Guide to Funeral Etiquette for Estranged Families

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Funerals are a time to reflect on family relationships and the ties that keep us all together. However, these events aren’t always so simple. We don’t get to choose our family, and our relationships often become strained over time for a variety of reasons. 

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If you have a complex relationship with a person who has passed or with surviving family members, this can become a tricky situation. You might not know how to proceed. You want to find peace and comfort, but you’re not sure what actions are appropriate. 

At the end of the day, there are no set rules for managing these difficult relationships, even in the case of a funeral service. You’ll need to trust your best judgment and follow your heart to do what you think is best. In this guide, we’ll help you navigate this complicated situation so you can give the right support. 

COVID-19 Tip: If your estranged family is hosting a virtual funeral using a service like GatheringUS, you might find it easier to attend. But there are still some useful tips to take into account if you're planning to attend a virtual funeral. Here are some pointers for planning or attending a funeral online

Etiquette for Offering Condolences to an Estranged Family Member

Even if you decide you’re not able or willing to attend the funeral due to whatever reason, it is still a good idea to offer condolences. Thankfully, sympathy comes in all shapes and sizes.

We’ve outlined the proper etiquette below for offering condolences and sympathy in an estranged family situation. 

Should you offer condolences?

When is it appropriate to offer condolences? Think about your relationship with the deceased’s family. If you were estranged from the deceased person, you might no longer be in contact or close with their family. On the other hand, if they are relatives, and you may be concerned about how this passing affects them. 

Will your condolences bring them peace? This is the biggest question worth asking. Similarly, can you put differences aside temporarily to offer a form of comfort when they might need it most? You are never obligated to give anything, not even kindness, to those who don’t deserve it. However, it might relieve you to do something simple for someone in need. 

When can you offer condolences?

If you’ve decided to offer some form of condolences, you should pay close attention to timing. If you’re planning on attending the funeral of the deceased, it might be better to wait until the service or reception to offer your gift. If you’re not attending, however, it’s best to take action as soon as possible after the passing. 

What gifts are appropriate?

There is common gift-giving etiquette to giving condolences, especially in the case of estranged family. It’s best to keep things simple and avoid overthinking. Here are a few suggestions for appropriate gifts:

  • Flowers: The most common gift is to send flowers. When you send funeral flowers, you’re letting the recipient know you’re thinking of them. These can either be sent to the grieving family directly or to the funeral home ahead of the service. 
  • Sympathy card: Another simple favor is a card. If you’re not sure what to write in a sympathy card, just focus on kindness. These small things really show you care. 
  • Food: Finally, food is almost always welcome after the passing of a loved one. If you don’t feel comfortable cooking something yourself, offer a gift card to the grocery store or a favorite restaurant. 

Remember not all gifts are physical. Sometimes it’s as simple as picking up the phone and making a call or even sending a heartfelt email. If you don’t have a good relationship with the estranged family, it’s okay to keep your distance with your condolence gift. 

Another appropriate gift is to offer your help. If you’re close with the family of the deceased, offering your time to them can be an invaluable service. Whether you help set up on the day of the funeral or offer assistance around their house for the first few days after the passing, this type of gift is always welcome. 

Focus on what matters most

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to offer condolences will come down to your relationship with the deceased, their family, and your comfort level. It’s important to remember that this time is no longer about you, nor is it about the person who has passed.

It’s about the surviving family and their last opportunity to say goodbye. You’ll need to decide if you’re willing and able to provide comfort of any form during this time. 

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Etiquette for a Funeral Service for the Estranged Family Member

Next, let’s talk about the bigger elephant in the room. Should you actually go to the funeral? If so, what’s the proper etiquette for keeping the peace and showing your respect? Again, there is no single answer. You’ll need to look inward and trust yourself. 

Should you attend the funeral?

As we mentioned before, this event is not about you. It’s also not about whatever estranged you from your family or friends in the first place. It’s about the deceased and their surviving family. Often that means putting your own needs aside to comfort others. 

Here are some of the reasons you should attend the funeral:

  • The deceased is a close friend or family member
  • The deceased was close to one of your existing friends or family members
  • You want to support the deceased’s loved ones

On the other hand, there are some times when it is not appropriate to attend the funeral:

  • Your attendance will disrupt the service
  • Your attendance will upset the family
  • The services are private

Of course, there are also other barriers. You might not be able to get bereavement leave, time off work, or arrange travel. In this case, sending a sympathy gift and offering condolences is a good substitute.

The decision to attend will always be up to you but keep in mind the reasons above. Attending allows you to pay your respects and find your own peace, even if that peace wasn’t possible during the person’s lifetime. 

If you’re not sure whether you can attend a service, it’s a good idea to talk to your family and friends. Your inner circle might have more insight into whether it’s appropriate or the right thing to do.

How do you behave at an estranged funeral?

Another part of the equation is how to behave at the funeral. When it comes to in-person exchanges, remember why you’re here in the first place. You’re at this funeral to either support a loved one in his or her time of need or pay respects to the deceased.

During this time, it is suggested to keep a clear mind and focus on paying respects. Discussing your emotional history with this person or their family may cause some trouble or draw attention. Focusing on the ceremony and reflecting on the loss can help.

If other guests want to bring up the past or act rudely to you, it’s okay to disengage. Respectfully let them know why you’re here, and that you only want to pay your respects. Prepare yourself with a short script for what to say if you’re confronted. The best approach is usually to be dismissive but polite.

Finally, surround yourself with those who support you or keep distance when needed. Setting healthy boundaries is key when dealing with estranged friends and family. 

How long should you stay?

Finally, there is no set rule for how long you need to stay at any funeral. While most funerals are at least an hour long, including the reception and visitation, this can vary based on religious and cultural customs. It’s appropriate to usually stay for the full duration of the service and to also give your condolences in-person to the close family. 

Aside from this, the reception and visitation are usually optional. If you don’t plan to stay for the full duration of the service, make sure to sit in the back and to leave quietly when you need to. It’s important that you don’t take any attention away from the service or the grieving family.

Most people will respect you for paying your respects in-person. Don’t let the pressure of staying the entire time keep you from attending. 

Preparing for an Estranged Family Funeral

Knowing what to expect at a funeral is difficult enough on its own. When you also have to factor in complicated relationships with friends or family, it is often downright intimidating. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to attend an estranged funeral or memorial service, this guide hopefully sheds some light on the situation. 

Preparing for any type of funeral is never easy. Deciding if and how to attend the funeral of an estranged family member is even more upsetting. Again, remember that this day is all about the family. Whether or not you pay your respects is up to you but make sure this is a decision you can live with long-term. 

Ask yourself how you’ll feel about your decision a year from now. If you’re not sure of your answer, it’s better to attend the funeral or offer condolences of some form. While you’re never required to do anything, these small thoughts prove that you put aside your differences in times of need. 

Want to learn more about funeral etiquette? Read about if selfies are okay at funerals and what to expect at private funerals.

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