The Divisive Politics of Multi-Family Funerals

My grandmother died seven years ago, after a lengthy coma and long illness.  No one can seem to decide how long the coma lasted, but we all agree that it was somewhere between 9 and 14 years.  Long enough so that we can’t remember anymore just how long it was.  Five years ago, my grandfather remarried a mutual friend of theirs and moved in with this woman and her son.  Last week, my grandfather died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage.

I’m tempted to say that the problems arising from the death of a person with more than one family is a modern condition of this age of divorce, remarriage, and baby daddies, but clearly this has been an issue for centuries.  Remarrying after the death of a spouse is not a new and novel idea, and the problems that can arise from it are likewise familiar.  Certainly, when two otherwise unblended families are involved, there is a question as to which family has dominance.

I arrived at the funeral parlor on Sunday afternoon having been through hours of horrible Boston traffic, clashing with the thousands of drivers trying to get back from their weekends in Maine or New Hampshire, and the first person I saw was my brother, getting out of his rental car in the parking lot.  He had just flown up from Florida, and he met my wife and I with a hug and a smile as the three of us walked in together.  We were greeted by a man at the door, who told us that the family was in the back, to which I replied, “We are the family.”  But I appeared to be incorrect.

The funeral home was covered with pictures of my grandfather, but all taken within the past five years.  His wedding to his new wife, his new home with her, my grandfather and her son, and plenty of pictures of the happy couple looking, well, happy.  There was not a single picture of my father, or my aunt, or my uncle, or my grandmother, or me, or any sign that the man had had a life other than his new one.  The receiving line was full of people I did not recognize, trying to pass themselves off as the family of the deceased.  I wanted to punch all of them.

There is a valid question that my wife brought up, concerning other points of view, and whether or not we ought to try and respect and understand them.  From one side, it seems clear that when you spend 83 out of 88 years living in one town, with one family, that this majority of your life ought to be the “real” version.  This is your story.  This is the accepted canon of your life.  Just because someone tries to go in and ret-con the previous 8 decades out of existence doesn’t negate or devalue them.  Can’t we just skip the disastrous reboot and pretend it never happened?  But then, there is an argument to be made that, sure you used to be his family, but where were you for the past five years?  WE were the ones who took care of him, were there for him, for the last half decade, while you all virtually disappeared from his life!  And I see how that can be valid.  But from my trying to connect with my grandfather recently, it was clear to me that we were not welcome to participate in this new family.  Perhaps the old family was threatening to the new one?  I don’t know.  These are divisive politics at work.  And of course, like all politics, you know that it’s eventually going to be come back around to money.

My sister rushed over as soon as we were past the greeter and informed us that neither of my father’s siblings were in attendance.  They were not coming.  To their own father’s funeral.  They refused to even be in the same room as “those people.”  My father stood in that greeting line, surrounded by strangers, with no cavalry answering the desperate calls for support that his face was making.  You see, my grandparents had a house, just north of the cape, right on the ocean.  I mean, a few yards of rocks for a backyard, and then water.  I spent summers at that house, my father grew up there, and even though it was showing its age, it was a sentimental place for the whole family.  It was also worth a fortune.  The property was worth a fortune, anyway.  There had been years of discussion between the three siblings as to what was going to happen with the house.  Was one going to buy out the other two?  Would they have to sell it and split it up?  Would they all keep it jointly for a time?  What to do with their inheritance?

A few years ago my grandfather sold the house, and used the money to build an addition onto the house owned solely by his new wife.  The man who bought the house razed it, and there now stands a McMansion in its stead, stretching out to all four corners of the property.  There is no inheritance.  There was nothing left to the children.  Everything my grandfather had, his belongings, his old photos, his money, his estate, is in the possession of “those people.”  This decision was so acrimonious that, except for my father, my grandfather’s children didn’t even attend his funeral.  And there were plenty of reasons that they felt shut out by the new family, including the screened phone calls and limited contact, but the money was the kicker.

Look, it was his money, right?  His children are not owed anything, are they?  If he wanted to sell his house and use the money, that’s his business, right?  This is not a new problem either.  There is a lot of great literature out there about kids trying to get their inheritance.  But having two families and no pre-nup makes things complicated.  I often wonder, with all of the foster children that my mother has recently adopted, what things will be like at her funeral.  Who will plan it?  Who will get the inheritance?  And I don’t mean money, necessarily, but what about those special items that we may want to keep for sentimental reasons.  Who has the greater claim?

Halfway through the funeral we decided to set up our own rival reception line.  On one side of the coffin was the new wife, her son, and a host of other people who I did not recognize, and on the other side was my father, his wife, my brother, my sister, my brother-in-law, my wife, and myself.  People came into the room and were very confused, as we tried to coax them our way.  I complained loudly about the lack of earlier pictures on display, but my sister informed me that there was one picture board that I had missed, with pictures of my grandfather as a very young man.  I ran over to look, and sure enough I saw several black and white photographs of my grandfather before any marriages at all.

And there, in the center of the board, I found the only picture on display of my grandmother.  It was a picture from maybe 30 years ago, with my grandmother on the left side, my grandfather next to her, and on his other side was the new wife, her then husband completing the photo on the right side.  “It looks like a wedding photo,” my father commented from over my shoulder.  “Makes you wonder just how long this was going on…”

As we were getting ready to leave, the Masons showed up and performed a Masonic service for my grandfather, who was the head of his lodge for many years, and then some on-duty firefighters dropped by for a quick second to pay their respects.  My grandfather was a firefighter for most of his life, and had trained a lot of the current crew.  Over and over again, we saw evidence of the long and fruitful life that he’d led.  It was a life of service, and of love.  I’m sure that the last thing he would have wanted is for his families to be unfriendly and miserable.  So we’ll keep working on it.  Maybe someday we’ll figure it out and get it right.

Posted in Funeral, Grampy, Grandparents.


  1. I am sorry for your loss… and all the losses, really. I know the reality, pain, and sadness of this family politics stuff..

  2. I’m sorry your Dad and you and your siblings had to go through this. Itis not uncommon, sadly. Therapists recommend talking about arrangements – a hard enough conversation withyour parents but excruciating to have with a parent who remarries. It might not change what happens but at least you would not be surprised in the depth of your grief when all of the arrangements are made by other and all the mementoes go to the new family.

    When my parents divorced it took a lot of work on my part to balance the pull between his ‘old family’ who had stood behind my mother through the whole messy affair and his ‘new family’ – the family and friends of his second wife, who had supported them through a twenty year extramarital affair. My Mom predeceased my Dad so a lot of the friction was diminished by the time he passed away rather suddenly five years later; in fact we were all there around his bedside in the days and hours before he died with surprisingly little acrimony. What struck me and hurt me then were the people who had known both my mother and my stepmother whose reminiscences of my father centered wholly on his years and experiences with my stepmother. Not only was there no mention of times he might have shared with my mother, our childhood with this man was excised as well. There was some sort of unspoken rule; each time my sister and I tried to bring up an recollection of a shared experience – Dad, Mom, us girls and the visiting friends – it was hushed up and ended as though we’d said something shameful or grossly embarrassing. My stepmother called me after Daddy passed and informed me that person A from my father’s military career (in the National Guard) would speak, and person B from his legal career and that her son would speak ‘for the family.’ I told her that while he was definitely family, he did not and was not able to represent the family that had been part of my father’s life in the 35 years before he met her and the 20 years that he lived a double life. I insisted on eulogizing him to represent their experience and recollections of him. At the actual funeral, my stepbrother (whom I had not even met until his mother married Daddy and we were both adults), spoke first and then introduced me as ‘his sister.’ I was stunned and don’t know how successfully I hid it. In retrospect, I realized that, while we had known nothing about him while growing up, he had heard a lot of stories about us and felt a connection vicariously that we could not.. As in your grandfather’s case – there was no inheritance for the children. Everything was left to his wife.

    One of the purposes of a funeral is to acknowledge what had been shared with the deceased and what was being lost by those who remain behind. Something we found healing was that we held a separate memorial service, to which we invited the other family, but which we organized for the first family and old friends who had been overlooked or excluded by my stepmom. You must find a way acknowledge your loss and the rest of your grandfather’s life and get the closure you need to have a healthy and complete grieving and celebration of him. I encourage you to consider a memorial in the town he lived in for the people who knew him then/there.

    BTW, after my stepmother died, just 2 years ago, I reached out to my stepbrother let him know how much it would mean to have some mementoes of my dad. He tried to make sure that we girls got things that had belonged to Daddy – pictures, insignia, his violin and sheet music, a piano, a piece of art. They were not valuable monetarily but the sentimental value made them priceless and made me grateful have them even 10 years after Dad died. It was a healing step for both of us and one he could understand only after having lost his mom.

  3. I’m so sorry about your grandpa. I hate seeing how money squabbles cause drama when someone passes. Unfortunately, it happens among biological siblings too. Whoever ends up caring for a parent toward the end often ends up using a good chunk of the inheritance on their care. People can have a skewed idea of how much there should be left at the end. And, of course, people can be irresponsible or even untrustworthy with money that isn’t theirs.
    The worst of it is that the money issues drive families apart right when they need to lean on each other. Even the stuff that doesn’t have monetary worth can cause arguments and hard feelings. It’s not like anyone is at their most patient or understanding when trying to deal with a loss. I think it’s easier in families where there isn’t anything of value to inherit.
    I hope your step family becomes more willing in time to share the memories and mementos of your grandparents that mean so much to your family. I’ll pray for you today.

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