If you’ve never attended a funeral before, or if it’s been a while, the whole thing can feel a bit intimidating. Funerals are often complicated, both logistically and emotionally. And if we’re lucky, they’re rare enough that we never really get used to them.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is a Traditional Funeral?
- What’s the Order of Service at a Traditional Funeral?
- What’s the Etiquette at a Traditional Funeral?
If you’re expected to attend a funeral, you might find yourself thinking about every small detail, like what to wear and where to sit. Luckily, there are some tried-and-true guidelines of funeral etiquette that you can follow if you’re ever in doubt.
In this article, we’ll go over what you can expect, whether you’re planning a traditional funeral, thinking about your own funeral in advance, or preparing to attend a funeral service. You’ll find out what a traditional funeral entails, as well as how you should prepare for the day.
What is a Traditional Funeral?
Funeral services around the world vary from efficient and straightforward to elaborate and complex. Some funerals provide an outlet for grief, while others are a celebration of life. A funeral can be religious, secular, or somewhere in between.
In the U.S., the most common funerary ceremony is the “traditional funeral.” Traditional funerals are also known as “full-service funerals” because they usually include multiple steps or services.
Steps of a traditional funeral
The steps involved in a traditional funeral are as follows (a family may choose to omit one or more of these services):
- Visitation. The visitation, or wake, is when guests come to pay their respects to the deceased and spend time with the family. The body is typically displayed in a casket (which may be open or closed) at the front of the room. Visitation usually takes place the day of or the day before the funeral ceremony.
A note on embalming: Embalming is always optional, no matter what kind of funeral you choose. But most traditional funerals include embalming for the purpose of the wake.
- Ceremony. The funeral service, or ceremony, is at the heart of a traditional funeral. Attendees gather to hear funeral music, listen to readings from religious or literary works, give eulogies about the departed, and sometimes participate in prayer.
- Committal. Most traditional funerals also include a committal service, which is when the body is buried. Only a handful of funeral guests — usually just family — attend the burial at the cemetery.
- Reception. The final step of a traditional funeral is the reception. Following the committal ceremony, funeral guests are often invited to a family member’s home, or to a different room of the funeral home, for refreshments and conversation.
Where a traditional funeral takes place
A traditional funeral generally takes place at one of these types of location:
- A funeral home
- A place of worship
- A public venue (such as a community center or local outdoor space)
Parts of the traditional funeral, like the visitation and reception, might be held at a family member’s home. But often, these services (particularly the visitation) take place in the same location as the funeral service. And, of course, the committal ceremony takes place at a cemetery or other place of burial.
What’s the Order of Service at a Traditional Funeral?
Traditional funeral ceremonies often follow a similar order of service. When you arrive at the funeral, you might even receive a program listing the different segments in the order they’ll occur.
Below is an example of a typical order of service for a traditional funeral. The family might choose to have these segments occur in a different order, and they might omit some altogether.
- Musical prelude: Funeral music plays as the guests arrive.
- Introduction or words of welcome: The person leading the service welcomes guests and introduces the service. This could be a funeral director or a religious leader, such as a priest.
- Prayers and scripture readings: Traditional funeral services held at places of worship and officiated by a religious leader often include prayer and scripture readings.
- Musical selections or hymns: A church choir or organist may accompany attendees in singing hymns or perform hymns on their own. At a funeral home or other location, the funeral director may play more secular funeral musical selections.
- Formal reading of the obituary: The leader of the service reads a short obituary provided by the family.
- Eulogy and tributes: Speakers are called to the front of the room to give prepared eulogies or tributes. These speakers are notified ahead of time and asked if they would like to speak at the funeral.
- Informal eulogies and tributes: Attendees are asked if anyone else would like to give a brief eulogy or say anything in tribute to the departed.
- Thank you and acknowledgments: The leader of the service or a family member will thank the guests for attending.
- Viewing of the deceased: Although there may have been a formal viewing, traditional funeral ceremonies often include an additional viewing period at the end of the service. Attendees line up and view the casket one or two at a time.
- Closing: The leader of the service will give a closing statement and announce where the reception is being held. A religious leader may provide a final benediction.
What’s the Etiquette at a Traditional Funeral?
Knowing where to go, what to say, and what to wear to a funeral isn’t always easy, especially when you’re grieving. All of those little details can quickly add up to a confusing and overwhelming task.
Most people understand the stress of attending a funeral. That’s why some general rules typically apply when it comes to funeral etiquette.
Below are some of the most common etiquette questions for traditional funerals and how to observe the proper etiquette rules.
When should you arrive at a funeral?
You should try to arrive at the funeral location at least 15 minutes before the service begins.
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What should you do when you get there?
Enter quietly, taking a program if provided. If you speak with other guests, try to keep your voice low and soft.
Should you introduce yourself?
If you’re a friend or colleague of the deceased, be proactive in introducing yourself. The family won’t approach you in most cases, so it’s best to approach them when it’s appropriate (usually after the service). Quickly let them knew who you are, how you know the person, and share your condolences.
When should you offer condolences?
Whether you know the family well or not, it’s important to observe when it is and is not appropriate to offer your condolences. At some funerals, a family member will greet guests as they arrive. If this occurs, you can offer a brief condolence handshake or hug as you enter.
Usually, however, condolences are reserved for after the ceremony or during the final viewing. It’s best to observe what the family members and other guests are doing and approach when they appear open to conversation.
What should you do if you don’t know any of the other guests?
If you’d like, you can also introduce yourself to other guests at the funeral, before or after the service. Ask them how they’re connected to the person or to the family, or begin by explaining your connection.
Where should you sit?
If you see someone familiar, ask if the seat next to them is taken. Suppose you don’t see any familiar faces. In that case, sit anywhere except the front two rows unless you’re immediate family or it’s a very small venue.
What should you wear to a funeral?
Black is the traditional color of mourning. If you don’t have anything in black, dark blue will suffice. It’s best to dress modestly and avoid flashy accessories.
What should you bring to a funeral, if anything?
If you want to bring something to the funeral to give to the family, consider a sympathy card. The family has a lot to deal with at the venue, and the less they have to carry, the better.
Should you bring flowers to a funeral?
Flowers are the most popular sympathy and condolence gift. But it’s important to observe the proper etiquette when it comes to funeral flowers.
Check your funeral invitation for an in lieu of flowers directive, and follow the request listed there if you find one.
If you want to give the gift of flowers, consider having a small bouquet or floral basket delivered to the funeral venue.
Should you bring children to a funeral?
It’s usually best to hire a babysitter for the funeral unless the person was an important part of your child’s life. Children may not understand the solemn tone of a funeral, and babies and toddlers may disrupt the services.
If you are a close family member or are unable to find childcare, it may be appropriate to bring your baby or child. Sometimes children can bring a bit of joy to an otherwise very somber affair. It is a true demonstration of the cycle of life.
What’s the proper etiquette for virtual funerals?
The etiquette rules listed here also apply to virtual funerals. You should be seated at least 15 minutes early, and you should be prepared to offer your condolences following the service. You can also arrange for flowers to be sent to the family’s home or the funeral home if it’s a hybrid service.
Alternatives to Traditional Funerals
Ultimately, the type of funeral and final disposition you choose is up to you. And a traditional funeral is just one of the many options available.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, you have more than just the funeral to think about. Handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
- “Types of funerals.” Federal Trade Commission. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0302-types-funerals