How Do Funerals Usually Work in the US?


Funerals can be as varied and unique as the people they memorialize. Funerary services differ based on religion, culture, and community, as well as the family’s personal preferences. But most funerals are also alike in many ways. 

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For example, most funerals in the United States include the same steps and services: a viewing or visitation, a funeral ceremony, and a burial at the gravesite. Funerals that include all of these services are known as “traditional” or “full-service” funerals. 

Whether you’re planning a funeral or planning to attend one, it can help to understand how funerals usually work in the United States.

How Does Funeral Planning Work?

The role of funeral-planner is one that most of us don’t have to fill often in life, if we’re lucky. But when a loved one passes away, you might find yourself involved in the planning process, whether it’s in a small capacity or a larger one. So it’s a good idea to know what that planning process looks like. 

Here are the basics of how funeral planning works, for you to keep in mind if you find yourself involved in planning a funeral

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Who’s in charge

Before any funeral planning can begin, someone has to take on the responsibility. Most funerals are arranged by the deceased’s spouse or closest relative. But a close friend can also plan or help plan the services. 

If there’s any disagreement about who should plan the funeral, the person’s legal representative has the final say. A legal representative is either an executor appointed under a will or the administrator of the estate. Usually, this is the person’s spouse or closest living relative. 

Working with family and friends

The next part of funeral planning, if you’re the person in charge, is talking with your loved ones. You’ll typically call family and friends to let them know that their loved one has passed away. 

This prevents family and friends from finding out about the death through an obituary or online. And it gives people time to prepare for a funeral. This is a time when others can volunteer to help with planning and arranging the funeral, too. 

Honoring final wishes 

Next, the person in charge of making funeral arrangements should seek out any final wishes the deceased left behind. Many people write down their wishes regarding funeral services and burial or cremation. Some people even pay for their funeral services or products in advance. 

It’s most common to leave written funeral instructions with the executor of the estate (usually a spouse or child) or with an attorney. If you’re the executor, and you don’t have any written funeral instructions from the deceased, check with the person’s lawyer for any pre-arrangements and final wishes. 

Meeting with a funeral director

Next, those involved in planning the funeral will choose a funeral home and meet with the funeral director. The funeral director will be your point-person in completing the next important steps of planning the funeral, including: 

  • Obtaining the proper paperwork, including death certificates and burial permits;
  • Writing and submitting an obituary if you haven’t already done so;
  • Deciding on burial or cremation;
  • Choosing whether to embalm the body or not; 
  • Identifying a location for the funeral service; 
  • Deciding which type of services to hold (viewing, religious ceremony, celebration of life);
  • Outlining the service order (speakers, memorial slideshows, music); 
  • Creating service pamphlets;
  • Preparing any other displays and materials; 
  • Selecting clothing for the deceased;
  • Choosing a florist and making floral arrangements; 
  • Choosing photos to display at the funeral; 
  • Purchasing or providing your own casket or cremation container;
  • Selecting a cemetery and plot; and
  • Picking out a headstone, grave marker, or urn. 

Making purchases

Finally, there are numerous costs when it comes to planning a funeral that the person in charge has to manage. The cost of a funeral can quickly add up, so it’s important to create and stick to a budget. 

It’s also a good idea to understand the FTC’s Funeral Rule, which outlines your rights as a consumer planning a funeral. One of those rights, for example, is the right to purchase a casket anywhere you please. 

A funeral home cannot require you to buy a burial container or cremation container from them in order for you to receive their other services. 

» MORE: Online obituary that is 100% free. Honor a loved one beyond a newspaper.

Who Usually Pays for the Funeral?

Paying for the venue, the burial plot, the casket, and all of the other funeral costs is no small task. So whose responsibility is it to cover the many costs associated with a funeral? 

The estate

The first source of funds for the funeral is the deceased’s estate. This is managed and distributed by the estate’s executor. This includes funds in the deceased person’s bank account and the proceeds from properties sold. 

The family

If there’s not enough money in the person’s estate to cover all of the funeral costs, the family is responsible for covering the rest. Specifically, the person in charge--usually the closest family member or spouse--is responsible. But the rest of the family often pitches in and helps out. 

The government

If no funds are available from either the estate or the family, the government may provide financial assistance for a simple funeral in some situations. 

What’s Expected of the Guests at a Funeral?

We’ve talked about how funerals work from a planning perspective. But how does a funeral work for a guest? If you’ve never attended a funeral before, or you’ve attended only one or two, you might be wondering about the proper funeral etiquette. Luckily, your role as a funeral guest is relatively simple. Here are some things to keep in mind. 

Dressing for the funeral

Choosing what to wear to a funeral can cause a great deal of stress. You want to look presentable and somewhat formal, all without drawing attention to yourself. But that can be easier said than done. Here are some tips for choosing your funeral attire: 

  • Wear black. You can wear black or dark neutral colors, like navy blue or dark grey. 
  • Unless otherwise specified. Check your funeral invitation for specific dress requirements. Some families ask guests to wear white, red, or other colors. 
  • Observe cultural customs. Take into account the family’s religion when choosing your attire. You don’t have to dress as though you have the same religious beliefs. For example, non-Muslim women attending a Muslim funeral don’t need to wear religious head-coverings unless they want to. But you may want to dress more modestly than you would otherwise. 
  • Choose business-casual or professional attire. For women, that includes a skirt and blouse, a simple mid-length dress with tights, or dress pants. For men, that means a dark suit with a solid-colored shirt, or a dark-colored collared shirt with dress pants, a tie, and a belt. 
  • Dress conservatively and keep jewelry to a minimum. Remember that the less flashy and attention-grabbing your funeral attire, the better. It’s OK to accessorize with simple, modest items. 
  • Dress for the location. Wear layers if the funeral is inside (like a sweater or shawl), and choose flat-heeled shoes if it’s taking place outdoors, where you might need to walk across a grass lawn. 

Arriving at the funeral

Now that you’re dressed for the funeral, you should know what to do when you arrive. Try to arrive 10 to 15 minutes early so that you can greet the family, if appropriate. This also gives you time to find a seat and greet other guests, and it ensures that you’re not late. 

When you arrive, the family may be greeting guests at the door. If they are, briefly offer your condolences and then go find your seat. Try to keep it short at the beginning of the service. You’ll have more time after the funeral. 

Bringing gifts and flowers

If you want to give the family a gift or flowers, it’s best to send that gift to the funeral home or funeral venue ahead of time. It’s often appropriate to have flowers delivered to the funeral home. However, it’s usually a good idea to check with the family ahead of time. 

Your funeral invitation or the obituary might also have an “in lieu of flowers” message directing guests to donate or take other action instead of giving flowers. 

» MORE: An online memorial is a perfect ending to honor and celebrate someone's life. Create one for free.

Take your lead from the officiant, the family, and other guests 

As the funeral service begins, follow the directions of the funeral officiant. They might have the guests sit or stand at different points or form a line to view the open casket. You do not have to view the open casket if you don’t want to. 

If you’re in doubt at any point, just look around you to see what other guests are doing. You can often determine what you should be doing based on what others are doing. 

What Happens After a Funeral?

Once the official service comes to a conclusion, there’s still more to come. So what should you expect to happen at a funeral as the services come to an end? 

Giving condolences

Now is your opportunity to approach the family members and offer more extended condolences. You can share what the person meant to you and how much you care for the family.

Attending the burial

The funeral officiant or a member of the family might direct the guests to proceed to the cemetery to observe the burial. Often, however, the burial service is reserved for close family members only. You might not be invited if you’re a more distant relative or friend. 

Socializing at the wake

Whether or not you’re invited to the burial, you’ll likely be invited to attend the wake. The wake is a gathering at a family member’s home or at the funeral home, where the funeral guests have food and talk more casually. A wake is an opportunity to support each other and enjoy each other’s company after the more somber funeral service. 

If you have a personal gift for a member or members of the family, you can bring it to the wake, rather than the funeral. Give it to them in private or leave it with them when you leave.

Planning Your Own Funeral in Advance

Now that you understand the ins and outs of funeral planning, you might feel inspired to pre-plan your own funeral. Doing so, and choosing details such as your casket and the funeral home, can make the process easier for your family after you’re gone. You can even make purchases like your casket ahead of time. 

Keep in mind that funeral wishes usually aren’t legally binding, and your next of kin aren’t required to follow your wishes. So, in addition to writing those wishes down, it’s important to talk with your family to make sure you make your wishes known and that they agree to fulfill your requests. 

If you're looking for more help with funeral planning read our guides on funeral terminology and examples of a funeral's order of service.

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