Funeral Etiquette 101
Tips everyone should know
There are many ways to honor our loved ones and friends at the end of life. While many may choose not to have a funeral or would prefer something more private in their memory, many people do choose to have full services in honor of the deceased, whether at a religious institution or not.
It’s wise and helpful to know how to best navigate the process of attending a funeral and helping your friends and family manage their grief and the many expectations associated with loss. Here are some important things to keep in mind when attending a funeral.
Should I Attend? Should My Family?
It can be difficult to know when to attend a funeral or if it’s appropriate to make an appearance. To a large extent, showing up is an excellent way to tell the family that you are thinking of them and supporting them during this challenging time. It can also be helpful for the grieving process and have a chance to say goodbye to someone you care about.
Since most funerals are public events, you don’t need to wait for a personal invitation to attend. If you do receive a personal invitation, it’s important that you do all in your power to make an appearance.
If you’re wondering whether your relationship with the deceased or individual members of the family will be cause for awkwardness or discomfort, consider your reasons for going or staying away. You should also think about how it will impact those grieving and if you would be better served by sending your condolences in a way that will not be distracting on the day of.
Should I Go To The Burial?
Not every funeral will have a burial. For example, cremation is becoming an ever more popular option and is the traditional practice for those who practice Hinduism. Additionally, certain funerary practices, like those in the Muslim tradition, require that the body be buried immediately and as such it is not usually a part of the funeral traditions. It’s important that you know whether a burial will even be a part of the funeral that you’re attending.
There are nuanced differences between a memorial service, a wake, a funeral, and a burial, so you’ll want to pay attention to the cues set by the family. If they invite everyone to each portion and encourage support, you may attend if you wish.
If it’s clear that the event is intended to be more private and personal, allow them their time to grieve. Your closeness to the deceased and their family will play a role in how many of the events you attend.
Should I Bring My Children?
By and large, it is not recommended to bring children under the age of seven to a funeral or service. That said, if your appearance is important and contingent upon your bringing the children, if your children are well-behaved, or if they were close to the deceased, there are exceptions to that standard.
One thing to note is that if your children begin to cause a fuss or make noise, it’s important to bring them to an outside or separate location right away.
What Should I Wear To A Funeral
What to wear to a funeral varies quite a bit depending on what type of service you are attending. For example, most Christian and Jewish practices encourage wearing dark, subdued colors, like navy, grey, or even dark purple. On the other hand, traditional Hindu and Chinese ceremonies generally ask that mourners wear white.
What’s most important is that you’re showing respect to both the deceased and to the family, so be sure to ask about cultural traditions in advance if you are unsure.
What Should I Say To The Family?
Speaking with the family of the deceased can be difficult and overwhelming, especially if you are experiencing grief yourself. The duration and content of your condolences will largely depend on your relationship with the deceased and their family, so take that into account when deciding how best to share your sentiments.
You should also take into consideration that some religious practices ask that the immediate family doesn’t speak during the funeral service, so it’s always best to do some research if you are unfamiliar with the traditions of the service you’re attending.
What To Say
Speak to the Person’s Life: Consider bringing up their passions, like art or travel, and speaking to what made them wonderful.
Share a Memory: If time permits and the memory is a joyful one, you may consider sharing it. You want to avoid overwhelming the family, so decide between putting it in a card and saying it in the receiving line.
Give Family Condolences: If you are making an appearance on behalf of your family or even a specific group of friends, you may speak to the group and share how the deceased will be missed by all.
Provide an Opening: It can be challenging to navigate grief in the early days after loss. Offer to be an ear or a support when the family is ready and, if your relationship deems it appropriate, ask if they would like you to call and be in touch in the weeks to come.
What To Avoid
Because you are grieving and managing your own emotions, it can be difficult to know what to say—which may lead to saying the wrong thing. Here are a few things you’ll want to avoid saying at a funeral.
Gossip or Meanness: Even if you don’t intend the words to come out at such, any kind
of gossip about the deceased can be wrongly construed in the context of the funeral. There might be time for it much later on when it’s easier to joke and remember, but avoid any kind of criticism or gossip entirely when sharing condolences.
Making Light: Your instinct may be to find the positive in a challenging conversation, but statements about how a person is in a better place, how life will be easier, or how the family just needs to be strong all undermine their very genuine grief and can make you seem insensitive. Grief and the associated emotions are valid and should be respected.
However, it’s also important to note that there are certain traditions that actually encourage jokes and lighthearted banter, most often after the funeral. Examples of this include the Irish wake and the South African “after tears” party.
Comparing Your Own Experiences: This can be a double-edged sword. If you’ve had similar experiences, you may have a better understanding of how to navigate them and what the family needs most. But what you want to avoid is making the loss or grief feel like a comparison or adding extra emotions or pressure to the day. If you have had a similar loss, use it as a way to help the people you care about move forward.
What Should I Send Or Bring
For many cultures, the tradition has long been to send flowers to the home or the funeral after a loss, but the appropriate gifts for grieving friends and family members have evolved and changed over time. You can also find gift recommendations here.
Flowers are nearly always appreciated and an excellent way to say that you’re thinking of someone, but they can add an extra layer of responsibility to the person who now has to dispose of them after a time. Additionally, flowers are not considered appropriate at a Jewish funeral ceremony. You should also be aware of the meaning that flowers may hold—there’s a long tradition of the language of flowers spanning back to the Victorian era in England, but different colors of flowers hold meanings in other cultures as well.
Take your cue from what the family is asking for, to start. If there’s a request for a donation, honor it in the name of the deceased. Otherwise, consider your relationship with the family before moving forward.
What gifts will make their lives easier—and are in you a comfortable position to share them? This might be homemade food for the freezer or simply gift cards to restaurants and delivery services for when cooking is a challenge. The small things that will help them to keep their household operating as they manage the grieving process are always appreciated, like maid service, disposable plates and cups, easy meals, and transportation support.
If you have the kind of relationship that allows it, you may also want to consider gift cards for the individual, like a spa treatment or a movie ticket, so they might have the opportunity to refresh and recharge.
Does Religion/Culture Change Funeral Etiquette?
Religion can play an enormous role in how a family grieves and mourns their deceased. If you are not part of the religion or culture that is saying goodbye, here are a few things to consider:
Respect The Customs
You may not be accustomed to praying, covering your hair, or wearing a specific color during the mourning process, but you can still follow the customs and show respect to the family and deceased by engaging in their traditions.
Do Your Research
If you’re unsure of what to send or how to dress for a service you’ve not been part of before, it’s okay to do some research or ask someone familiar with the traditions ahead of time and self-edify before going in. A little bit of preparation can go a long way to helping you and the family navigate the process.
Watch And Follow
There’s no shame in learning a new culture’s traditions and cultures. If you’re unsure of what steps to take or how the deceased’s family is honoring their loved ones, simply take a step back and follow others’ leads. The goal is to be kind, respectful, and open, so you can all grieve.
Attending a funeral can be challenging. There are many emotions involved, and sometimes seeing the family or friends of a loved one grieving can add to your own sadness. Funerals are also a way to come together and celebrate life, remember good times, and honor a friend as they take the next step on their journey. Knowing the best way to navigate a funeral can help to reduce your stress, so you can focus on the day, the memories, and the people who matter most.