If you’re not a regular churchgoer, the idea of attending a Christian funeral can be intimidating. But don’t worry: while Christian funerals do have their traditions, most are accessible even to secular people.
Every religion has its variations on a funeral service. A funeral at a Catholic Church, for instance, is steeped in traditional rituals. The service will focus more on religious texts and less on the deceased. This means there will be no eulogies by family and friends. But don’t let that put you off religious burials entirely.
Most Christian burials, Protestant burials, for instance, are more modest and low-key, and they keep the focus on the person being mourned.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens During a Christian Funeral Service
- Christian Funeral Etiquette
- Christian Burials and Post-Funeral Practices
Christian funerals, in general, have several commonalities. Many will have wakes, which will allow you time to mingle a little more informally with other guests. Services follow a standard agenda including hymns and prayers, although those pieces can vary and are often selected by the family specifically to honor the deceased. You must adhere to a particular dress code.
If you’re not a regular churchgoer or have never attended a Christian burial before, you can still blend right in.
After all, a little research will go a long way. Read up on what to expect at a funeral, and you’ll gain all the confidence you need.
COVID-19 tip: If you're planning a virtual Christian funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still adapt many of these funeral traditions (including virtual wakes, readings, and receptions) for your online guests. Just speak with your funeral director or event planner to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.
Christian funerals usually take place about one week after a death takes place. Many families opt to hold a wake in advance of a funeral.
Christian funerals all have some ceremonial aspects no matter the denomination. Those rituals are usually laid out in programs handed out at the start of the service. If you aren’t a regular churchgoer and you’re not sure what to do, follow along with other people.
The wake before the service
Wakes are usually held a few days ahead of a funeral, but in some cases, they take place on the same day. In the case of same-day wakes, the wake usually takes place in the same church as the funeral. Most other wakes happen at a funeral home.
Christian beliefs about death and burial traditions allow for embalming, so the casket may be open at a wake. This will depend on a variety of factors, including the wishes of the deceased and their family. If you have never been to an open viewing before, you may find it a little unsettling. It can be difficult to see the person you knew now devoid of life.
You can still attend, but you may prefer not to approach the casket for a closer look or a personal goodbye. Instead, focus on interacting with fellow mourners in the spirit of the event.
Where the funeral is held
Christian funerals are typically held in a church or graveside at a church-affiliated cemetery. Regardless of where the service is held a priest or minister will lead it.
If there is no wake planned, the graveside service usually includes time to say a personal goodbye to the deceased.
Who usually attends
Invitations are rarely sent out for funerals or memorial services. This may make you feel uncertain about whether your presence is welcome, but rest assured that it’s usually assumed that all are welcome to join.
Still unsure? Seek out the obituary. That may include details that it is a “closed funeral”, which restricts attendance to close friends and family members by invitation only. If it doesn’t say anything like that, you should be fine.
If you know what funeral home is taking care of the wake, you can also call them and ensure that the Wake is open to all.
Whether you should attend an open funeral or not depends on how close you were to the deceased. Family, friends, coworkers, even friendly acquaintances will usually attend a funeral. Even if you don’t know the deceased, you may also attend if you have a close friend who is mourning and you think they could use your support.
Funerals aren’t only about the dead: they’re about the living. If you need some closure, or if you want to offer solace to the people close to the deceased, you’ll be a welcome presence. If you want to go but can’t due to distance or illness, send a nice handwritten card to the bereaved.
Even if it takes a few weeks to get around to sending out a card, send it anyway. The mourning period is long: sending condolences after the fact can help relatives of the deceased know that they still have support.
Typical service program
Mourners will sit down in the church or at the burial site. Once everyone settles in, pallbearers (who are usually family or close friends) will carry the coffin into the church or to the gravesite. If the deceased was cremated, someone may bring an urn of ashes and display it in a prominent place. Music may or may not play during this part of the service.
After the pall-bearers have finished, many Christian services will include a hymn in their program. You can find these hymns printed on the program or in hymnals in the backs of church pews. Next, someone close to the deceased (usually a spouse, sibling, parent, or child) will read a message of hope.
This may be an inspirational bible passage or piece of secular writing. Whatever it is, it’s meant to honor the deceased and to give hope to those they left behind. The minister may deliver a second message of hope.
Next, there is a section for reflecting and remembering. The church may elect to play music or keep the atmosphere quiet. Sometimes families will ask for people to lay a flower, poem, or other meaningful tokens on the coffin.
Burial rituals like these foster a sense of connection to the deceased as you send them on their way. After this moment of reflection, another hymn will likely play to encourage everyone back to their seats.
The end of the ceremony is often referred to as “saying goodbye”. At this point, the priest will pray and ask God to keep the deceased in his care. He’ll also recite the iconic “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” passage.
This portion of the service is often the most emotional part of the funeral. There will likely be tears from many in attendance, even if they’ve kept it together so far.
The minister may ask you to bow your heads while one more piece of music plays. The service will end with the minister giving a final blessing, and more music will play as you exit the church or graveyard.
Popular prayers and hymns
Hymns are an important element of the funeral because of music's healing effect. These funeral hymns are often uplifting and hopeful. Some popular ones include “Amazing Grace”, “In the Sweet By and By”, “I’ll Fly Away”, “How Great Thou Art”, and many more.
Different hymns resonate deeper with certain people. For instance, “Abide With Me” is often sung at military services, so it's appropriate for the funeral of a soldier or veteran.
Many prayers have also become associated with funerals in the same manner as hymns. They include The Lord’s Prayer, A Season, The Twenty-Third Psalm, The Resurrection Prayer, and A Prayer for the Dead, among others.
How long it lasts
Christian funerals in general only take about half an hour, and gravesite services are often even briefer at twenty minutes. The service may be longer if the deceased was a particularly loved and well-known figure. If a service goes on longer than you were planning you may leave discreetly through a side door.
If you don’t have any pressing engagements, it’s considered more polite to stay.
At a Christian funeral, there won’t be much time to mingle or converse with other mourners or the family of the deceased: that is better left to the wake. A minister or other officiant will lead the Christian funeral service while mourners listen and reflect.
Everyone does join in singing hymns or speaking along with prayers. Even if you’re not a Christian, you’re encouraged to join in speaking these words aloud to show respect to the family. But you may opt not to take part if it feels wrong within your belief system.
At Christian funerals in the United States, traditional funeral attire is all black, as black is considered the color of mourning. People should dress well. This means men should be in a black suit or dark dress pants with a dress shirt and tie. Women should be conservative in their dress.
A simple black dress paired with dark tights and modest shoes is standard funeral attire for women. There are exceptions, as funerals in other cultures have their own sets of rules and traditions. This guide provides a deeper dive into what to wear to a funeral.
Mood and behavior
Christian funerals, on the whole, are somber, introspective, and reflective occasions. They aren’t a social occasion. Instead, take the time to think of the deceased person, and use your presence to show support to the grieving family. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t mistakenly sit in an area reserved for immediate family.
Stay off your phone, and make sure your ringer is off. Socializing is inappropriate at funerals because it can disrupt the ceremony. If you want the opportunity to connect with people, attend the Wake instead.
Role of flowers, gifts, and money
While flowers are a social nicety, they are not an obligation, especially if you’re more of a casual friend. Instead, check the obituary or the program at the funeral to see if the family has requested a donation to a charity in honor of the deceased.
If you choose to do that you can mention it in a condolence card later.
Every religion has traditions around cremations and burials. Christian denominations are no different. Christian beliefs about death inform their stances on burial rituals and other practices.
Cremation and burial customs
In a Christian burial, the body of the deceased person is typically interred in consecrated ground. Cremation used to be forbidden in Christian faith, as it would interfere with resurrection. Over time those rules have relaxed.
In Catholic tradition, cremated remains are still buried. Other Christian sects allow for ashes not to be interred, while some have strict rules against scattering them.
Mourning the dead
Everyone’s mourning period will look different. It’s a journey everyone must take, and one that winds down a slightly separate path for each individual. Because of the diversity of Christian faiths, there is a multitude of mourning traditions, customs, and rituals. One of the most widespread traditions is a gathering and meal after the funeral and burial.
These gatherings can take place at the home of a family member, or a local church. In some cases, the family has the event catered. In other cases, it’s treated as a potluck where visitors bring dishes. This often comes down to regional standards or the preferences of the family.
In Christian culture, people often gather at the graves of lost loved ones on the anniversary of their death or for important holidays. They bring meat, snacks, desserts, and drinks to share with each other and burn things they think the deceased might need in the other world.
This could include a house made of paper or even paper money. Traditions to celebrate the life of someone exist throughout the world.
Fitting In at a Christian Funeral
Christian funeral traditions are quite diverse thanks to the many denominations that fall under the umbrella of Christianity. However, there are some things that are important to remember.
If you dress appropriately and behave in a dignified and polite manner while paying your respects to the deceased and their loved ones, you'll fit in at any Christian funeral.
Do you want a traditional Christian funeral or something a little different? Let people know. Create a free Cake end-of-life profile and share your funeral preferences with a loved one.
- “The Church of England Funerals.” churchofenglandfunerals.org, The Church of England, May 14, 2014 churchofenglandfunerals.org/organising-funeral/funeral-service-step-step/
- Zhang, Wenwen. “How The Chinese Honor the Memory of Deceased People”. Willamette World News. Willamette University. December 12, 2011. blog.willamette.edu/worldnews/2012/11/04/how-the-chinese-honor-the-memory-of-deceased-people/