Funeral Seating Etiquette for Guests and Planners


What our society expects from people in mourning is actually ridiculous when you think about it. At one of the worst moments of a person’s life, they are expected to plan an event for an indeterminate number of people. They may need to suddenly accommodate overnight guests, prepare meals for groups of people, and make burial or cremation arrangements. 

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To further complicate matters, the attendees may have complicated relationships. In some cases, the death tears open old wounds. So how do you navigate those complex relationships when it comes to funeral seating? 

Here are some thoughts about seating etiquette at a funeral.

Funeral Seating Etiquette for Planners

Funeral services have changed a lot over the last decades. For example, cremation has altered how some view funerals because you can be more flexible with the funeral location without a body present. 

With that said, it’s challenging to speak about every type of funeral. Here are some general guidelines for those planning a traditional funeral.

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Do you need a seating chart for a funeral or memorial service?

There’s no formal seating chart for a funeral or memorial service in most situations. A Google search of the phrase “seating chart at funeral” reveals images of one created for Prince Phillip’s funeral. So, unless you are planning a funeral for a member of a royal family, a celebrity, or an important political figure, you probably don’t have to worry about creating a seating chart.

With that said, you may have certain familial situations that would cause you to wish that seating charts were more common. 

Considerations during COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly complicated matters when it comes to funeral planning. If you are having your loved one’s end-of-life event at a funeral home, church, or another religious institution, seek advice from the professionals at those facilities. They will know the protocol that is being followed in that community. 

According to the CDC, “Event planners and officials can determine, in collaboration with state and local health officials, whether and how to implement these considerations, making adjustments to meet the unique needs and circumstances of the local community. Because COVID-19 virus circulation varies in communities, these considerations are meant to supplement—not replace—any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which gatherings must comply. Organizers should continue to assess, based on current conditions, whether to postpone, cancel, or significantly reduce the number of attendees for gatherings.”

As a result, some facilities have widened the gap between the chairs or pews to socially distance attendees. Others require attendees to sign up to attend to limit the number of people in the space. Still, others provide streaming services so that people who are uncomfortable attending can still watch the service.

Communication is key. If masks are required at your loved one’s event, make sure you share that information in the obituary, on social media, and the funeral home webpage. Provide masks at the door. If you feel strongly that masks are to be worn at the event, ask the staff to monitor the situation so that you can focus on other aspects of the funeral.

At the wake

We realize that everyone’s definition of a wake isn’t the same. Typically, a wake is a type of event where the family stands in a reception line to receive condolence messages from the guests. There’s typically a lot of “milling around” as groups of people interact. While people may sit down at the event, there is usually no protocol on where to sit.

However, some parts of the event (such as a Rosary) might require the attendees to find a seat. If that is the case, the immediate family members sit in the front row. If you are planning the event and there will be some part of the service that requires the attendees to sit, consider placing a sign on the front row of the space that says “Reserved” or “Reserved for Members of the Immediate Family.” 

The professionals serving at the event should help you navigate this situation. If you feel uncomfortable asking someone to move, ask a staff member to do it for you.

At the funeral service

If you are planning the funeral service for a loved one, you might think about where everyone will sit before the event. But, of course, this depends on how formal the event is.

Some families enter the space immediately before the service. They may enter the room in order of how they will be seated. For example, the deceased’s spouse may go first and sit in the front row. The children and stepchildren of the deceased may follow.

Parents, grandchildren, the children’s spouses, aunts, and uncles also typically take the front rows. 

Some funeral events are less formal or might immediately follow the visitation. If that’s the case, you might consider having several rows reserved for immediate family members. You may also discuss who will sit where before the ceremony, so there’s no awkward confusion at the time of the event.

Unfortunately, complicated relationships might make things difficult at a funeral. Strained relationships can be further damaged because someone wasn’t asked to sit with the immediate family. While we cannot offer a solution to this problem, it is worth noting that people get their feelings hurt if they aren’t sitting in what they perceive is an appropriate spot.

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At the reception

While a wedding dinner or reception typically has a “head table” for the bride, groom, wedding party, and parents, funeral receptions usually do not. However, you might reserve a table if you want your immediate family to sit together at the reception. 

Funeral Seating Etiquette for Guests

Please understand that you aren’t the only person who feels uncomfortable going to funerals. Perhaps you have never been to such an event and don’t know what to expect when attending a funeral. Maybe you don’t know what to say to the family in the receiving line. Or perhaps you are unsure of funeral etiquette

We understand your hesitation, which is why we offer this blog to our readers that answer some of the questions about attending funerals. Here’s what you need to know about where to sit when you arrive.

Where do you sit if there’s no seating chart?

There won’t be a seating chart at a funeral in most situations. Generally, unless you are a member of the immediate family, avoid sitting within the first several rows of any part of the funeral event. 

Considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic

Funerals are stressful times during normal conditions. However, the pandemic has certainly made event planners more anxious. 

Remember, when you are attending a funeral, you are there to support the family and show respect to the deceased. It’s not about you. If the family or funeral home location asks you to follow a specific pandemic-related protocol, we suggest that you follow it. Otherwise, you may make other attendees uncomfortable during this already sad event.

This means that if masks are required, wear one. Avoid hugging family members if it looks as if they are trying to distance themselves from others. Don’t sit too close to other attendees. And don’t move the arranged seats so you can be closer to the front.

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At the wake

You may encounter many different scenarios when you attend a wake. More than likely, there will be a line of people waiting to speak to the deceased’s immediate family. You may join the queue or sit and wait for the line to get shorter.

If you decide to sit down at the wake, avoid the front rows if you think there will be a presentation or service. 

At the funeral service

Funeral services are typically the most formal of all end-of-life events. This means that it is important that you choose the right place to sit. Look for reserved signs. If there aren’t any, knowing a bit about the deceased will make it easier to select the right spot. 

Generally, the people closest to the deceased sit the closest to the front. If you know the deceased had a large family, you should avoid sitting in the first several rows. However, if it is a small gathering, it might feel awkward to sit in the back. 

If the space is packed with people, leave room for others to join you on the pew. Be considerate to others who may arrive at the last minute to not disrupt the ceremony.

At the reception

Typically, there won’t be assigned places at the reception – unless it is a formal dinner with limited seating. Most would avoid sitting with immediate family members since they may want to dine together at the event. 

Seating at Funerals Can Be Tricky

We have tried to help you navigate what can sometimes be a difficult situation. However, we know there are many scenarios that we didn’t cover because there may be no correct answer for your situation.

We know that it is easier said than done, but try to remember the reason for the gathering instead of being fixated on where people are sitting.

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