Funeral Etiquette

Funeral Etiquette isn’t normally something that crosses one’s mind. However, when faced with saying a final goodbye to a family member or friend, many questions can arise. The main concern is doing or saying the right thing. We want to be there for those in grief, but we want to be sure we’re doing it the right way. Here is a short Q & A that will help.

DO I NEED TO BE INVITED TO A FUNERAL OR CAN ANYONE GO?

Anyone can go. A funeral service is open to anyone, unless the family requests that it is a private ceremony.

DO I HAVE TO WEAR BLACK?

No, wearing colorful clothing is no longer inappropriate for relatives and friends. Most people choose formal clothes like a suit, and men normally wear a tie. Sometimes families will request that guests wear certain themed clothing (sports teams, Hawaiian shirt, etc) in honor of their loved one.

CAN CHILDREN GO TO A FUNERAL?

Yes, but toddlers and babies can be disruptive, especially if it’s a long service. You can take older children if they want to go. It’s a good idea to prepare them beforehand so they know what to expect.

WHO TRAVELS WITH THE FUNERAL PROCESSION?

When the funeral ceremony and the burial are both held within the local area, it is appropriate for friends and relatives to accompany the family to the cemetery. In cases where the burial is listed as private, it is the family’s desire to go to the graveside on their own.

WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP THE FAMILY?

You can offer friendship and someone to talk to at a time when they need it most. There is often the assumption that family grief is private and that you may be intruding. But many people live far away from their family and would appreciate your help with practical things like preparing a meal or taking children to school. Providing some food or offering to help with errands is also often appreciated.

WHAT SHOULD I SAY?

No matter what your means of expressing your sympathy, it is important to clearly identify yourself to the family. In addition to expressing sympathy it is appropriate, if desired, to relate to family members your fond memories of the deceased. In some cases family members may simply want you to be a good listener to their expressions of grief or memories of the deceased. In most circumstances it is not appropriate to inquire as to the cause of death. When in person, sympathy should be expressed by clasping hands, an embrace, or a simple statement of condolence like: “My sympathy to you,” “It was good to know John,” “John was a fine person and friend. He will be missed,” “My sympathy to you and your mother.”

DO I SEND FLOWERS OR GIFTS?

It is completely up to you and depends on the closeness of your relationship with the family or the deceased. You can send flowers to the funeral home prior to the funeral, or to the family residence at any time. Food and other types of gifts are also appreciated. Gifts in memory of the deceased are often made, particularly when the family has requested gifts in lieu of flowers. Even if you don’t make a gift, a note or card to the deceased’s family expressing your thoughts of the deceased is a welcome gesture, especially if you weren’t able to attend the funeral.

HOW CAN I HELP MY FRIEND?

One of the best ways you can help your friend is to allow them to feel what they want to feel. They may feel anger, guilt or fear. Let them talk these feelings through with you — don’t try to stop them because you think they are irrational.

WHAT HAPPENS AT THE CEMETERY?

The casket or urn is normally placed beside the grave, prior to when all the mourners gather at the gravesite. People then gather to listen to the rites of burial given by the clergy. At the conclusion of the graveside ceremony, flowers from the arrangements may be offered to guests. Once the ceremony has concluded, you are welcome to leave at any time.

DO I APPROACH THE CASKET? IF SO, WHAT DO I DO?

The decision of whether or not to approach the casket is a very individual one. It is not required or considered rude if you decide against it. Many people find that viewing the deceased helps you to accept the loss and move on. If you decide to approach the casket, use that time to say your good-byes and pay your respects. Keep in mind that there are often long lines to follow and everyone deserves their moment with the deceased.

WHAT DO I DO WHEN I ARRIVE AT THE VISITATION?

Often times the visitation will have displays sharing the life of the deceased, as well as flowers, and other memorial items. Normally a register book will be present. It is always good to sign in yourself and your family. The family won’t always remember who was there and leaving contact information may be helpful when wanting to send thank you cards or just reach out. In situations where there is a line to greet the family, keep the conversation brief. The family appreciates your presence, but the night can be a long and emotional one.

WHAT DO I DO WHEN I ARRIVE AT THE SERVICE?

When you arrive, quietly take a seat if the service is being held in a church or chapel. The first few rows are usually reserved for the immediate family and the casket bearers. There may be an opportunity during the service for you to share some words about the deceased. If the ceremony is being held at the interment site, seating is usually only available for the immediate family.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I STAY IN TOUCH?

Remember that grief doesn't go away in a few short weeks. Even one year may not be long enough to adjust to changes in your life. So, a friend who calls in 3, 6, or 12 months time may be one of the few who still asks how things are going. Special days like birthdays or Christmas may be just the time to pick up the phone and say, "I was thinking of you today." Never be afraid to mention the deceased’s name or share a memory. A common misconception is that doing so will cause hurt or pain to those in grief when in reality it can help to talk and remember.


“How we treat the dead says an awful lot about how we live. For the strong and able to serve the helpless dead, to honor frail remains, reaches deep inside us to something basic to humanity.”
-Paul Gregory Alms

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