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Attending a funeral isn’t something you do every day. What is the proper funeral etiquette? What are you supposed to say and do? And perhaps more importantly, what are you not supposed to say and do?
Here is our brief guide on funeral etiquette, including what to say and do (or not) for when you attend a funeral. First, we address how guests should act, followed by ideas of what to say to the bereaved family. And finally we have a section on funeral etiquette for the immediate family.
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Funeral Etiquette: What to Do
Read the funeral notice for clues. You may receive a formal invitation, an email or social media invite, or read about the funeral in the newspaper. If you read carefully, you’ll find clues (and sometimes straightforward instructions!) that will direct you on how to dress, what to do, and what to bring. A formal notice in the newspaper stating that the funeral will be held at the local denominational church tells you one thing, while a social media post inviting you to a “celebration of life” and potluck tells you another thing. Use your judgment.
How should I dress? Choose an outfit that leans towards more formal and more conservative. Darker colors, especially black, are most appropriate. Think dressy or business casual. Avoid bright colors or anything that says, “look at me!” Times are changing and you are no longer expected to wear completely formal clothing when attending a funeral. If you use common sense and dress to honor the deceased and their family, you will be fine. We have an entire article on the subject if you would like more information.
Do I know the deceased well enough to attend? Yes. Unless the funeral (or wake/viewing/visitation) is private, then you are typically welcome to attend. Most families will be honored that you chose to come to pay your respects, no matter how briefly or long ago you knew the decedent. Even if you are accompanying a friend or family member as a support person, you will still be welcome. Your attendance at the funeral a way to show support for those who are grieving while honoring the life of their loved one.
When should I arrive at the funeral? About 15 minutes early. This will give you plenty of time to park, sign the guest book, say hello to a few acquaintances, and find your seat.
Should I sign the guest book? Yes. Sign or print your name legibly, and if you are not well-known to the family then you can also include your relationship or affiliation with the deceased. For instance, “Boys & Girls Club of America” or “friend of Neil Hargrave” or “Roommates at NYU.”
Where should I sit at the funeral? The first few rows at the front are almost always reserved for the family. Aside from that you are free to sit anywhere. Once you have signed the guest book and spoken to anyone you need to speak to, you can sit in the closest available space(s) to the front.
What if I do not share the beliefs practiced or highlighted in the funeral? This will take a little bit of wisdom on your part. Certainly you do not want to object or make a scene; a funeral is not the place for a protest, witnessing, or debate. On the other hand, you are free to not participate in any rituals or religious observations that are contrary to your own beliefs. For instance, if a prayer is offered from a religious perspective outside of your own, you do not need to join in the prayer but it is most loving and respectful to simply bow your head along with everyone else.
Should I bring my children? Yes. If you have very young small children or infants, it might be best to sit close to the exit so you can take them out if they begin to make noise. Children grieve too, so it is important for them to attend if they (or you, as their parent), wish for them to be present. However, if a child objects to going to the funeral it might be best for them to not attend. Be sure to dig a little deeper and ask about why they do not want to go. Here is some further guidance on the subject.
Should I take photos or recordings? No, unless the family tells everyone to do so. Often a family will hire a professional photographer or assign a friend to take pictures. Your camera/phone will just be in the way and draw attention to yourself, so it is best to refrain.
Should I bring flowers? A gift? No, it is best to send flowers to the funeral in advance or to send them afterwards to their home. Flowers are arranged beforehand, and you will not want to have the family figuring out what to do with your flowers or gift 10 minutes before the funeral begins. For gifts, it is acceptable to bring a small gift or card to the funeral but it is most considerate to send it or drop it by another time. Read more here.
Should I go to the graveside service? Yes. Typically all are welcome at a graveside service unless it is specifically limited to family only.
Should I attend the reception? Yes, unless it is private. You are not required to go but it is another way to pay your respects and show your support.
Should I talk to the family? Yes, but be brief, especially before the funeral begins. Wait to talk more at the reception, but even then make sure you are not monopolizing the family. They will have dozens or even hundreds of people that wish to speak to them, so be considerate of their time, attention, and their ability to focus during an emotional time.
Should I still go if I can only make it to the reception? Sometimes, life happens. If you can make only one event, you should probably choose to attend the funeral. But if you truly are unable to attend until it is time for the reception, that is acceptable and the family will appreciate that you came.
When in Rome…. Do as the Romans do. In other words, a funeral is a time to follow the lead of the family, officiant/clergy, and everyone else. It’s not a time to express your own individuality or draw attention to yourself. The purpose of the event is to honor the dead, and respecting the culture and customs of the deceased and their family is the best way to do this.
Funeral Etiquette: What to Say
Say something. It’s important that you acknowledge the loss that has occurred. Express your condolences to the family members. It can be as simple as the timeless “My condolences,” or even the traditional “I’m sorry for your loss.” If you know the family, say what is on your heart and let them know you are there for them and hurting with them. If you do not know the family, introduce yourself and let them know your relationship to the deceased.
Say the decedent’s name. It might sound counterintuitive, but grieving family members appreciate hearing their loved one’s name spoken aloud. There is a sense in which avoiding the person’s name feels like you are trying to erase their existence. Conversely, when you say the decedent’s name, it validates what the grieving family members are feeling because it implies that the person was real and so is the grief and loss that they are experiencing. Read more about this in Nancy Guthrie’s helpful book What Grieving People Wish You Knew.
Tell a story or memory. If you have shared special times with the deceased, it’s good to tell others a funny or interesting story, something that illustrates the person’s kindness, creativity, or passion. This is a way that you can share an “extra moment” of the person’s life with their family and loved ones, and it will be treasured more than you know.
A few phrases that are ok to use. No one wants to accidentally say something offensive or hurtful. That’s why our first point was to remind you that you should say something. But what to say that doesn’t sound trite, thoughtless, or banal? It’s ok to prepare a simple phrase to say to the grieving family members. Here are a few:
- I don’t know what to say.
- I miss [name] too.
- [Name] was a wonderful person. My condolences to you and your family.
- There are no words. Just know that I love you and will also miss [name].
- I just want you to know that I am going to be there for you, no matter what.
What NOT to say. Don’t talk about your own loss, or say that you know how they feel. This is one of the most common funeral etiquette faux pas, because people try to empathize with those who are grieving. But it doesn’t go over well. Sure, you may have also lost a mother, but you didn’t lose their mother. You too might have gone through cancer with a beloved uncle, but your uncle’s experience really has very little to do with their loss. Avoid saying this sort of thing.
A few more phrases to avoid:
- I know how you feel
- I’ve lost a ___ too
- He/she was so young
- Everything happens for a reason
- It was God’s will
- It was her/his time to go
- Call me if you need anything
- Anything that begins with “At least…”
- Sappy phrases about angels, looking down from above, watching over us, etc
For more details about why you should avoid these phrases, and what to say instead, see this article under the “What NOT to say” section.
Funeral Etiquette: For Immediate Family
If you are in the immediate family, how are you expected to act, and what should you do? Here are some helpful tips.
Dress up, not down. Funeral attire is getting more casual for the general public, but when you are part of the immediate family or very close to them, it is best to dress respectfully in honor of the deceased. Black is always appropriate, as are suits with ties, modest dresses, and pantsuits.
Can I leave early? I’m not sure I can talk to people… You might not want to be around people after the funeral. If that is the case, arrange to be escorted out to your transportation first before the rest of the attendees are released.
What do I say to people? “Thank you for coming” is perfectly acceptable. You do not need to say anything else. If others express their condolences, a simple “thank you” will suffice. For the most part, people will understand if you do not have much to say. And of course if you find comfort in talking more, by all means do so.
What do I say to insensitive comments? Expect to hear some insensitive or even inappropriate questions and comments. People don’t always know what to say, so sometimes they say things without thinking. Again, a simple “thank you” is enough. If someone wants to know details about the passing (this is especially common if the death was unexpected), you do not need to answer all their questions. Consider preparing a simple, brief explanation of how they died, then say you prefer not to talk about it at this time.
What if I cry or break down? Crying and other expressions of grief are appropriate at a funeral. Don’t worry too much about what people think or how you are “supposed” to act. If you feel overwhelmed and need some space, you can retreat to the foyer, outside, or to a private room in the funeral home or church.
Ask for help where you need it and say no when you don’t. People will bring gifts and food, offer to help and offer to come visit. They want to show you love and support, and it is all right to accept it. Ask someone to help by recording who brought what so you can send them a note of thanks later. Make sure anyone who drops off non-disposable dishes marks their name on the dish so you can return it. And if you need some time and space, or don’t need the help, thank them for their offer and let them know that your needs are met for now.
Write thank-you notes. The number of calls, gifts, notes, cards, flowers, and meals might be a lot. That is why we suggest that you ask someone to help with this, someone who can keep tabs on who gave or did what so you can thank them later. However, if you can’t write a note to every person, they should understand. At the very least, it is most proper to send a thank-you note to those directly involved in the service. This includes the officiant or minister, the funeral director, anyone who delivered a eulogy or a reading, musicians, pallbearers, and those who helped with decorations or the reception.