Funeral Etiquette

May 10, 2016  |     |   0 Comment

Condolence Sympathy card


My friend’s father-in-law recently passed away.  As soon as I found out, I reached out to her to say how sorry I was for her loss and to let her know that she and her family were in my thoughts and prayers.

In speaking with her, she asked if I would write a blog about funeral etiquette.  So this one is for her.  I hope it helps.


What Can I Do or Say?

It is a highly emotional time for a family when a loved one dies. As a friend of someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, our first thought is often, “How can I help?” or “What can I do or say to help make them feel better?” For many people, there is a hesitancy to reach out because they don’t have the answers to these questions and fear they may be intruding during a family’s grieving period.

However, the most important thing you can do in such a situation is reach out to express your feelings of empathy and sympathy.  What should you say? How should you express yourself? Should you phone the family member or speak with them in person? What about email?

As soon as you hear about the passing of a beloved friend or family member, it is proper etiquette to reach out to the family as soon as possible with a phone call to offer your sympathy.  Keep the call brief.  Something as simple as, “I am so sorry for your loss.  You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers” will suffice.

There will of course be opportunities to visit with the family either at a viewing/wake or the funeral or memorial service.  When you speak with any of the family members, be authentic. Speak from your heart.  Speak kind words or share a good memory you have about the deceased.  The important thing is that you are there for them.  If they are the type of people whom you usually embrace with a greeting, a warm hug will also be appreciated.

With respect to offering your condolences via email, it is appropriate only if you are not a relative of the family or not a close friend. Sending a hand-written sympathy card or note would be much more appropriate.  However, it is now customary for most funeral homes to offer an online service where friends, family and acquaintances can virtually sign a Memorial Guest Book to express their condolences or send a sympathy card.

Am I Obligated to Attend a Funeral? 

If you are a relative to the family or a close friend, you are definitely obligated to attend the funeral.  If you are a distant friend, acquaintance or connected in some manner to the deceased, while you may not be obligated to attend, doing so is a way to directly demonstrate your sympathy family, a way to bring closure to their relationship with the deceased, and provide a sense of comfort and support to the grieving family. When in doubt, ask yourself: what is the right thing to do? If your gut and heart are telling you that your presence is required – then go.

What are my Obligations as a Guest at a Funeral?

You have many duties as a guest at a funeral.  Some of the major duties include:

  • Be on time. Enter the venue quietly. If you are late, enter a row of seating from a side aisle, not the centre so you do not distract or inconvenience other guests.
  • Sign the guest register book. Include your first and last name as well as your relationship to the deceased.
  • Give a gift.  This can include flowers or a donation to the charity of the family’s choice.  Include a signed card so that the family knows who gave them the gift.
  • Be considerate and turn off your phone.  Do not even put it on vibrate. It is distracting and disrespectful.  Do not walk around with your phone in your hand. Keep it out of plain sight.  Out of respect, you should 100% present at all times. Photos should not be taken during the ceremony, but may be taken of groups of people who don’t usually get to see one another if done away from any mourners, and with their permission.
  • Be quiet. This does not mean mute – but a funeral is not typically the time for being boisterous and distracting. Use your “inside voice” and best manners at all times. If you feel it is appropriate to bring your children to the funeral, make sure they are also on their best behaviour. Children are aware of death, and if the funeral is for someone that was close to them, such as a grandparent, they should be given the option to attend. If it is not appropriate, get a babysitter.
  • Be appropriate.  If food and beverages are served, do not overindulge. Eat something before you attend the funeral so that you have energy and do not arrive looking like the inconsiderate guest who is only there for the food and drinks.  If alcohol is served, limit yourself to one or two drinks. Be on your best behaviour at all times.

What Should I Wear to a Funeral?

Once upon a time, the answer to this was easy: wear black.  While this tradition has changed, showing up at a funeral in bright, flashy clothing will never be appropriate. Your appearance should project respect for the occasion, which is serious, so your attire should reflect that, especially if you are participating in the service. Jeans and a t-shirt are way too casual and inappropriate. Dress up rather than down. Your overall appearance and grooming should be neat, polished and clean.

Where Should I Sit at a Funeral?

Traditionally, the first few rows of seating at a funeral are designated or reserved for the immediate family of the deceased, with extended family members sitting behind them.  Other than these general seating arrangements, there are no other rules in terms of where to sit at a funeral or memorial service. At a large venue, sit closer to the front to help create a more intimate feeling.  If there isn’t enough seating, standing at the back is acceptable.

What Do I Do After the Funeral?

At the end of a funeral or memorial service, it is common for some of the relatives of the deceased to stop at the back of the venue or outside to briefly thank those who have attended the service. Ensure you acknowledge them as you leave. If there is a formal burial after the service, you are welcome – but not obligated – to follow the family to the grave site service unless the burial is private.

After the burial, you may be invited to attend a social gathering at the funeral home or the private home of a family member in honour of the deceased. If you attended the funeral, it is polite to also attend the social gathering to show your respect to the deceased and grieving family. Do not overstay your welcome, however.

The months following the death of a loved one can be the most difficult for a grieving family and friends. This is a time when they will most need your support.  Keep in touch. Make a simple phone call, send another “thinking of you” card, bring them their favourite dish of food, or offer to do something special for them like running errands. Let them know you care.

In conclusion, the best rule of etiquette to remember when attending a funeral is to be respectful and appropriate at all times. Demonstrate your sympathy by being truly present for the grieving family and in honouring the memory of the deceased.

Erin Crotty, Founder & Director, BloomStra Consulting

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