Funeral etiquette can be tricky. It depends on a lot of different factors, such as culture, religious beliefs, and family traditions. Following rules of etiquette may be more important to older family members than the younger generation. Complicated family relationships and nontraditional funeral services may muddle the situation even more.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is a Receiving Line or Family Line Up at a Funeral?
- Who Usually Stands in the Family Line Up at a Funeral?
- What Order do People Stand In in the Receiving Line?
- What Do Members of the Receiving Line Usually Say to Funeral Guests?
- What Do Funeral Guests Usually Say to Someone Standing in the Receiving Line?
Let’s discuss the etiquette involving a receiving line at a funeral or a memorial. First, we’ll discuss the purpose of a receiving line and who usually stands there (and in what order). We will also discuss how to navigate a receiving line as a mourner or as a guest.
It’s important to understand that these are general observations. Every situation is different because relationships are complicated. Sometimes you need to put etiquette aside and do what you can to preserve relationships — even if it means that your loved one’s funeral goes against tradition.
Tip for virtual funerals: Even if you're hosting or attending a virtual funeral with a service like GatheringUs, it's still helpful to understand receiving lines. The virtual service might have a similar process where the host greets and speaks with particular guests before the event starts. And if you attend an in-person funeral in the future, you'll be prepared.
What Is a Receiving Line or Family Line Up at a Funeral?
At some visitations, family members stand in a line to “receive,” or greet the guests. It’s polite to thank people for taking the time to honor the deceased. Having a receiving line ensures that each visitor is acknowledged.
As an attendee, it is customary that you enter the receiving line soon after you arrive. You may have to be patient — sometimes receiving lines are rather long. Attendees usually stand in receiving lines to express brief condolences to the family members present.
Both receiving and offering sympathy can be emotionally challenging and stressful, but there are reasons for going through this process. The No. 1 reason is to rely on others for support during difficult times.
Who Usually Stands in the Family Lineup at a Funeral?
Typically, members of the immediate family stand in the receiving line at a funeral. The immediate family typically includes the spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, grandparents, and in-laws of the deceased. If the deceased had a large family, this could make for a rather lengthy receiving line.
That’s why rules of etiquette may be considered, but they should not be the only determining factor on who is in the family line up at a funeral or memorial.
Consider these things when determining who receives the guests at the visitation.
Number of relatives
If the deceased had six married children, 24 grandchildren, four surviving siblings, and a spouse, it would not make sense for everyone to greet each visitor.
Of course, each of these people may be mourning the loss of the deceased and may receive sympathy messages from the people in attendance. Asking for visitors to offer formal sympathies to dozens of people in line would go against the rules of etiquette.
If the family is too big, consider having the spouse and children accept the guests’ condolences. The in-laws, grandchildren, and grandparents can hover nearby to offer support.
The strength of the bond
The deceased may not have been particularly close to his siblings, but he may have had a special relationship with a niece or a nephew. It would be appropriate for the niece or nephew to receive condolences based on the strength of the relationship with the deceased.
Perhaps the deceased’s siblings didn’t know any of their family member’s friends, in-laws, co-workers, and neighbors. In this situation, the siblings may be available for the duration of the event, but may not want to stand in the receiving line.
Expecting young children to receive condolences from hundreds of people may be too much to ask. Losing a parent is a traumatic event. Even though they may benefit by receiving love and support from extended family members and community members, expecting them to accept formal condolences for hours at a time may be too much to ask.
Other circumstances may dictate whether immediate family members should stand in a receiving line. Elderly family members may not have the stamina to withstand a long event. Make sure they have chairs and frequent breaks.
Stepchildren may receive condolences alongside a person’s biological children, but this determination may need to be made on an individual basis.
As you can see, the question, “Who stands in a receiving line at a funeral?” is complicated to answer. Consider the feelings of each family member and of those attending the event.
What Order Do People Stand in the Receiving Line?
If the deceased was a married adult with children, the deceased’s spouse, children, and parents usually begin the line.
If the deceased was not married, the children and parents might be the first to receive the guests.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, there are no hard rules in funeral etiquette. If a person would feel slighted or hurt by not being a part of the receiving line, what harm is there in including that person? You will still be able to greet each guest and receive warm wishes. Another person’s presence will not take that away from you.
What Do Members of the Receiving Line Usually Say to Funeral Guests?
Even if you don’t know any members of the family, it’s polite to explain your relationship with the deceased and perhaps share a brief, pleasant memory or compliment. The exchange shouldn’t be lengthy, especially if there are a lot of visitors waiting.
You may have a lot to share with the immediate family members, and you may wish that you could spend hours catching up and sharing stories. Even though this is the purpose of a visitation, make sure you are aware of the other people in line. Keep your comments brief and then return to the family members later if they are available to talk.
You may dread coming up with something to say to a person experiencing the worst day of his or her life. If you can’t think of anything else, you can always say, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I don’t know what to say.” Avoid comparing the mourner’s pain with the grief you experienced at your own loss. Also, avoid putting a timeline on a person’s suffering by implying that it will eventually go away.
What Do Funeral Guests Usually Say to Someone Standing in the Receiving Line?
You will probably experience a wide array of emotions when standing in the receiving line at a loved one’s funeral. You may be grateful for all the people who took the time to offer condolences and share memories. But you may also feel anger, frustration, and dread.
Even if everyone in the receiving line is supportive and comforting, you may be physically and emotionally drained by the end of the event.
In the midst of your emotional turmoil, you may be aware of how you present yourself to your guests. You may feel frustrated by having to react politely to inane or insensitive comments. It may help you to remember that some people don’t know the appropriate words to offer support. Instead of getting irritated, chalk it up to ignorance.
If you can’t think of anything else to say, consider saying, “Thank you for coming tonight” or “Mom always spoke fondly of you.” People usually don’t regret taking the high road and making people feel good about themselves, even if they don’t deserve it.
Things to Remember When Attending the Funeral of a Loved One
No one likes going to funerals and visitations. People go because they want to show support and love to the survivors, or they want to honor the deceased. Remember this as you look at the long line of people waiting to greet you.
Life is short. It’s a lot more pleasant if you treat others the way you would want to be treated. While you may not trust your estranged brother to turn over a new leaf after the death of your father, avoid drama at the event by letting him stand in the receiving line.
Losing a loved one is hard enough without also fighting with extended family members on who stands where during the visitation. Try to remember the purpose of the event, which is to remember and honor the person you loved.
If you're looking for more funeral planning advice, read our guides on a funeral's order of service and how to have a cheap or affordable funeral.