For most of us, attending a funeral is something we rarely do and it is not uncommon for people to be uncertain about the right things to do or say. While people generally want to provide comfort, offer words of support, and show their love for the person who passed away, navigating the social expectations of a funeral or other end of life ceremonies can be awkward.
While each funeral or memorial service is unique, here are some basic guidelines that may be helpful to you. Although attending a funeral may be uncomfortable regardless of how prepared you feel, these tips may help you feel more at ease while you remember the deceased and take time to say a final goodbye. It is also a good idea to check the obituary for any details or special requests regarding funeral attendees.
It is always appropriate to offer your condolences to the grieving family, share fond memories or stories of the deceased, and express your sympathy. Try to keep it simple and heartfelt, such as “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “They will be deeply missed.” These relatively small words can mean a lot to those suffering from a recent loss and help prevent the common issue of speaking too much and potentially offending anyone unintentionally. You may also consider offering support or help to the family during this time, depending on your relationship with them. Letting people know you are there to help them is a wonderful way to provide comfort during an emotional time.
Be mindful of your words and try to avoid any statements that may come off as insensitive, hurtful, or rude to a grieving family. Do not ask how the person died and avoid using platitudes like “they’re in a better place” or “it was their time to go”, as these statements may cause more harm than good. Avoid making the death about yourself or being too dismissive of the situation. Making inappropriate jokes or being too casual should also be avoided. It is always a good idea to play it safe and err on the side of caution. Be respectful of the situation and those who are mourning, and offer genuine condolences and support to the bereaved.
Choosing what to wear to a funeral or memorial service will depend on the type of service being held and whether it is a formal or more casual event. For traditional funeral ceremonies in a church or at a funeral home, you generally want to dress in a more conservative manner. Typically muted and subtle colors like grays, blues, browns, and black are appropriate. One good suggestion is to dress as you would for a job interview. Avoid clothing that is brightly colored or too flashy, unless the family specifically requests cheerful bright colors.
A memorial service or celebration of life is usually a less formal event, especially if being held outdoors. While you may be able to dress a little less conservatively for these services, you should still avoid being overly casual and dress in a respectful manner, avoiding t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops.
Also take into consideration any religious or cultural customs which might influence the clothing choices at a funeral or memorial service. The obituary may also list specific requests made by the family regarding any preferences for clothing at the event.
If the family is holding a visitation or viewing, they will typically form a line to greet attendees. This is a time to share your condolences with the family, but your words should be brief. It is not appropriate to have a lengthy conversation as the family may be very emotional and they are trying to greet other attendees. There is usually additional time to speak with family members following the visitation or during a reception held after the funeral or memorial service. You should also be aware of other visitors and avoid spending too much time holding up the line or saying your goodbyes at the casket. Take a few moments to express your sympathy to the family and pay your respects to the deceased.
Also be aware of the time the service begins and do your best to be punctual (or a few minutes early.) You do not want to interrupt the service or disturb other mourners by arriving after a service has begun. In the event that you are running late, try to enter as quietly as possible and select a seat in the back of the room. There may be ushers to help you find an appropriate seat, but typically the first few rows are reserved for family and close friends. Other attendees are generally free to choose any available seat in the remaining rows, usually located toward the back of the facility.
Using your phone during a funeral or memorial service is one of the biggest etiquette issues that frequently arises. Ideally all cell phones will be completely turned off or left in the car, but at the very least they should be silenced. If you must have your phone with you during the service, avoid checking it unnecessarily or letting it become a distraction. A funeral or memorial service is also not an appropriate event to be shared on social media out of respect for the deceased and the family. If you need to use your phone to take or return a phone call or check a message, please excuse yourself to another room before doing so.
The family is likely feeling overwhelmed and emotional after a death, so they may not be ready for visitors immediately. Depending on your relationship to the deceased and level of comfort with the family, you may choose to wait on visiting until they’ve had more time to process and handle the urgent things that arise after someone passes away. Many people appreciate help with basic daily tasks such as grocery shopping, meal preparation, caring for pets or children, housework, and yard work. If you have a close relationship with the family, you may also offer to help coordinate the service, stay at the house to help them receive visitors, or keep track of any flowers and gifts received.
In some situations it may be better to wait a few weeks after a funeral service to check in and offer your support to the family. They may appreciate you asking in advance prior to stopping by to visit to allow more time to prepare. Try to stay connected to the family even after the funeral, and don’t forget that significant holidays and special dates can be hard. You may want to offer additional support and help during these times, such as including them in events, sending cards, or simply calling to see how they are.
The decision of whether to include a child in a funeral or memorial service is personal and depends on the situation. Attending a funeral and saying a final goodbye to a family member or loved one is sometimes helpful in helping a child process their grief. However, you should always consider the significance of the relationship with the deceased and the age of the child. Very young children may not be able to emotionally handle a funeral or have the maturity to understand what is happening. For older children, it can be helpful to have a conversation with them about whether they want to attend the funeral and if so, talk to them in advance about what to expect. Preparing them in advance for situations involving a viewing or open casket can help some children feel more comfortable and put them in a better position to emotionally process the situation.
People often want to offer their support by sending a gift or flowers to the family after a death. Cards are a meaningful gesture to share your condolences and give the family a keepsake to remember their loved one. Gifts of food or acts of service such as helping out around the house or with other tasks are also greatly appreciated by most people experiencing a loss. These simple things can sometimes feel overwhelming in the early days following a death, and families are generally grateful for the support.
Sending flowers is a very traditional gesture when someone has experienced a loss. Flowers may be sent to the funeral home to be included as part of the service or directly to the family at their home. Families may make specific requests for donations or charitable contributions in lieu of flowers, so always make sure to check the obituary before sending anything. Different religious and cultural standards may also make sending flowers inappropriate, so be sure to do some research on different traditions in those situations.