s emotions fluctuate throughout the funeral, the outward expression of their grief may take on different volumes and vocalizations. If multiple individuals, such as a romantic partner and a parent, are competing over this role, their behavior may grow increasingly performative.

Role: Stand-in for the deceased, a recipient of condolences, sets the tenor for others’ emotional expression.

The Offspring

Where to find: Offspring are not present in all ecosystems, but when they are, they can usually be found near the Chief Bereaved, as they share in the intensity of the grief if not the same level of social standing. 

Behavior: Offspring typically modulate their emotions to the Chief Bereaved, but in a manner that reflects their role and relationship within a family unit. For example, if the parent is especially stoic, Offspring may more demonstrably perform grief. Some Offspring take caregiving roles over younger siblings while others act out through the consumption of food and alcohol, or snide remarks. 

Role: Whether juveniles or adults of the species, Offspring form a second tier immediately beneath the Chief Bereaved, with mixed roles in the social dynamic, both comforting and being comforted, providing support to the Chief Bereaved and a project to keep Mother Hens busy. Depending on the age of the deceased, Offspring may instead fill the role of the Chief Bereaved.

Mother Hens

Where to find: These specimens are attracted to doorways and food tables, as well as to the Chief Bereaved and Offspring. 

Behavior: Flitting around to groom, refill beverages, prepare food, run errands, and deal with misbehavior, Mother Hens closely attend to the needs and emotions of the Chief Bereaved and Offspring. 

Role: Even if the Chief Bereaved and Offspring try to take care of themselves, Mother Hens are the primary caretakers of those grieving most intensely. Although they look like busybodies to those on the periphery, their ministrations provide essential nutrition, comfort, and security. They also facilitate social interactions between specimens lower in the ecosystem. Mother Hens most often come from an inner circle of friends and family and use knowledge from their close relationships with the deceased and/or the Chief Bereaved to serve in this role, helping to manage difficult relationships or awkward moments. Sometimes a nosy individual lower in the pecking order infiltrates the flock of Mother Hens, but their lack of interpersonal insight can lead to clumsy mistakes. These interlopers are best used for running errands.  

Auntie with a Flask

Where to find: On the edge of the Mother Hen group. Please note: Auntie with a Flask need not be anyone’s aunt or even identify as female to fill this role. Easy access to alcohol distinguishes this specimen from Mother Hens.

Behavior: If someone in the gathering shows signs of heightened distress, Auntie with a Flask might discreetly pull them aside for a quick drink. 

Role: Auntie with a Flask can help prevent unwanted emotional scenes by giving an agitated individual a break to calm themself. There is also the chance that, depending on who Auntie provides alcohol to, they might escalate tensions between various types of people at the funeral. For example, if Auntie engages a Whatabout, an argument could erupt shortly thereafter. 

The Whatabouts

Where to find: Lurking around any Offspring, Obliged, or Estranged, ready to grab them by the elbow and squawk, “What about…?”

Behavior: Through negative attention-seeking behavior, Whatabouts might distinguish themselves from Long-Lost Friends or the Estranged. They redirect attention to themselves through inappropriate questioning of some element of the funeral that was handled differently than how they would have done it. A Whatabout may also seek attention by revisiting old grievances. 

Role: A Whatabout acts as an emotional parasite, siphoning energy off other guests and mourners. If they serve a purpose, it is to give Mother Hens or the Auntie with a Flask a task—to keep them away from their targets.

Long-lost Friends

Where to find: Commingled with other types of guests. Long-lost Friends might be surrounded by people who want to talk or awkwardly avoided by others who mistake them for a Mystery Guest.

Behavior: On their arrival at a calling or wake, a Long-lost Friend might linger to the side, not assuming that they are welcome or that others will recognize them. If the Chief Bereaved or Mother Hens are happy to see them, they will loosen up, tempering joy to see old friends with the grief they share. If they are not welcomed, they might leave, or try to insert themselves into a more peripheral group such as the Whatabouts, Obliged, or Estranged.

Role: Long-lost Friends (sometimes relatives) provide a connection to the past of the deceased and those close to them. Whether they are received warmly or treated as unwelcome trespassers can greatly impact the mood of the room. A beloved Long-lost Friend provides comfort to the Chief Bereaved and Offspring, but if their presence was not a pleasant surprise, it can create tension that an Auntie with a Flask flies in to smooth over.

The Obliged or Estranged

Where to find: A back corner, the parking lot, or somewhere out of the way.

Behavior: Uncomfortable, perhaps angry, the emotional state of Obliged or Estranged people at a funeral can vary dramatically depending on their relationship with the deceased and the Chief Bereaved. The Obliged may only stay for a short time. The Estranged may linger, hoping for reconciliation. Their impact on those around them sets the Obliged or Estranged apart from each other. The Obliged (coworkers, teammates, partners of others in attendance) tend to have a neutral impact. They may as well be furniture. The Estranged can cause emotional upset, especially for Mother Hens seeking to protect the Chief Bereaved or Offspring, whether or not their concern is necessary. 

Role: Mostly, Obliged or Estranged people fill seats, keeping a funeral from looking too small to those who loved the deceased best. At best, they make the Chief Bereaved feel better. At worst, the Estranged step outside this role and cause a scene, especially if they encounter a Whatabout.


Where to find: Vultures mix with the groups of friends or family where they fit most naturally, waiting for their time to swoop in for a private word with the Chief Bereaved or Offspring. They may, however, gravitate toward the Mother Hens, trying to win their favor, or the Whatbouts, to grouse together. 

Behavior: Vultures' primary motive in attending the funeral is to obtain access to items they believe have particular value, whether monetary or sentimental. If they feel genuine grief, it is tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety that someone else may attain the bounty they hope to gain. This tension motivates them to not wait for a more dignified time to make their requests.

Role: Unlike in the food chain, at a funeral Vultures serve no productive purpose, but they do provide a project for Mother Hens, who will shoo them away if they cause problems, or a topic of conversation if their bid for scraps goes poorly for them.

Mystery Guest

Where to find: A real wild card, a Mystery Guest may mix into any group.

Behavior: Looks at their shoes frequently, loiters near doorways, and tries and fails to naturally join conversations.

Role: Potentially only known to the deceased, a Mystery Guest provides various groups with a neutral topic of conversation during awkward lulls—“Who is that over there?” The Mystery Guest might be Obliged, Estranged, or a Long-lost Friend, but if no one recognizes them, the question of their identity offers temporary distraction from grief or social discomfort. 

Addendum: Types of People Not at a Funeral

In addition to the specimens above, two additional types may make their presence felt in absentia. 

Carrier Pigeons

Carrier Pigeons could not attend the funeral but send their condolences through deliveries of food, flowers, or messages. While some carrier pigeons assuage feelings of guilt or duty by the size of their displays, others send more subtle messages, perhaps simply expressing that they tried to get there, but the airfare was too expensive on such short notice. These smaller conveyances of solidarity may mean more to the Chief Bereaved and Offspring than ostentatious offerings. 


The ghost refers not to the dead, but to an individual who ought to be present, but inexplicably is not. Questions about their absence might filter through the conversation among the Mother Hens and Long-lost Friends, but the real importance of the ghost can only be determined by the Chief Bereaved and Offspring.


[1] Human cultures vary in how they respond to death. This guide is intended for interpreting behaviors in a contemporary North American context.