Funeral Etiquette

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Funeral Etiquette

Death is a challenging topic to discuss gracefully. This makes funerals tough and uncertain territory, obviously for those who have lost a loved one, but also for those who know, love, or support those who have suffered a loss. Should you go to the funeral? What should you wear? What should you say? What should you do if you can’t attend?

These tips will help you learn proper funeral etiquette, so that you will know how to communicate with the deceased’s grieving family, while exuding dignity and respect during the funeral service.

Should I attend this funeral?

Since funerals are usually open attendance, it can be difficult to decide whether you should attend, or if you should pay your respects in another way (scroll down for more on this). If you knew the deceased, it is an opportunity to celebrate their life. If you did not know the deceased but are close to the family, then it is a way to show them your support.

You should not attend a funeral if you feel that your presence would make the family uncomfortable, or if it is clearly a private event. If you are an “ex” member of the family, your sensitivity here is very important. If you and your ex have children together, you have more of a bond with the family, and the entire dynamic changes. You need to determine if your presence will provide comfort for your children.

What should I wear to a funeral?

Although wearing black is not a requirement for all funerals, you should choose conservative clothing. It’s important to appear dignified and respectful, so stay away from bright colors and patterns or revealing cuts, which can send the wrong message. Many people today are opting to hold a “celebration of life,” and will encourage guests to wear fun or more casual clothing, as that is what the deceased would have wanted. This information will typically be made clear in the invitation.

Where should I sit at a funeral?

The first and second rows are typically reserved for the close family and friends of the deceased. If you arrive late, be respectful by sitting in the first available seat at the back. Remain seated for the duration of the service.

At a graveside service, the chairs are reserved solely for close family members of the deceased or those who cannot stand during the entire service. If this does not apply to you, politely stand behind the chairs.

What should I say at a funeral?

And should you say anything at all? Less is more, unless it is a particularly exuberant celebration of life. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” or “My thoughts and prayers are with you” is enough to express your support. You may also acknowledge the family’s pain and isolation by saying something like, “This must be so hard for you.” For more detail on this sensitive topic, my article What NOT to Say When Expressing Sympathy (And What to Say Instead) can help.

When should I arrive at a funeral?

This is one event where you don’t want to walk in late. So aim to arrive 10–20 minutes early to allow for the unexpected, or to give yourself some time to engage with other attendees before the service. If you arrive late, use a side aisle to take that first seat at the back.

What if my religious beliefs are different?

A funeral is all about paying your respects, which you can do by attending and listening to the ceremony. It is perfectly acceptable to refrain from any religious practice that you are not familiar with or comfortable doing.

Should I bring a gift to a funeral?

A bouquet of sympathy flowers is a common way to express your condolences. You can either bring a bouquet with you to the funeral or you can have them delivered to the funeral home beforehand. You can also bring a bouquet or have one delivered to the home hosting the reception.

Instead of flowers, many families ask for a memorial donation to a cause, so it’s a good idea to honor this request. Perhaps the deceased had a passion for a charity or had a disease that has a research foundation. There may be a trust fund for dependent children. Whatever the cause, it’s good form to donate something, even if it’s a small amount.

Can I bring my children to a funeral?

If children are well behaved and will not divert attention from the ceremony (including your attention!), then it is fine to bring them to the funeral, especially if they were close to the deceased.

What should I sign in the guestbook?

Write your first and last name, or your family’s name, along with a brief description of your relationship to the deceased. Signing the guestbook is a great way to show your support for the grieving family, especially if you aren’t able to approach them directly.

What should I do if I am unable to attend a funeral?

We all know about sending flowers. But here are some other ideas to show you care when you can’t attend the funeral.

  • Send a sympathy card. This can be a short, simple note to let the family know you’re thinking about them. Express your regrets about not being able to attend the funeral, and then say some kind words. Read What NOT to Say When Expressing Sympathy (And What to Say Instead) for ideas.
  • Bring a meal. Many people don’t have time to cook or don’t think about eating after a loved one passes away. Bringing a home-cooked meal, a pizza, or even a restaurant gift card shows that you care. Just be mindful of the people you’re bringing food for; make sure it’s something they like, and avoid any food allergies. Use disposable containers so they need not be returned to you. There are even websites out there for friends and family to coordinate a calendar of meal signups.
  • Sign the virtual guestbook. Many funeral homes provide an online service for friends and family to offer their condolences. Grieving family members often find comfort in the messages, and can go back and read these special thoughts for years to come. Remember that an online guestbook is public, so don’t post anything you wouldn’t want everyone to see.
  • Help with housework. Mourning family members may be unable to do some of their daily activities. You can offer to assist with these chores, such as mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, watching the children, or running errands. This is particularly helpful in the days leading up to the funeral and a few months afterward. Your thoughtfulness will be appreciated.

In conclusion

A funeral is one of the most important occasions to follow proper etiquette. Because death is a sensitive topic, it can be challenging to express your condolences to the grieving family. But whether you choose to attend the funeral or express your sympathy another way, I know you will do it with respect and grace.

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