As we all know, families are often complicated. Situations change, and there’s no one-size-fits-all rulebook to what to expect. While this is challenging on any typical day, it’s especially tricky when it comes to funerals. Should you attend your ex-spouse's funeral? What about his or her family member's funeral?
Jump ahead to these sections:
There is a specific etiquette for how to handle this question. Whether you’re wondering more about the etiquette for estranged family or an ex-partner you’re no longer close to, this guide is here to help. It’s not always easy to know what to do. In these cases, let your head rule over your heart. Let’s explore the etiquette around attending an ex’s funeral or an ex’s family funeral.
Virtual funeral tip: If the funeral is taking place virtually using a service like GatheringUs, you might have additional etiquette questions. Here are some tips for planning or attending a virtual funeral.
Share your final wishes, just in case.
Create a free Cake end-of-life planning profile and instantly share your health, legal, funeral, and legacy decisions with a loved one.
Attending Your Ex’s or Their Loved One’s Funeral
One of the first questions is whether or not you should attend the wake or funeral. Will your presence be accepted or welcome? Will it create a distraction? It’s not always easy to apply a blanket solution to these situations.
The most important thing to remember is that this day isn’t about you. It’s about the family and their grief. A funeral is an opportunity to find closure and offer a final farewell to the deceased. Your relationship might be complicated, but you’ll need to choose the right thing for the entire family.
Tip: Complicated family dynamics are just one of the many challenges you might be facing after the death of a loved one. If you need help with those challenges, as well as prioritizing bost-death tasks, check out our post-loss checklist.
When should you not attend the funeral?
In general, if you’re on good terms with your ex-spouse and ex-family, you should attend the funeral. You were a big part of your spouse’s life at one time. Even if you’ve gone separate ways, those memories and feelings are still very real. If you were on good terms, you’ll likely be welcome to any funeral events.
However, there are cases when your presence might not be appropriate. Here are times when you should consider not attending the funeral:
- If your presence will upset the family
- If your presence will increase the feelings of grief
- If you are no longer closer to your spouse or the family
- If the funeral is only open to close family
- If you’re unable to get bereavement leave
Do any of these situations apply to you? If so, it might be best to stay at home. There are other ways to offer your support to the family at their time of need. You might choose to send flowers or call to deliver your condolences. You want the focus to be on the family, not your presence.
What if you have shared children?
If your spouse and yourself are divorced parents, the answer is usually much more apparent. Since this day is all about offering support, you should attend the funeral to support your child.
You should do your best to attend the funeral of an ex-spouse (or an ex-family member) if you have children together. At the very least, you need to offer compassion to your child in their time of need.
What if your ex remarried?
If your ex remarried, you might be wondering whether you should attend. Again, this answer isn’t always obvious. Since there is a grieving spouse, your role in the services will likely be minimal or nonexistent. Still, it might be polite to attend to pay your respects.
Consider your past relationship with your ex, his or her family, and their new partner. If tensions are high between everyone, skip the funeral and to pay your respects another way. However, if you have shared children, you might still need to be there for them at the funeral.
Tips for Etiquette for Your Ex’s Funeral
Attending an ex’s funeral isn’t always as simple as attending the funeral of a family member. Since you’re no longer a part of the immediate family, it can feel uncomfortable. Following funeral or wake etiquette is a way to make sense of this process.
Where to sit
One of the most intimidating parts of attending a funeral is knowing where to sit. While this might be clear-cut for close family, it’s not always obvious when it comes to an ex-partner’s funeral. In general, since you are no longer part of the close family, you should sit towards the back in the friend section.
The only exception to this is if you have shared children with your ex. In this case, you might need to sit with your child in the close family section. This is especially true for smaller children. If you’re not comfortable sitting in the close family section, ask a member of your ex’s family if they will sit with your child for the duration of the funeral.
What to say
When attending an ex’s funeral, it’s important to act with respectful. This is a day that’s about putting aside any past differences. Always be kind in your words, and keep your interactions short and polite. When offering sympathy messages to the family, keep them brief. You aren’t expected to have anything extensive prepared.
In order to keep the day respectful, avoid talking about the divorce or any ill feelings from the past. No matter your reasons for separating, this is a day to focus on the emotions of the present.
What exactly should you say? While there are no written rules, keep it along these lines:
- I am so sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with your family.
- You’re in my mind during this difficult time.
- [Ex’s Name] was a very special person. If there’s anything I can do for your family, please let me know.
As for your involvement in the funeral, it’s best to keep this to a minimum. It’s not uncommon for people to give speeches about the deceased. Unless you’re still very close to the family, this is something you should avoid. If you want to help, ask the family if there’s anything you can do. They might not accept, but it is polite to ask. Respect their wishes either way.
It is usually appropriate to bring gifts to a funeral, even the funeral of an ex. Gifts are a way to honor the deceased and his or her family. Because your relationship to the family is less clear, don’t choose anything extravagant or unexpected. Keep it simple with one of these ideas:
- A sympathy card to the family
- Flowers sent to the funeral home
- A small donation in the deceased’s honor
- Family photos of the deceased
All of the above would be welcome. However, when delivering your gift, avoid taking too much of the family’s time. Delivering the gift by mail is always a good option if you’re unsure about interacting at the funeral.
What to do if you don’t go
Sometimes it’s not always welcome or possible to go to the funeral. In these cases, you should still offer your support in some way. Even if you’re no longer close with your ex’s family, your words and gestures show you’re thinking of them in your time of need.
If you can’t go to the funeral, you can:
- Call the family to offer your condolences
- Send a sympathy card
- Send a thoughtful gift
- Send flowers to the funeral service
Ultimately, now is not the time to make a statement or show off. Any gifts or condolences should be simple but thoughtful. Keep things civil,l no matter your history with your ex and their family.
If you have shared children with your ex, it might be a good idea to keep them with you while the family grieves. Depending on their age, they might need help processing their own feelings and the situation itself. You should be a resource to them even if you’re not attending the funeral yourself.
Feelings of grief
No matter if you consider the past to be water under the bridge, it’s not uncommon to be struck by unexpected feelings about the death of an ex. These feelings are a normal part of the grieving process, and you shouldn’t feel any guilt about expressing them appropriately at an ex’s funeral.
However, remember this day is about the family. You should keep your own emotions to a minimum during the service. When in doubt, excuse yourself to a quiet area to avoid distracting from the service. If you’re not sure whether you’ll be able to keep your emotions under control, it might be a good idea to skip the service.
Show Respect at Your Ex’s (and Their Family’s) Funeral
The funeral is a place to show respect for those who have died. When facing the funeral of an ex or their family, it’s not always clear what steps to take. The etiquette above is a way to determine what’s appropriate in this time of mourning.
Ultimately, it’s best to put aside any past differences to pay your respects to those who played a large role in your life. Whether or not you attend the funeral depends on your relationship with the surviving family members. It also matters whether or not you share children with your ex.
At the end of the day, think rationally about your choice. Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgment. This is a time for honoring the family with support in any way you can.