Attending a funeral is never easy. Depending on your relationship to the deceased, you could be struggling with feelings of grief and sadness. The funeral is an opportunity to find closure and say your last farewell to your loved one.
This tradition of honoring the dead has been a part of human life since the dawn of civilization. Today, funerals still bring people together as a way to pay tribute to someone who has died. However, since most of us don’t attend funerals all that often, there is always a host of questions these occasions bring.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Etiquette for Funeral Attendance
- Clothing and Attire Etiquette
- Etiquette for Offering Condolences and Interacting with Grieving Family
- Etiquette for Behavior and Mood
- Etiquette for Funeral Gifts or Donations
How do you know what to expect from a funeral? More importantly, what are the most important etiquette standards to keep in mind when attending a funeral? While these vary based on culture, location, and religion, this guide is your crash course to funeral etiquette 101. Learn what to do, bring, and say to your next funeral.
COVID-19 tip: If you're planning or attending a Zoom funeral using a service like GatheringUs, the order of service, etiquette, and timing will vary. Consult with the funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to see what changes will be made to the ceremony, wake, and reception.
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Etiquette for Funeral Attendance
One of the first questions about funeral etiquette is attendance. From deciding if you should attend the funeral to planning your arrival, let’s answer these key questions once and for all.
Who should attend the funeral?
If you’re wondering whether or not you should attend a funeral, the answer isn’t always clear. If you are close to the deceased, whether you’re a friend or family member, you should almost always attend the funeral. Another instance is if you’re close to the deceased’s family. Paying respects to the family is one of the main reasons to attend.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the funeral is not about you. It’s about the surviving family. If your appearance takes away from the service, it’s best not to attend. In general, if you were close to the deceased or his or her family, you should attend.
When is it appropriate to skip the funeral?
As we mentioned above, the funeral is about honoring the deceased and his or her family. There are occasionally times when it’s not possible or appropriate to attend the funeral. Here are some of the reasons when it’s considered appropriate to skip the funeral:
- You live far away
- You’re unable to take time off work
- You’re ill or not able to travel
- The services are private and not open to extended friends and family
- Your attendance might upset the immediate family
- Your attendance might distract the immediate family
There is a funeral etiquette for estranged family. Even if you’re unable to attend the funeral, there are other ways to offer your support or condolences. For example, you might choose to send flowers or a sympathy card. Ultimately, you’ll need to use your best judgment about whether or not to attend or skip the funeral service.
When should guests arrive at the funeral?
It’s important to know when to arrive at the funeral. Once you know whether you should attend, consider your arrival. Always arrive early. If you arrive late or at the start of the service, the entire funeral might need to be delayed. In addition, arriving late is considered disrespectful and disruptive.
Before the service, don’t seek out the family. If they’re greeting guests, offer your consolations quickly and find your seat. Unless you’re part of the close family, don’t sit towards the front of the service. If you must arrive late to the funeral, be aware of your entrance. It’s common courtesy to take your seat quickly in the back and to be as quiet as possible.
Clothing and Attire Etiquette
Funeral attire is a way to pay respects to the deceased. In general, it’s appropriate to wear black or neutral colors at the funeral. However, pay close attention to the family’s religious or cultural customs. These might have different color symbolism, and you don’t want to wear something offensive.
What colors should I wear to a funeral?
The ideal color to wear to a funeral is black. However, don’t rush out and buy a new outfit because you’re lacking in black clothing. It’s also acceptable to wear dark grays, blues, browns, or any other neutral color. As long as you steer clear of bright colors you should be dressed appropriately. The same goes for wake or viewing attire.
The only exception to this is if you’re attending a funeral in a different culture. In some cultures, it’s common to wear bright clothing to the funeral celebration. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
How to dress at a funeral
When you’re at a funeral, it’s important to pay attention to how you’re presenting yourself. You want to be sensitive to the family’s mourning and pay your respects. Follow these tips below to make sure you’re following proper etiquette:
- Dress conservatively, especially if you’re attending a religious service.
- Keep jewelry and accessories to a minimum.
- Unless the culture allows it, don’t wear a hat.
- Avoid athletic shoes or sneakers.
- If the service is outdoors, choose footwear and clothing accordingly.
Etiquette for Offering Condolences and Interacting with Grieving Family
Offering condolences is one of the most important parts of a funeral service. This is a chance to pay your respects and offer support in the family’s time of need. However, be aware of proper etiquette when interacting with the grieving family.
Save your condolences for after the ceremony
Most funeral services end with a repast, or an informal gathering for guests. This is the best time to talk to the family and express your condolences. Before the service or during the funeral procession is not the right time to interact with family or friends.
If you do have something to say to the family, make sure you keep it short. They might not be emotionally ready to discuss the passing in detail, so don’t ask any intruding questions. If you’re not sure what to say “I’m sorry for your loss” is always a respectful choice. Less is usually more when it comes to funeral services.
Share memories of the deceased
An important part of many funeral services is the process of sharing memories of the deceased. There might be an open microphone or an opportunity to speak in front of the family. If you had a close relationship with the family or the one who’s passed, it’s appropriate to say something if you’re comfortable.
If you do partake in sharing a few words, keep it short. Your remarks should stay respectful, and consider how jokes might come across. Again, funerals are for the family. This is not the time to soak up the spotlight.
Prepare for any religious elements
Religion is commonly included in funeral services and memorials. If you’re attending a funeral service with religious rituals from a religion you are not familiar with, try to prepare.
Doing a bit of research beforehand will keep you informed about what to expect and the significance of what you're observing. You can check out our guides on the following major religion's funeral etiquette for guidance:
- Atheist funerals
- Buddhist funerals
- Christian (Catholic) funerals
- Christian (Protestant) funerals
- Hindu funerals
- Jewish funerals
- Muslim funerals
- Sikh funerals
You don't need to know everything, but putting in the effort to learn the basics is a sign of respect towards the family. Remember, this day isn’t about the service itself. It’s about the family.
Etiquette for Behavior and Mood
It also pays to mind your behavior and mood. Funerals are emotional occasions. Make sure you’re following these practices to stay respectful.
Be mindful of your devices
Make sure your devices are all turned to silent at the start of the ceremony. Few things are more disrespectful than a ringing phone or vibrating sounds! In addition, avoid checking your phone throughout the ceremony.
Unless there’s an emergency, keep your phone out of sight. If you get an emergency call, step outside to avoid interrupting.
Pay attention to your emotions
Emotions run high at funerals. This is understandable. If you were close to the deceased, nobody expects you to stay strong the entire time.
Tears are perfectly normal and expected. However, if you’re crying uncontrollably, excuse yourself until you feel in control. Emotions are nothing to feel bad about, but you don’t want to distract others.
Watch your children
Children are often welcome to funerals. If you’re bringing your own children, keep an eye on their behavior. It’s understandably hard for children to sit still during a service.
Plan to keep them occupied, whether they bring a book or a quiet game to play. If a small child begins to make noise or create a distraction, take them outside quickly.
For more, read our guide on taking kids to funerals or memorial services.
Etiquette for Funeral Gifts or Donations
Many people choose to give the family a gift or donation as a sign of respect. These differ depending on culture, but a gift is a sign that you’re thinking of someone in their time of need. However, before sending a gift, read these points below.
What types of gifts are appropriate?
Not all gifts are acceptable for funerals. The most common gift is flowers. Sending flowers to the family or the funeral home is a great way to show your respect. Flower arrangements all have different meanings, so they allow you to express your feelings about the deceased in a positive way. It’s important to note that flowers are not considered appropriate for Jewish funerals.
Another common type of gift that’s always appreciated is food. Grieving families are often too busy to cook for themselves. Preparing a home-cooked meal that’s easy to heat is a thoughtful way to pay your respects. When preparing food for a grieving family, make sure it’s in a container you don’t expect back.
Finally, it’s sometimes also an option to gift a donation. This is most common if the deceased passed away from an illness or disease. Gifting to medical research on their behalf is a kind tribute. When in doubt, ask the family what they need the most.
When to give the gift
As a guest, don’t bring your gift to the funeral. Unless you’re bringing food to serve at the repast, it’s appropriate to send your gift before the funeral.
Dropping by the home after the funeral is often expected, especially if you’re gifting a homemade meal. In the case of flowers, arrange for these to go to the funeral home prior to the service.
Preparing for a Funeral
Now that you’re aware of all of the aspects relating to funeral etiquette, you’re ready to attend a funeral. Taking the time to join the family for the funeral service is a great way to pay your respects. Whether you bring a gift or simply offer your condolences in person, this goes a long way.
Every family wants to see a packed service for their loved ones. It’s a sign of a life well-lived. Show up for those you love by attending the funeral with confidence thanks to these etiquette tips above.