Funeral etiquette guide: What to say, what to wear, and more

From the funeral viewing to the post-funeral reception, this detailed advice will help you properly pay your respects

Learning someone has passed away can stir up a range of emotions and uncertainties. Yet, no matter the circumstance, if you need to attend a funeral service, you’ll share one desire with everyone else there: to do the right thing in each sensitive situation. The following funeral etiquette guide can help you through every step.

What to do when you hear the news

When you hear the news of someone’s passing, you may question whether you should give a condolence gift or extend condolences before the viewing, visitation, or funeral.

When should you contact the bereaved?

When you have a close relationship with the deceased or the bereaved, you’ll be expected to reach out immediately to express your sympathies and offer support. If the departed is someone you don’t know as well, such as business associates or neighbors, it is not necessary to reach out prior to funeral services, but it is not frowned upon if you feel inclined to do so.

How should you contact the bereaved?

How you contact the bereaved should also be based on your relationship. Messages to family and close friends should be conveyed by phone or in person. However, email and snail mail, such as letters and greeting cards, are okay for more casual acquaintances. When considering the use of text messaging, think of the person to whom you are sending the message and whether he or she would find it appropriate. Many people still feel the medium is too informal for such delicate communication.

Should you give a condolence gift?

If you’ve been in contact with the family of the deceased, you may have learned ways in which you can show care in their hour of need, such as providing meals. Otherwise, sending flowers is a customary condolence gift. Arrangements can be delivered to the funeral home in advance of funeral services or to the bereaved’s home at any time. However, it’s important to honor any requests made in lieu of flowers, such as a donation to a cause or to the family’s funeral expenses.

What to say at a funeral or in condolences

Words never seem to come easy when thinking about what to say at a funeral or in the days leading up to services. However, funeral etiquette says the most profound condolences are often short and come from the heart. For example, if you were close to the deceased, share a happy story about your time together or a trait you really valued in his or her personality. Should you find yourself too emotional to do so, simply let the family know you’ve been thinking of them. You can always send a letter or card later if you feel compelled to share more. 

What not to say at a funeral

Although you have the best intentions when expressing condolences, you must be mindful of the bereaved’s delicate emotional state. Here are a few tips on what not to say at a funeral:

  • Don’t compare their experience or label their feelings with statements, like “I know how you feel” and “You seem to be holding up well.” No two relationships or deaths are the same, and the face the bereaved put on may not portray how they feel inside.

  • Don’t diminish their loss. Even if you believe the deceased is in a better place, there’s no guarantee the bereaved shares the sentiment, especially so soon.

  • Don’t rush the grieving process. Let the bereaved come to grips with their loss in their own time. It’s important to let them grieve, so steer clear of suggestions on how to feel better now. Instead, let them know it’s okay to be sad.

What to wear to a funeral

When you’re contemplating what to wear to a funeral, conservative, black ensembles are conventional and appropriate. However, other muted hues, such as dark gray, navy, or brown, are suitable, too. The key is to be subtle because bright colors often signify celebration versus mourning.
The proper attire for men includes a suit or dress pants with a shirt and tie. Women can wear dresses, skirts, dress pants, and blouses with minimal to no pattern. All should wear dress shoes, such as loafers for men or pumps for women, and keep accessories simple.

Tips for attending a funeral viewing or visitation

Funeral visitations and viewings give you an opportunity to express your condolences to family and friends of the deceased prior to the funeral. Attire should follow similar guidelines as what to wear to a funeral.

Funeral viewing etiquette does not require you to view the body. If you feel comfortable doing so, wait until other mourners leave the casket to give them privacy to say goodbye. Then, when it’s your turn to pay your respects, spend only a couple of minutes remembering the deceased or thinking of the family before allowing others to approach.
The amount of time you stay will depend on your relationship with the bereaved. It may also depend on the location of the funeral viewing or visitation. People generally linger longer if it’s held at someone’s home versus the funeral home. When in doubt, exit when other guests do.

Tips for attending the funeral service

On the day of the funeral, you should make every effort to arrive early and be seated before the service begins. When finding a seat, remember the first couple of rows are reserved for family and the next few for close friends. If you’re an acquaintance, sit in a middle or back row. If you bring young children, sit in the back to allow for a quiet exit, if necessary.

Tips for attending the graveside service

When a graveside service follows a funeral, the officiant will announce details at the end of the funeral. You don’t have to attend if you’re not family or a close friend. If you do, join the procession of cars leaving the funeral by getting in line somewhere after the family.

Chairs may or may not be available at the burial site. If they’re present, they’re reserved for family members, handicapped attendees, or the elderly. Unless you’re among these individuals, plan to stand behind the seated family during the graveside service. The service is usually brief and concludes with the casket being lowered into the ground. You’ll either say goodbyes then or follow the procession of cars to the post-funeral reception.

Tips for attending the post-funeral reception

The funeral officiant will provide details at the end of the funeral service if there will be a post-funeral reception. Often, when it is hosted by the bereaved, food and beverages are provided. However, some events may be potlucks, so you may want to contribute a dish. A general rule is to not bring alcohol, unless you know with certainty that it’s acceptable. 
The atmosphere of the post-funeral reception will likely be more informal than the funeral services. While it’s okay to share stories and laughs with others, you should be mindful that the bereaved will be tired from the day’s events, so you shouldn’t stay longer than the reception end time.
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Photo credit: iStock

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