Generally speaking, it would be difficult to provide a universal guide to funeral etiquette. This is because there are many different cultures, religions and even regionally-specific funeral practices that take multiple forms, depending on where you are in the world. Even here in North America, with such a diverse population comprised of many demographics, there are many different versions of the funeral. That being said, etiquette, also referred to as social graces, are general rules that can help us in the navigation of life’s more difficult or awkward social situations. Sure, common sense plays a big role in funeral etiquette. However, unless you have been to many funerals, it can still be a mystery how to act, what to say and even what to wear. This guide will help you understand some basic and general rules for proper funeral behavior. Hopefully, you will feel more comfortable in an often uncomfortable social situation.
Manners and general social convention are very much the backbone of funeral etiquette. Because funerals are a delicate situation, with many emotions, personalities and experiences involved, it is important to always refer to your basic manners and common sense. Regardless of what you do, say or wear, constantly make an effort to remember why you are there. Understandably, every social situation and group of people is different. What may be right for one person’s funeral may be totally off for another. So while reading through this guide, we ask that you keep in mind that every person, family and funeral is different. Always make your best effort to adjust your actions, words and dress to accommodate these differences, as that diligence alone is half the battle.
What To Do
The best thing to do if you are unsure how to act at a funeral is watch, listen and follow. Often, there is an individual or group tasked with leading the service and they will be your most valuable resource should you be unsure about what to do. If at any point you become uncomfortable, do your best to control your feelings and draw no attention to your unwillingness or inability to participate. The most important rule though, is to simply be discrete at all times and generally respectful of others, especially the family of the deceased. Another crucial part of funeral etiquette is leaving your phone and other communication devices in the car or at the very least shutting them off before the service. No matter what, remember why you are there and acting accordingly should not be problematic.
What To Say
Knowing what to say or how to say it is one of the great mysteries of attending a funeral. Often, though, this is a problem we face as individuals and is not a kin to what is expected. The truth is unless you have been asked to speak by the family, no one expects you to say more than a few words. Most bereaved family members will be unable to give you their full attention. Keep it short and always be sincere. This is all depending on your relationship with the deceased and the surviving family members, of course.
There is no real rule about the amount that you should or shouldn’t say. It truly depends. However, “I am so sorry for your loss” or another brief expression of condolence is all that is necessary. If you feel like it, short stories of your personal experiences with the deceased are good to share. Just remember that the family must also receive condolences from others that are attending the service.
Lastly, when speaking at a funeral, even if it isn’t to the family, speak quietly. Funerals and visitations are no time to discuss personal matters like business or vacation. The focus should be on sharing and listening to stories about the deceased. Follow these guidelines and you will be fine.
What To Wear
There is no universal dress code for funerals and many factors make it difficult to make a general list of requirements. Traditionally, funerals have called for a more formal standard of dress. However, the way we deal with death is constantly changing and today’s end-of-life services are so unique, ranging from traditional to more personalized and relaxed celebrations of life. Certainly, it is a challenge to always know what is expected. Generally, without detailed instruction from the family, it is best to dress in a serious, non attention grabbing fashion. Also, it is important to be neat, clean and pressed as you would be for any other important occasion. It may not always, but how you dress to a funeral sends a message to others about your level of respect for the person who has passed away, and their family.
Handling The Visitation
A visitation, viewing or wake is a time prior to the funeral where guests are invited to view the casketed body of the deceased. This part gets a little tricky. It is understandable for some people to be uncomfortable around the dead, however it is customary to pay your respects by stepping up to the casket. Only do what you are comfortable with. No one wants you to be negatively affected or unnerved by the experience, so if you are unable to be close to the deceased, focus your efforts on providing comfort to bereaved family members instead. Both gestures are helpful.
The Funeral Reception & After The Funeral
Depending on the wishes of the family, there may or may not be a graveside service after the funeral. The funeral officiant will announce the location and if it is not located on the grounds of the funeral home, then there is usually an escort, comprised of attendees who will escort the hearse to the cemetery. You are not required to be part of the procession, though you are certainly welcome to do so unless the family has specified as a private gathering.
Many families hold a post-funeral gathering that often includes food and refreshments. Sometimes this is a potluck where close friends and family bring their own offering as contribution, and other times the family takes care of it all. No matter what type of gathering the family holds after, try to come prepared with memories and an open mind. There will be laughter, there will be tears and like the funeral itself, it is important to remain respectful, cordial and discrete.
Follow-up With The Family
After the funeral it is a meaningful show of support to follow-up with the family, even if it is in a small way. If you have not by this point done so, you can send the family a sympathy gift, note or card. In addition, check in with them several weeks after the service to see if there is anything they need. Even if you know they are okay, it is always best to extend the offer and continuously demonstrate your compassion for the family.
We hope that you have found the funeral etiquette guide to be helpful and invite you to look further into customs, traditions, and expectations for end-of-life services. As mentioned previously, there is no such thing as a uniform or universal funeral. Do your best to judge the situation and do not be afraid to reach out for clarification from available resources, whether it be a friend, family member or someone else involved with the service.