Funeral etiquette: what to wear, do and say at a funeral

Funeral etiquette: what to wear, do and say at a funeral
It's so hard to find the right words to say when someone you love is suffering.

Funerals are events that are high on emotions for both the bereaved and attendees alike. They can be particularly overwhelming if you have not attended many services before or if an upcoming funeral promises to be vastly different than from what you are used to.

Whether you are attending a funeral, celebration of life, visitation or wake, it is important to understand proper funeral etiquette—ideally, as far ahead of the service as possible so that you can be better prepared.

Here are some tips on funeral etiquette for people who are going to a funeral without any specific role in the service itself. 

Typical funeral services

To begin with, nowadays, there is no such thing as a typical funeral service. As people evolve in their perception and comfort with death, and mores change, funeral services can range from very religious services to “somewhat” happy celebrations that pay tribute to a person that is passed.

The religion, culture and last wishes of the deceased adds some complexity as well. After all, a religious service for someone of the Hindi faith, for example, will be a stark contrast of that of someone who is Jewish. An atheist funeral will definitely not be the same as one for a staunch Catholic. If you are close to the grieving family, gently ask for their guidance a few days before the service. And of course, once you are at the service, observe what other people are doing. Go with the flow, remain discreet and you’ll be fine. Just your presence will be appreciated.

What to wear at a funeral service

A funeral is no time to show off your fashion prowess or your latest trendy outfit. Depending on the level of formality of the funeral, it is best to dress formally, conservatively and in subdued colours. Keep accessories and jewelry understated. The last thing you want is to call attention to yourself. Follow any dress codes of the church or temple and again, look into the customs of the specific religion or culture. When in doubt, dress as though you were going to a job interview.

Another important tip? Think of items you may need during the funeral, including sunglasses, an umbrella, proper walking shoes, a fan—and tissues.

What to bring to a funeral service

Nothing is usually expected from guests who attend a funeral. You may want to send flowers for the day of the funeral service or even sympathy flowers to a family member’s home or office. Sometimes, the deceased or bereaved family will ask that people make a donation to a charity in lieu of flowers or gifts. Normally, this will be indicated in the obituary.

Nevertheless, if you want to bring something to the funeral, stick to a single flower, bouquet of flowers or sympathy card. If you are close to the family, you can offer to bring food for the reception or even take on some of the family’s responsibilities before, during or after the funeral. This type of help can be related to the service or simply a means to unburden loved ones with daily tasks so that they can gain some respite or extra time to finalize funeral arrangements.

Memorial gifts, such as memorial trees, photo albums or picture frames, candles, ornaments and wind chimes may also be appropriate. You can also light a virtual candle to express your condolences.

What to do at a funeral service

While funeral services can vary, many include a visitation (otherwise known as a wake)—either on the day of the funeral, or a day or two beforehand. During this time, a casket or urn is present. Family members greet visitors who offer them words of sympathy. During visitations, line up to present your condolences to each family member, even if you don’t know him or her. Shake the person’s hand, stating your name and how you know the deceased. Offer a few words of consolation. If you know the person well, you can hug them or kiss them on cheeks.

Funeral services often take place in a church, temple or funeral home. Leave the front seats for the immediate family and sit where you feel most at ease. If you are unsure of what to do, look around you and follow other attendees’ suit. You need not recite the prayers or hymns if you don’t know them or don’t feel comfortable.

Burials are often reserved for close friends and family members. Should you be invited, simply stand back and wait for the proceedings to be over. It is up to you if you want to attend the post-funeral reception. Some people like to attend so that they can speak more freely to the people that they know. If you don’t know anybody, as may be the case for a colleague, for example, you are not obligated to attend.

What to say at a funeral service

Many people can be at a loss of what to say at a funeral; they are nervous and afraid of committing a faux pas. Simply saying “My condolences” may suffice. You can explain how much you will miss the deceased, how bereaved you feel, what a wonderful person the deceased was, etc. If you have extra time at the reception, you can recount fond memories and stories of the person who has passed. Remain authentic and speak from the heart. If you find yourself too choked up to speak at length, remember that others probably are, too. In that case, be brief.

One caveat: there are some things you shouldn’t say to grieving family members and friends. These include:

  • “He/she is in a better place now.”
  • “I know how you are feeling.”
  • “Time heals all wounds.”
  • “It was (add religious deity’s name here)’s calling.”
  • “It was his/her time.”
  • “Life must go on.” or “You’ll get through this.” 

While these statements are mostly likely filled with the right intentions, they may be perceived as minimizing mourners’ grief or that there was a rational reason for the death. Rather, stick to expressions, such as these:

  • “I am sorry for your loss.”
  • “He or she was a wonderful person and will be missed.”
  • “You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.” 

While funerals and memorial services are unsettling events, keep in mind that what counts the most is your presence and consideration. Prepare in advance, ease the jitters and simply be yourself. Grieving family and friends will be evermore appreciative of your kind gesture.

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