The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Empathy and sympathy – what’s the difference?

Monday, 5 January 2015



Posted by John Porter

Sometimes the boundaries of the definitions of these two words, empathy and sympathy, become fuzzy. 

They become fuzzy for good reasons. This is from Confessions of a Funeral Director, which is often mentioned in GFG posts, entitled 10 Marks of a good funeral director

8. Empathy and sympathy. 

Imagine being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Peer up to the top of the hole and you might see some of your friends and family waiting for you, offering words of support and encouragement.  This is sympathy; they want to help you out of the pit you have found yourself in. This can assist, but not as much as the person who is standing beside you; the person who is in that hole with you and can see the world from your perspective; this is empathy.  — Dr Nicola Davies 

There are times (at funerals especially) when all we can give is sympathy.  When it’s outside of our ability to fully empathize with a person’s situation.  After all, the person laying in the casket isn’t my father.  This isn’t my daughter.  This isn’t my family. 

And that’s our job.  You pay us to be directors. And we couldn’t handle much more.  We have to maintain a certain level of objectivity because there’s only so much pain, grief and heartache we can share until we too start to crash … burn out. 

But, there’s other times when you can’t help but be drawn into the narrative, so that you enter the narrative and become a character in the story.  Not just a director, but an actual character in the drama of life and death. 

Knowing the difference between empathy and sympathy and having the ability of to use both is what can separate an average funeral director from a good one.   

I know that the ability to use both is important for funeral celebrants too. One of the things I do when someone is contributing to a ceremony (or a song/music is being played) I’m leading is to sit down in a chair that I have deliberately placed. It is a comfortable distance away from the person speaking. It faces forward. This means that I am no longer the focus of attention but have a clear angled line of sight to the person/s. It allows the person/s contributing to take the stage. Some ministers and celebrants stand nearby facing the mourners or at an angle. I have my back to the mourners. I am still leading the event but am now the backup guy in case the person falters. If they do I subtly lean forward, as if to say in silence “go on you can do it” without taking over. If they can’t continue then I’ll read it for them – if it’s a person singing I’ll read the rest if appropriate. So far I have not had to take over. 

Stuff happens to me in that chair whether it’s for 30 seconds or three minutes. If everything fine it gives me a physical break even though I give the contributor/s 99% of my attention. In some ceremonies I become, fleetingly, a character in the story. It happened at my last funeral. A person was just about to read a poem and he introduced it by sharing a beautiful message from the person who died to her two daughters. He wept. Tears welled in my eyes. I was in the hole with him. I have several techniques to compose myself in an instant and I used one of them. He looked at me and I gently nodded with assurance and encouragement which helped him to continue and read the poem. 

If I only sympathise then I do not give the client everything they need. If I only empathise then I’m held in their drama. I think the poem reader saw my wet eyes. It didn’t matter because he knew that although I was with him in a hole I was at the top of the hole in an instant – not pulling him out but allowing him to draw on his own strength to climb out. 

It is an extraordinary privilege to assist another human being in this semi-private way in a ceremony with many others present but who are likely unaware of what I have described. 

Anyone like to comment on the other nine or add more to the list?

Leave a Comment