Someone you know has died (or has lost a loved one), but you can’t attend the funeral. Or maybe you’re debating whether or not you should go…
What’s the proper and respectful thing to do?
Today, we’re going to get into the details of how and why
- Etiquette for missing a funeral
- What to say when you can’t attend
- Is it disrespectful to not go to a funeral?
- Valid reasons for missing a funeral
- What to do to “make up” for not going
Let’s get right to it.
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Etiquette for Missing a Funeral
- Let the family know that you can’t make it
- Tell them in a handwritten letter or card
- Avoid calling them on the phone
- Consider including flowers, a sympathy gift, or a gift card
- Offer to meet or help out when you are able and when it is convenient for them
- Attend the events that you can: reception, memorial service, etc
Send a Sympathy Card
The best thing to do when you can’t attend the funeral is to send a sympathy card or condolence message. This shows that you are thinking of them, expresses encouragement and condolence, and does not require anything back from the grieving person.
So get a good sympathy card and write out a personal note by hand.
In your message, you don’t need to explain why you couldn’t make it to the funeral. To someone who has just lost their whole world, no reason will seem acceptable. Simply explain that you were unable to attend and express your love, support, and sympathy.
Here is our guide on what to say in a sympathy card message.
Send Flowers or a Sympathy Gift
Along with your card, you may also want to send a sympathy gift. Flowers (or even plants) have long been a popular choice.
But flowers fade, wilt, and… well, die. And plants require care, which may not be what the grieving person wants to focus on right now. For these reasons, many people choose to send other types of sympathy gifts.
This might be a physical gift or a donation to a worthy cause in honor of the decedent. Or it could be something practical that the person might use during their time of grief.
Here are some good options:
- Gift: Personalized memorial bird feeder
- Donation: Have a tree planted in memory of their loved one
- Practical: “Compassion Package” filled with useful things like soap and paper plates
For more ideas, here are 29 Sympathy Gifts for Someone Who Is Grieving.
Send a Gift Card
Sometimes a gift card is the most effective gift. Funerals always put a strain on finances, so a practical gift card to WalMart or Amazon or the local grocery store will be appreciated.
Or go with something that is more of a treat. Give a gift card to a favorite restaurant, local bakery or coffee shop, or to a spa for pampering.
Related: 101 Condolence Messages
Offer to Visit or Help Out
In your card (or in a text), offer to come by and pay a visit or help out in some way. Even though you can’t make it to the funeral, you still want to show that you care.
If you offer help or assistance, be specific. Few people will respond to a generic “let me know if you need anything.” Instead, think about what they might need or appreciate, and ask if you can provide that. Try to phrase it more actively: “I’d like to ____ for you, would that be helpful? Let me know when works best for you.”
This might include babysitting, yard work, house cleaning, errands, grocery shopping, picking kids up from school or gymnastics, returning funeral-related rentals, or even having visiting relatives stay with you to relieve the strain of hosting for your friend.
Avoid Phone Calls
People who are grieving typically do not want to talk on the phone. The effort it takes to try to be social and socially acceptable (even over the phone) can feel like a huge burden.
So avoid calling them out of the blue. Instead, as we’ve already noted, send a card.
You can also text. If you’re close to the grieving person, ask if they would like a phone call or even a visit from you. Let them know it’s ok to say no. But some people do find comfort in the voice or presence of others, so it’s worth asking if you feel like it might help.
Attend What You Can
Perhaps you’re in the area, but you just can’t make it to the funeral service itself. So do the next best thing: Go to the visitation or wake, or try to make it to the reception even if you’re a little late.
Apology for Missing a Funeral
What should you say when you can’t attend the funeral?
Well, for the person who has lost a loved one, since their whole world has gone through major upheaval, any excuse you give won’t seem good enough. So don’t give an excuse or reason why you can’t make it to the funeral.
Instead, simply give your condolences for their loss, tell them that you regret that you can’t (or couldn’t) make it to the funeral, and express your love, sympathy, and support. You can include flowers, a sympathy gift, or a gift card, as well as an expression of your desire to get together or help out in some way when you are able.
So the proper etiquette for missing a funeral says that you should send a letter, note, or card of apology. Write it out by hand and send it in the mail, and do it as soon as possible.
Missing a Funeral FAQ
Is it disrespectful to not go to a funeral?
If you are unable to attend a funeral, it is not disrespectful – it’s just life. Genuine reasons to not attend the funeral include prior commitments, transportation, and financial or health issues.
(Prior commitments are things like serving in the military. This would not include meeting up with your paintball buddies or keeping a hair appointment.)
However, beneath this question is the assumption that you could go to the funeral, you’re simply choosing not to go. Is that wrong? Is it disrespectful to purposefully choose to not attend the funeral?
In brief, yes, I think so. If you were close enough to the decedent to feel like you are expected to attend, you probably should go to the funeral.
Funerals are about showing respect for the life of the person who died, and also providing support for the grieving family. These are things that any person should do for those they care about.
If you’re in the area, attending the funeral takes only a small part of your day. To clear your schedule, dress appropriately, get to the location, and be there for an hour or so – this is very least you could do. And so you should.
If you need to travel for the funeral, it takes a bigger sacrifice. Typically only those who are very close (close family members, best friends, etc) are expected to travel long distances to attend the service. If it is in your power to do so, you should.
What are some valid reasons to miss a funeral?
As mentioned above, most valid reasons fall into several main categories. These include unavoidable prior commitments, logistics of timing or travel, financial hardship, health issues, or even sometimes family dynamics.
Here are some reasons most people would consider valid for not attending the funeral:
- The funeral is on very short notice and you can’t get out of work or other commitments, or arrange travel/childcare
- You live very far away and can’t afford airfare, lodging, or time off work
- You live far away and were not very close with the decedent or their family
- Prior commitments and obligations such as:
- Adoption or foster care
- Military service
- Scheduled operation
- In a drug treatment program
- College tests that can’t be retaken
- Major transactions such as a business merger
- Health issues or concerns
- Public health issues like the coronavirus pandemic
- Family tensions (for example, if you are an ex-spouse, abusive history, etc)
- Taking time off work would endanger your job security or impact your finances
What can I do to make up for missing the funeral?
Write and send a sympathy card. Send a memorial gift. If you can’t attend the funeral but are free immediately after, try to make it to the reception if possible.
Find a way to let the family know, in a sensitive way, that you wish you could have been at the funeral, and that you love and support them in their time of grief.
One last thing you can do to make up for missing the funeral is to follow up later with your friend, especially in the following months after things slow down. Set a reminder in your calendar three months out to check in with them.
Perhaps even better, note down the date their loved one died and put that in your calendar. Follow up each year on the “anniversary” to let your friend know you’re thinking of them. It sounds weird, but it’s not – that date will always be a tough day for them, and they will appreciate you reaching out. Read more in our Death Anniversary Guide.