Funeral Etiquette

Funeral Etiquette

Most of us are uncertain about what to do at a funeral. We see it all the time. In fact, I think Funeral Directors are the only people who are truly comfortable in this social setting. After all, we’ve had a lot of practice.

Also known as social graces, the rules of etiquette ease us through challenging social situations. Most of us know how to behave in common circumstances but unless you've been to a lot of funerals, you may not know the rules of proper behavior in this often uncomfortable social situation.

The Basics of Funeral Etiquette

Emily Post once said, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others." Much of what we know today about etiquette comes from this woman, who published her first book of etiquette in 1922. When you use those words as your guide, the rules of funeral etiquette become easier to understand.

What to Wear

Tradition has always required a certain level of formality in dressing for a funeral. However, today's end-of-life services are so varied – ranging from the traditional funeral to the often more relaxed celebration-of-life – that it's challenging to know exactly what's expected of you.

The advisors on the Emily Post website tell readers that "attire isn't limited to just black or dark gray. Remember, though, that it is a serious occasion and your attire should reflect that, especially if you are participating in the service. At the very least it should be clean, neat, and pressed as for any other important occasion."

What to Say

No one expects you to say more than a few words and bereaved family members are often unable to give you their full attention anyway. So, keep it short and make it sincere.

"I'm so very sorry for your loss" may work very well. If you have time to add to those seven words, you might want to share a personal story about a time you shared with the deceased. But, watch closely for signs that your audience needs to move on to receive condolences from other funeral guests.

When speaking to other funeral guests, speak quietly. This is not a time to discuss business or share stories about your recent vacation. Instead, focus on sharing and listening to stories of times spent with the deceased.

What to Do

If you're unsure about what actions to take when being led by a pastor or celebrant, simply follow along. If you're not comfortable, don't draw attention to your unwillingness to participate. Be discrete and respectful of others.

  • Offer Words of CondolenceOffering comforting words to the family is usually the easiest thing you can do. It's also something the family will appreciate and remember. If you're attending the service, offer your condolences in person or share a story or special memory about the deceased. If you can't be there, send a card or share your message using the Book of Memories online memorial tribute page.
  • Sign the RegisterWhen you sign the register at the funeral home, be sure to list your name and your relationship to the deceased. The register is something the family will have forever, and they will appreciate knowing who you are and how you knew their loved one in years to come.
  • Send a Gift to the FamilyAppropriate gifts include flowers, a donation to a charity (oftentimes the family will have a preferred charity), food or a service. You can send your gift to the family's home or the funeral home. Please ensure you include a signed card with your gift so the family knows who sent it. However, please take a few minutes to recognize that certain faiths have proscriptions about what should be sent to the bereaved. If you’re unclear, check with a close family relative or friend.
  • Stay in Touch with the FamilyDepending on your relationship with the family, you may choose to stay in touch in person, by telephone or online. The grieving process can be long and difficult, so don’t just walk out of their lives after the funeral service. You will serve the family well by letting them know you're there for them during the days, weeks, and months follow the death of their loved one.

Always leave your cell phone in the car or at the very least, turn it to vibrate mode or turn it off.

How to Handle the Visitation

A visitation, or viewing, is a time prior to the funeral where guests are invited to view the casketed body of the deceased. While it is customary to show your respects to the deceased by stepping up to the casket, you may not feel comfortable doing so. That's perfectly alright; no one wants you to be unnerved by the experience, so focus your attention instead on providing comfort to the bereaved family.

After the Funeral

If the deceased is to be buried following the service, the funeral officiant will announce the location of the interment. If the cemetery is not located on the grounds of the funeral home, there will be a processional of cars formed to escort the hearse to the cemetery. Unless they have chosen to have a private burial, those in attendance are welcome to join in the procession however, don't feel obligated to do so. You may simply leave the funeral at that time.

The Funeral Reception

Many families today hold a post-funeral gathering where food and refreshments are served. While this is a time to share memories, laughter, and even tears, your behavior at a funeral reception needs to remain respectful. 

Follow-up with Kindness

If you've not already done so, this is a good time to send the family a sympathy note or card. About a week after the funeral, pick up the phone to check in with them to see if there's anything they need.

"Good manners," wrote Emily Post, "reflect something from inside – an innate sense of consideration for others and respect for self." We think that just about sums it up; no matter the situation – wedding, baptism, dinner party or cocktails with friends – her observations about good manners (when followed) will serve us all well.

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