12 Funeral Etiquette Tips Everyone Should Know
You might know to wear black to the service, but being aware of proper funeral etiquette will let you do much more to comfort the bereaved
Funerals are an inevitable part of life. But although they are part of a life well lived, that doesn’t mean they are easy to navigate with grace and poise. It can be hard to know what to say when someone is depressed or know the right condolence messages to use to convey your sympathy and support. But even if you feel uncomfortable, it’s still important to go to the funeral to pay your respects. Understanding funeral etiquette can mean the difference between the service going smoothly and guests inadvertently making it harder for the family. These tips can help you pay your respects and celebrate the life of the deceased.
Ask to hear stories about the deceased
It’s easy to stumble over your words when speaking to the grieving family or close friends. Although the conventional staple of funeral etiquette, “I’m sorry for your loss,” is handy to fall back on, that phrase often feels overused and insincere. Amy Cunningham, a Brooklyn-based funeral director who runs Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, recommends asking the family to tell stories about their deceased loved one.
“Grieving people say that telling stories is comforting,” Cunningham says. “They can heal by remembering.” If you’re still at a loss for words, the simple acts of hugging and listening can go a long way. “It doesn’t matter how close you are to the person; just your presence is important,” Cunningham says. This is only one of many ways to support someone who has lost a loved one.
It’s OK to laugh and smile
A funeral doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. In fact, more and more people are accepting funerals as celebrations of life rather than somber affairs. Although there are times to be solemn, “humor is a powerful thing,” Cunningham says. “Getting at the beauty of the deceased by telling a story that’s sweet or brings a smile or laugh is a lovely thing to do.”
Obviously, you’ll still want to be sensitive and aware of your boundaries, especially if you’re speaking during the service. For good measure, run your story by a family member beforehand, as you would a wedding toast. These funeral poems could be a good place to start.
Send a handwritten note
In the digital age, where emails and text messages reign, we often forget how far a simple handwritten note can go. “If you’re at a loss for words, finding a card that seems to say something that matches what you’re feeling is nice,” Cunningham says. Add a personal touch by including a photograph, a memory or an anecdote about the deceased. But watch out for these things you should never say to a grieving spouse.
Remember the anniversary
There is an intense amount of attention paid to the grieving family in the days immediately following the death, but most of it dwindles a few weeks after the funeral. Your support for the grieving family will be stronger if it is consistent.
“Small gestures over the calendar year indicate to the family that you haven’t forgotten about their loss,” Cunningham says. On the anniversary of the death, send a quick note saying that you are thinking of them and wishing them well. Your authenticity and sincerity will surely be appreciated. If you aren’t sure what to say, try these loss quotes to express your feelings.
Avoid sending bouquets
“Flowers are lovely; however, a lot of people get overwhelmed with them,” Cunningham says of this well-intentioned gesture. Instead of settling for a humdrum flower arrangement that will wither in a few days, opt for a more personalized sympathy gift, like a donation to a favorite charity or a tree planted in the name of the deceased. Doing so will show your support for the grieving family, and they will be thankful that you took the time to pay such a thoughtful tribute.
Encourage the kids to get involved
As a general rule of funeral etiquette, children under age 7 should not attend a funeral service. However, Cunningham recommends handling each individual case differently, depending on the child’s relationship with the deceased and his or her personality. A child who will cry during the ceremony (especially an infant or toddler) should be left at home with a sitter, but older children can play a meaningful role at the service.
“It’s a good thing to help children fear death less and see what generosity is all about by participating in some way,” Cunningham says. Kids can also enjoy singing during the service, or even coloring a picture for the grieving family. If they’re engaged purposefully, children can be a thoughtful, comforting presence at any funeral ceremony. These books about grief can help you process your feelings and speak to your child about loss.
Offer to take pictures
Snapping a few pictures at the service could capture positive memories if done tastefully. Although you should never take a picture of the deceased or take any pictures at all during the ceremony, “I am not against the funeral selfie,” Cunningham says. The Emily Post Institute recommends finding a time before or after the service (and away from the mourners) to snap a quick photo with relatives or friends who have been reunited for the event.
And if you have the chance to take a few respectful pictures of the flowers or place of worship, be sure to offer your photos to the family too. “The grieving family doesn’t have time to fool with that during the ceremony,” Cunningham says. “If you can document anything that triggers positive memories, I’m sure they will appreciate it.” Otherwise, it is proper funeral etiquette to keep your smartphone turned off and in your pocket or purse until you get home. Here’s what you should know about proper etiquette for dealing with death on social media.
Wear dark, subdued clothing
“Wear black” might be the most frequently heard piece of funeral etiquette. Although black is the safest bet to wear to any funeral, that doesn’t mean you have to be shrouded in it; any dark, subdued shade will do. Outside of color, the most important rule to follow regarding funeral attire is to avoid drawing attention to yourself.
“You’re there as someone honoring another, and it’s not about you,” Cunningham says. Abstain from provocative clothing or open-toed shoes like flip-flops. “Try to gauge your attire according to the preferences and inclinations of the deceased,” Cunningham says. Mimicking his or her taste is a thoughtful way to pay tribute to his or her life. For more funeral etiquette tips, learn the best things you can say to comfort someone who’s grieving.
Sit near the middle or back
The first two rows at a service are usually reserved for the immediate family or very close friends, according to the Emily Post Institute. If you do not fall into either of those categories, you can safely choose a seat located near the middle or back when you enter.
And if you’re running late, funeral etiquette dictates that you be sure to enter quietly and through a side aisle, not the center—especially if the processional has already started. In proper funeral procession etiquette, latecomers should wait until the processional has completed before sitting down.
Embrace unfamiliar religious elements
If a service contains religious elements of a faith you don’t practice, don’t feel rattled or uncomfortable. Instead, look at it as an opportunity to pay tribute to the deceased, support the family and experience a tradition that is obviously meaningful to them.
“You’re not obliged to sign on to the religious beliefs that are being expressed,” Cunningham says. “You’re only obliged to be respectful.” Although you shouldn’t feel forced to partake in a sacrament or say a prayer out loud, it might be helpful to familiarize yourself with any unique religious customs before attending the funeral. Hindus wear white to funerals, for example, while Quakers spend several minutes in silent meditation. Knowing what to expect will put you at ease before you arrive.
Don’t feel obligated to attend the burial
Following the service, a processional of cars will typically drive to a cemetery for the burial. The site of internment will be announced at the funeral, and although everyone in attendance is welcome to attend, it is typically a smaller, more private ceremony. You shouldn’t feel obligated to go if you feel awkward or uncomfortable, but “it’s a nice thing to do if you have the time,” Cunningham says.
Support the family
Above all, patience will go a long way when comforting the grieving family. Avoid even hinting that they’ll “move on” or that “time will heal,” since not only is it not very kind, but “closure is not an admirable aim,” Cunningham says. “We don’t get over loss; we just get on with our lives in the face of it.”
Instead, show your support by inviting them to participate in activities that will help them feel less sad or lonely. If you’re worried that a friend is stuck in an unhealthy grief cycle, help them find professional guidance or connect them with groups that offer community support.
About the experts
- Amy Cunningham is a Brooklyn-based funeral director who runs Fitting Tribute Funeral Services. She was recognized as one of the “Nine Most Innovative Funeral Professionals” by FuneralOne.
- The Emily Post Institute is an internationally recognized etiquette resource and a fifth-generation family business since Emily Post wrote her first book, Etiquette, in 1922.