An Essential Guide to Funeral Etiquette

Funerals are the most emotional of occasions – serving as a chance to pay our last respects, whilst also paying respect to the deceased’s family. Yet despite this occasion where we join with others in mourning a mutual loss, the atmosphere can often be charged, and it may be easy to cause offence without the slightest bit of malice. In fact, upset is far more often caused out of clumsiness and ignorance, rather than actions that set out to be deliberately hurtful; ensuring that you provide comfort and support during a funeral, rather than giving cause for upset, is merely a matter of etiquette.

First things first: Should you attend the funeral?

A commonly asked question is whether mourners should indeed even attend a funeral. This is particularly common when the deceased is an ex-husband, ex-wife or the family members and friends of ex-spouses. In short the answer to this question lies in the core purpose for holding a funeral in the first place – and that is for mourners to express both love and respect for the deceased, whilst they themselves gain a sense of closure. If you feel that you cared for the deceased, then it is right for you to attend.

Key questions to consider prior to a funeral

Are there any customs that I should adhere to?

If you’re unfamiliar with the particular religion that the funeral service will be governed by, now is the time to undertake a little research as to the customs, dos and don’ts.

Should you visit the bereaved prior to the funeral?

It is good manners, and often of both support and comfort to the bereaved, to send your sympathies ahead of the funeral. It’s also courteous to call in person to provide sympathy and an offer of help face to face. Such a visit may typically only last 15 minutes.

Conversely however the bereaved may feel overwhelmed with both grief and the number of visitors that they are experiencing. If this is apparent then you can make small gestures, such as helping to make the tea, to share the load of dealing with both loss, and the practicalities of visitors.

Should you phone the bereaved before a visit?

Contacting the bereaved as soon as you are able to is good etiquette. It can also help you in choosing whether a visit may be in order – if they state that they have been overrun with visitors and are overwhelmed with arrangements then ask whether you can do anything to help.

Should condolences be sent via email?

In most instances – no, not unless you’re very close to the deceased and bereaved, such as a close friend or family member. Typically a handwritten card is far more appropriate and meaningful when compared to an email.

The funeral service: Commonly asked questions

What should you say?

Meaningful words that are expressed with honesty are far more important to those grieving than even the most carefully of selected words from a website or book on loss.

When writing a card or speaking in person to the bereaved you should speak in your own words, expressing your sympathy for the bereaved and ideally sharing a happy memory that you may have had with the deceased.

You may wish to write a draft eulogy, even if you aren’t to speak at the service, to help you think about what the deceased meant to you – and what they have meant to others.

When speaking with family and loved ones of the deceased it’s important to simply allow them to talk without continually interjecting or asking questions.

Should you attend a private funeral without an invitation?

Private funerals are those which are not open to the public; if you haven’t specifically been invited then you should not attend. You may, however, send your condolences to the family by way of a phone call or card.

Should you purchase flowers?

It’s quite acceptable to not take flowers to a funeral, particularly if you’re unable to afford them. You should, however, send your condolences prior to the funeral.

Where should you send flowers and what name should you place on a card?

If you choose to purchase flowers then you should send them ahead of time to the funeral directors; addressing the card as: “To the Funeral of Mr John Doe”.

As for the card you typically write to the family, “Dear Sally and Family”, with the name “Sally” being the deceased’s next of kin.

If the funeral is for a child then typically you can write “Dear Robert, Sally and Robert Jr.”; the parents are listed first followed by the siblings in age order.

If the family have requested a charitable donation, rather than flowers, can you still choose flowers?

For the most part you should honour the wishes of the deceased’s family – which may actually have also been the wishes of the deceased if they had made a funeral plan.

What should you wear?

In the modern age it’s no longer essential to wear black; however dress should still be conservative and of a dark colour.

Should your child attend?

Nursing babies can attend, although if they become fussy you should move to a side room. In the case of children and funerals of friends they should be left at home; although in the case of a family member it should be left to your discretion.

Children are far more resilient than many give them credit for – and funerals can actually help them learn about death and the customs that surround it. That said if there’s an open casket you should carefully consider whether your child or children are prepared for such an experience – more often than not it can be both bewildering and upsetting.

Can you take photos of the coffin – either opened or closed?

Absolutely not. This is a non-negotiable. Despite it having been common some years ago today it is not acceptable. If the next of kin does request that you take a photo you should only do so whilst all other visitors have left; and any images should not be shared online – even upon private social media profiles.

Can you take photos of the service?

Photos should not be taken in, during or directly outside of the service; if you wish to take photos of friends and family it should be done in a place away from the both the service and the immediate vicinity of the wake. What’s more you should not place these photos on social media – funerals and wakes are both considered by many as private occasions, and are certainly an event that should not be documented online.

When do I sign the guest book?

Guest books are left at both Chapels of Rest, as well as funerals. You can sign at both, or either place. You should sign with both your first and last name so other family members and friends know exactly who have left their thoughts.

The casket is open - I don’t wish to see the deceased. Is it OK not to approach the coffin?

Yes – following others having approached the coffin you can simply talk with them.

Funeral etiquette: Behaviour to avoid

There are a number of actions on the day of a funeral that must be avoided at all costs, including:

1. Don’t sit anywhere you wish

Typically the front rows are reserved for close friends and family – if you fall into neither of these categories then you should choose to sit in the middle or towards the back of the church or crematorium.

2. Don’t be late

You should aim to arrive at least ten minutes early (or earlier if you’re travelling a distance to attend); if the funeral will be a busy service then you may want to consider arriving 30 minutes early in order to find a seat. If you end up arriving late then you should enter your seating row by a side aisle; and if a procession is occurring you should wait until it’s complete to enter and take your seat.

3. Don’t use your phone

Answering emails, messages and taking photos are all strictly prohibited during a funeral service; using your phone at all is a matter of bad manners and is completely inappropriate. You should also ensure that your phone is on silent throughout; if you wish to take group photos as you haven’t seen friends or family for a long time then do so outside of the service.

4. Don’t become concerned that a religious ceremony demands that you take part

Many religious ceremonies will have elements of the congregation interacting – for prayers, mass or group repetitions of certain words, for example. Attendees aren’t, by any means, expected to partake in these, and you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable that you aren’t joining in.

The after-funeral gathering/funeral reception/wake

I know I have to speak to the family, but I don’t know what to say. I’m nervous for fear of saying the wrong thing?

Everyone has this fear – try to relax and don’t attempt to find the ‘correct’ words, simply speak naturally. Here are a few further tips:

  • If the person is crying simply hug them and tell them how sorry for their loss you are, and that you’ll always fondly remember the deceased.
  • Avoid asking about the death itself, as well as any details surrounding it.
  • Avoid unhelpful clichés and unthoughtful expressions, such as “He’s in a better place now”, “You did an amazing job at caring for her – now you may rest” and “I understand exactly how you feel”.

Is it OK to hold a conversations about the deceased? And what about conversations about other things?

Yes – absolutely. Wakes are the ideal time to reminisce over the deceased, such conversations provide comfort and are a way to mutually mourn together. Equally however conversations about other topics are fine also – and can actually provide lighter relief amidst all of the emotion. Just be sure to keep such conversations light.

What if we share stories that bring back fond memories and we laugh?

These conversations in particular are lovely ways to ease one another’s grief, and in actuality if you do have such memories then you should share them – people enjoy hearing about one another’s memories with the deceased.

What Can I Do To Help My Friend After the Funeral?

Grief is a process that really only hits home once friends and family stop calling and visiting following the funeral – it is this time when life goes on as normal for most, whilst those nearest and dearest to the deceased feel left behind.

Simply staying in contact and providing frequent offers of help can be a literal life line to many; you should also make an effort to invite them out to social events, or for quiet movie nights in. It is now, more than ever, that they’ll need contact with others, particularly if it has been a spouse who has passed.

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