I recognized the last name in the funeral notice, but an obituary with details and names of family members had not yet been published. It was the last name of the mother of a fellow worker from some years ago. The first name was a name I couldn’t seem to remember. The fellow worker was somebody I greatly respected and we decided to attend the funeral to show support and demonstrate that respect.

We drove to the little rural church we’d been to many times before. We entered the crowded church foyer looking for familiar faces. Seeing none, we followed the line, signed the guest book and continued past the open casket. The face was not familiar, but it had been many years since we had seen the woman.

We went into the sanctuary, sat down, listened to the organ music and continued to search for familiar faces. Still none. But the immediate family would be the last to be seated.

When they were seated, we were looking at the backs of their heads, but we still weren’t recognizing anybody. Waiting for the service to begin, we read the funeral program and seeing the obituary for the first time, we realized we were at the funeral of a stranger to us, one with a familiar last name. We politely sat tight to show the respect we had come to show.

The funeral of a stranger seems longer than one of a familiar friend or relative. We were embarrassed and uncomfortable, but tried not to show it. We could hear that the man sitting behind us had a strong singing voice and sang the funeral hymns with gusto.

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There was a funeral lunch afterward, but we decided to pass on that to avoid further embarrassment. We weren’t about to admit we didn’t know the deceased or her family. From the obituary and the funeral message, we were able to determine that she was a fine mother, family woman and active in her church. We didn’t need to spread our confusion about who she was.

When we came in to this service, I delivered a complimentary sympathy card I had written in advance. We learned later that we had actually attended the funeral of the person we thought we were honoring 18 years before.

A few days after the funeral, we got a kind thank you note from the family expressing appreciation for attending and for our comforting words. There was no indication they knew we were confused strangers, but it should have been obvious.

The moral of the story is that a little more homework would have been a good idea before heading off for a funeral, but 18 years is a long time to remember all the facts, and still, when your heart is right, knowing and respecting a stranger is never out of place.