Even if you’ve never been to a funeral or memorial, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that there are things you can and cannot do. While specific funeral etiquette can vary, there are some general guidelines to follow that should ensure smooth sailing.
Jump ahead to these sections:
If you’re getting ready to attend a funeral or memorial or you’re just curious about what never to do or say, this post is for you. Similarly, you may also be interested in what to say (and what not to say) on a death anniversary.
Things You Should NOT Do at a Funeral
When it comes to what not to do at a funeral, the list can be pretty endless. But, a good rule of thumb is that if you have to sit there and wonder if it’s OK, then it’s probably not.
Funerals and memorials, more so than perhaps any other event, are intended to show respect toward a deceased person and their family. After all, funerals and memorials are meant to facilitate the healing process as well as let the deceased person rest easily.
Regardless of how you actually feel about all of the individuals involved, you owe them a few hours of peace and quiet, while still paying attention. If you can’t handle this, then you may just want to kindly decline the invite.
1. Laugh out of turn
It’s not out of the question that something can strike you as funny during a memorial, funeral, or otherwise serious moment. While there is such a thing as having a good laugh at certain funerals during speeches, eulogies, and the like, it may not always be appropriate.
Alternative: Step outside if you need to and collect yourself. Bringing some attention to yourself to walk outside or use the restroom is much better than laughing in your seat or over someone speaking.
2. Wear something revealing or loud
Some funerals and memorials are more modern nowadays in terms of expected attire. In fact, some request that you wear whatever you wish or follow a specific theme. Even beachside funerals or paddle-out ceremonies are a thing, requiring guests to come in swimwear.
Alternative: Unless otherwise specified, you should dress appropriately and conservatively. Choose dark, muted colors or just shoot for all black. Wear pants or longer skirts and dresses, and bring a jacket or sweater. You can also check out etiquette for what to do at a wake here.
3. Disrespect cues
The procession of just about every funeral or memorial is similar. That being said, the funeral you’re attending may have a different schedule than those you’ve attended in the past.
Try to respect the procession the best you can. For example, use the restroom during an intermission (if there is one) rather than in the middle of someone’s speech.
Alternative: Doing whatever you want when you want simply isn’t acceptable funeral behavior. If you’re a high-energy person or you get restless, avoid drinking caffeine before the ceremony and try to relax and be calm.
4. Make unnecessary noise
This includes having your phone on loud, chewing gum obnoxiously, picking at your clothing… the list goes on. The funeral itself may have music, speeches, or prayers, but that doesn’t mean that you making noise in your seat won’t be distracting for others.
Alternative: Silence your phone or turn it off. Instead of gum, enjoy a mint or use some mouthwash prior to the service. Try not to wear clothing or shoes that are overly embellished or “jingly.”
5. Speak out of turn
Similar to the point above, you shouldn’t speak out of turn at a funeral or memorial. This includes inserting yourself in the procession of speeches or prayers or talking over others.
Alternative: You may attend a funeral or memorial that welcomes guests to come up or share a few words. Wait until your turn, and be respectful of everyone’s time, especially the immediate family of the deceased person. In the section below, we also cover what not to say at a funeral or memorial.
6. Applaud out of turn
Even if someone at a funeral gives a great or compelling speech, it may not be the time to applaud. Wait for cues from their family members or close friends. If the rest of the audience begins applauding, you can, too.
Alternative: Approach the speaker after the service or another time directly and share your praise. They’ll likely appreciate it.
7. Yawn excessively
Funerals and memorials can run long, and it’s understandable to feel tired during some of them. However, do your best to not yawn excessively, even if you’re tired. Furthermore, practice proper etiquette and cover your mouth, and don’t make any additional noise.
Alternative: Take deep breaths, but not too loudly. Eat a breath mint or drink some water, if you have it close by. Have some caffeine prior to the service if you feel yourself growing tired.
8. Move around too much
On the other hand, you may feel antsy or fidgety during a funeral or from sitting in place for too long. This can be very distracting to other guests and those speaking in the front. Try to sit still and respectfully. If you must get up, try to do so at a discrete time.
Alternative: Wear a ring or something else that you can fiddle with silently without disrespecting speakers or other guests if you’re prone to hyperactivity. Avoid caffeine prior to the service, and make sure that you eat a decent meal or grab a snack beforehand.
9. Steal flower arrangements
Stealing anything from a deceased person or their family is obviously a no-go. Even “just a flower or two,” is also disrespectful.
Alternative: Some families may offer up extra flowers to their guests as well as other gifts as a “thank you.” In this case, it’s obviously OK to accept these items.
10. Attend if you’re not invited
Don’t give Owen Wilson the inspiration to shoot “Funeral Crashers.” While the time and location of a funeral or memorial may be publicized, use your best judgment about whether or not you should attend.
Alternative: Send a card, message, flowers, or donation instead. If your relationship with other guests or the deceased person’s family is rocky, it may be best just to keep your distance.
11. Bring guests who weren’t invited
Funeral “+1s” aren’t really a thing, so it’s best just to stick to an invite-only basis. However, some funerals, memorials, and celebrations of life extend the invite to all people.
Alternative: If you were actually invited, don’t push the envelope by bringing a friend, date, or acquaintance. You all can do a different activity together later.
12. Drink or sneak alcohol or drugs
It’s understandable that funerals and memorials are emotional events, and everyone handles death differently. That being said, this is not the time to get drunk or otherwise under the influence.
Alternative: If you need to de-stress from a loss, do so on your own time. Attend funerals sober and be ready to be respectful. Here’s a post that explains what to bring to a funeral.
13. Bring pets
Pets can provide a lot of joy and comfort, no doubt. However, to respect other guests in attendance who may be afraid or even allergic, you should refrain from bringing pets to funerals or memorials.
Alternative: Emotional support animals may be excused. But, that being said, it's best just to leave pets at home. Have a neighbor or friend check on your pet if you’re worried about being gone too long. Or, take them to daycare.
14. Make any sort of scene
A funeral or memorial is not the time or place to get into a heated argument or make things about you. This includes taking selfies or inappropriate photos. For more on funeral photo etiquette, you can check out the linked post.
Alternative: If you need to meet with someone attending the funeral, pull him or her aside afterward and arrange a different time to talk. Wait for cues from who planned the funeral if it's OK to take photos or if there is a designated area for this. Some families treat funerals as important get-togethers, so taking photos is a little more understandable.
Things You Should NOT Say at a Funeral
Unless you're a speaker, you probably won’t be saying much of anything at a funeral. There are some definite things NOT to say, too. If you’re unsure about a particular comment, just keep it to yourself — this is a great rule of thumb in just about any situation.
15. “How much did this all cost?”
Matters of money and cost are generally rude to bring up. If you are genuinely interested in the cost of a funeral or an aspect of a funeral, perhaps address whoever planned it individually after the fact.
Alternative: Simply complement something you view as expensive instead. Or, say nothing at all.
16. “Why were they invited/not invited?”
There are tons of reasons why the family or those who planned the funeral may not have invited a particular person. On the flip side, there are a ton of reasons why they chose whoever is on their guest list.
Alternative: A funeral is for the deceased person and for their family to heal. They should not feel obligated to include everyone, and may not be able to afford a large service. Questions like this can make them feel guilty — which they’re already going through enough right now.
17. “This décor/flower arrangement is awful.”
Keep negative comments like these about décor or flowers to yourself. After all, you may not know if they were particularly special to the deceased person or have an important meaning to their family.
Alternative: Try to find a positive thing to say. If you can’t, don’t say anything at all.
18. “[Deceased person] had it coming.”
You should never say that anyone deserved death. Furthermore, you should also avoid talking about how the deceased person let their health go on purpose.
Alternative: No matter how you really feel about the deceased person or their family, a funeral is a time to show grace and respect.
19. “[Name] isn’t even crying or sad.”
Everyone grieves differently, this doesn’t mean that they’re not devastated by the loss of their loved one. Some people have an issue crying in public or simply have not reached that stage in their grief.
Alternative: Be sympathetic and empathetic toward anyone attending the funeral, as long as they are also being respectful.
20. “[Name] needs to get over it.”
On the other hand, attendees of the funeral may be very emotional. No matter what happened in the circumstances surrounding the deceased person’s death, everyone is entitled to grieve and to experience their feelings.
Alternative: Funerals are the place to air out feelings of grief. You never know how much a guest has held it in until this point. Or, perhaps they are finally facing the truth that their loved one is gone.
21. “I’m exhausted/starving.”
Even if you are in fact exhausted or very hungry, a funeral is not the time to make complaints like this.
Alternative: Be sure to get a good night’s sleep or take a nap before a funeral. Have a snack prior to the service if you think you’re going to get hungry.
22. “Can they play some different music?”
The family or those who planned the funeral likely chose the music for a reason. Be respectful of their taste and choices.
Alternative: There are plenty of songs not to play at a funeral you may not have considered.
23. “This is really boring.”
Again, complaining about a funeral or memorial or describing it as boring is very disrespectful. If you weren’t prepared to spend your time there the right way, then you shouldn’t have attended.
Alternative: Funerals, memorials, and even celebrations of life may have their quiet moments. Try to view them as “peaceful” instead of boring.
24. “Why aren’t they burying/cremating [deceased person]?”
It’s not your place to share opinions about the family or the deceased person’s wishes, especially in regards to what they’re doing with the body.
Alternative: If you do have a genuine question about burial, cremation, or some other aspect of the funeral, ask the family in a gentle way another time.
25. Anything generally negative about the deceased person or their family
A funeral or memorial is not the time to share negative opinions about the deceased person or their family.
Alternative: Have a private conversation with a trusted loved one after the funeral to express your feelings if you must.
26. Anything generally negative about the memorial itself
You never know all of the reasoning behind certain decisions, especially all of the decisions that go into making a funeral work. Be patient and understanding with those planning the funeral and everyone grieving.
Alternative: Again, have a private conversation after the funeral or memorial with a trusted loved one.
If You’re Not Sure, Don’t
We all mess up and have the occasional faux-pas. Accidents happen. But, these mistakes aren’t as excusable if you have the opportunity to think before you act or speak — and then still do the wrong thing anyway.
A good way to judge if behavior or speech is inappropriate for a funeral, consider this: If you’re not sure, it’s probably wrong. Just don’t do it. It’s far better to be safe than sorry.
After all, you likely owe a few hours of peace to the family or the deceased person. It’s not about you, it’s about honoring them and healing as a group.