Private Funerals: Etiquette, Ideas & What to Expect


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While we all likely have a similar idea of a typical funeral, the reality is these services come in all shapes and sizes. A private funeral is one that’s limited only to close friends and family. The family might choose not to publicly state the time or date of the service at all, and it isn’t likely to be in the death announcement or obituary. 

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A private funeral is an opportunity for those closest to the deceased to mourn in private. A large service makes sense for many, but oftentimes these are overwhelming or expensive to plan. A private or home funeral is more intimate, less costly, and allows the family greater flexibility.

For those who respect their privacy, it’s a chance to choose the right situation for the unique family. In this guide, we’ll discuss what private funerals are as well as the etiquette surrounding them.

What Is a Private Funeral Service or Interment? 

A private funeral, as the name implies, is a small, quiet service only for close friends and family. While a traditional funeral is usually held in a funeral home, local venue, or religious space, a private service is typically at a family member’s home. 

The guest list isn’t open to all who wish to mourn. Rather, it’s only for a small group of close friends and family who were specifically invited by the individual organizing the event.

This type of service might hurt some feelings for those who weren’t invited, but it’s really just a way to lessen the burden for the surviving family. 

» MORE: Grief can be lonely. Create space for your community to share memories and tributes with a free online memorial from Cake.

Why do families have private funerals?

Why might a family choose a private funeral for a deceased loved one instead of opting for the traditional service? There are a number of reasons to opt for a smaller, intimate event. Some of the most common reasons are:

  • Cost: Frankly put, funerals are expensive. The bigger the funeral, the more expenses are involved. From paying for the venue space to feeding guests after the service, this is something many families aren’t able to afford on top of other expenses associated with the loss of their family members. 
  • Privacy: Even the rich and famous have private funerals. Sometimes the family values their privacy above all, and that might mean having a service only open to immediate family. 
  • Religious or cultural customs: There might be religious or cultural customs taking place during the funeral that aren’t open to the public. 
  • Expressing grief: Finally, larger funerals naturally attract more grieving people. For the close family, seeing acquaintances and those who might not know the deceased grieving openly could be a painful sight. They might prefer to grieve in front of those in their close circle only.

These reasons and more are all valid when it comes to choosing a private funeral. Respecting these wishes is just one of the many ways to offer your support during this difficult time. 

Who attends a private funeral?

There are no strict rules for who does or doesn’t attend a private funeral. In general, these are only open to close friends and family. Those who were closest to the deceased are invited to intend. 

Unless you receive an invite directly, don’t assume you’re welcome at a close funeral. There are other ways to show your support to the deceased and their family that don’t involve attending the funeral service.

Private Funeral Etiquette

Like all funerals, there is a specific funeral etiquette to follow for an intimate funeral. By following the proper etiquette, you ensure the family feels respected and cared for during their time of need.

The most important thing to remember is that this event is not about you or your feelings. It’s a time for the family to heal in a way that makes sense for them. 

How to know who’s invited

The only way to know who is specifically invited to a private funeral is to receive an invitation yourself and attend.

Oftentimes, the family includes a notice on the obituary or death announcement that the funeral is private. If so, keep an eye out for an invitation in the mail, by phone, or online. 

Responding if not invited

If you’re not invited to the funeral for someone you knew, it’s natural to feel a bit upset. However, don’t let your feelings get the best of you. While funerals are an effective way to share your grief, they’re not the only way to honor someone after they die. 

Don’t take your lack of an invite as a reason to be offended. As mentioned above, there are many reasons families choose private funerals. Many of these are deeply personal and not related to your connection to the deceased. 

Offering condolences

Whether you’re invited or not, there are a number of ways to offer condolences. If you’re invited, do your best to attend the funeral. This is a chance to say something kind in person. Sharing what the deceased meant to you and how you’ll take part in their legacy is an amazing gift for the grieving family. 

If you’re not invited, offer condolences in other ways. You can send a card, mail flowers to their home, or bring a home-cooked meal. These sympathy gift ideas are all gestures of kindness. 

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

Don’t overstay your welcome

If you attend a private funeral, don’t overstay your welcome. These events are typically short and sweet. It’s common to visit someone’s home, listen to a small service, share your memories, and enjoy a meal.

Beyond this, the family might wish to grieve in full privacy. If you’re not very close to the immediate family, excuse yourself when the time is right. 

Avoid sensitive questions

Last but not least, avoid asking questions about the nature of the private funeral. Never ask why they chose to make it an intimate event, and don’t ask why you (or someone else) wasn’t invited.

These are decisions the family had to make, and they might not be in a position to explain themselves at this time. 

Tips for Planning a Private Funeral

Are you planning a private funeral for your loved one? If so, the good news is you have fewer worries than you would if you were planning a larger funeral.

Even still, planning any type of event in honor of a deceased individual is never easy. Follow these tips to make the process simpler. 

Limit the guest list to family only

While you can invite whoever you feel was close to the deceased, it’s sometimes helpful to limit invites to family only.

Things get tricky when you begin to invite friends, especially if you don’t know their specific relationship to the deceased. 

Mention the private funeral in the obituary

Many friends and acquaintances read the obituary of the deceased to learn more about their passing.

Sharing a quick line about how the family plans to host a private funeral is a good way to avoid questions about the service. 

Ask for help

Even if your funeral is at home and with close family members, you can still ask for help.

There’s a lot that goes into planning any type of memorial event, so recruit family members to help with things like preparing or purchasing food, arranging the burial, and planning what to say during the small service. 

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

Private Funeral Ideas

Despite being smaller, there are still a lot of flexible ways to personalize a private funeral. From a celebration of life to an intimate feast, try these unique private funeral ideas. 

Host the service at a park

If space is limited in the family home, why not look outside? Having the funeral in a public park surrounded by natural beauty is a great way to say farewell to a beloved family member. Bring some food to make it a picnic or barbeque. 

Hold a virtual funeral 

Far-away travel, illness (or pandemics), and similar matters can lead to a delayed in-person funeral. Some people choose to hold a virtual funeral and live stream the service for those who can't attend.

Tip: We recommend GatheringUs's virtual funeral planning service to help you with logistics, tech, and day-of-funeral production.

Visit a favorite restaurant

If the deceased had a restaurant they loved, why not dine there as a family? Enjoy some of their favorite dishes and share memories together.

This is sure to be a memorable celebration. Just notify the restaurant in advance before arriving with a large party. 

At-home potluck

Food brings everyone together, especially in times of crisis. However, preparing enough food for a family isn’t always easy.

Have everyone bring their own dish to a potluck-style feast at the family home. Start with a brief service, and then enjoy a home-cooked meal together. 

Graveside service

Finally, host an intimate private funeral at the gravesite of your loved one. Share prayers, memories, and kind words about the deceased at their final resting place.

This is much less expensive than a funeral service at a formal funeral home, but it’s just as powerful. 

Make the Most of Your Private Funeral

Whether you’re attending your first private funeral or you’re hosting one for a deceased family member, this is a time for reflection. While large funerals might be the stereotypical “norm,” they’re far from the only option when it comes to honoring your loved one’s memory. 

Everyone grieves in their own way. Having a small service surrounded by people you trust is a huge comfort in a time of mourning. Have you ever considered a private funeral for yourself or a loved one.

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