Funeral Basics: What to Expect

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If a friend, relative, or loved one has recently passed away, there's a good chance you may have found out through an obituary, Facebook announcement, or phone call. In the coming weeks or months, you may also consider attending a wake, funeral service, memorial service, or celebration of life service to honor that person’s life. If you've never attended a funeral or related event before, you may be feeling a little unsure of what to expect. What happens at a funeral? What should you wear? How should you act?

It's important to understand that funerals are very personal services, so no two will be exactly alike. Still, there are some general things you can likely expect from a traditional funeral service. By having a better understanding of what a funeral entails and what to wear to a funeral, you can be better prepared.

COVID-19 tip: If you're planning or attending a Zoom funeral using a service like GatheringUs, the order of service, etiquette, and timing will vary. Consult with the funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to see what changes will be made to the ceremony, wake, and reception.

Funerals vs. Memorials: What's the Difference?

Begin by understanding the difference between a funeral and a memorial. The main difference is that with a funeral, the body is present at the service. In some cases, the casket may be open for viewing before the formal service begins and then closed for the remainder. In other situations, the casket may remain either open or closed for the entire funeral. This will all depend on the person's final wishes and/or the wishes of the immediate family.

With a memorial service or celebration of life service (which is more celebratory), a body is not present. These types of services are common in situations where the family has had the body cremated, but they still want to hold a formal memorial service for a loved one. Sometimes these events are held instead of or in addition to a funeral/burial service due to other logistical challenges, like accommodating travel needs for out of town family and friends.

Since a body is not typically present at a memorial service, there is also no burial. With many funerals, the service concludes with the transport of the body to the final resting place, which is often a burial plot at a nearby cemetery. If you have been invited to a funeral, you should also expect that you are welcome to attend the burial service after the funeral unless otherwise stated. At the same time, if there is inclement weather or if you simply don't feel comfortable attending the burial service, you are under no obligation to show up.

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What to Expect at a Traditional Funeral Service

The location of a funeral service can vary, but in most cases, they are held at funeral homes or places of worship (such as a chapel or church). In some cases, a funeral may be held directly at the burial site as well, though this is less common.

Some funeral services will begin with a viewing, where the body will be displayed inside an open casket for loved ones to come up, say final goodbyes, and give prayers. A viewing may be open to the public or restricted to immediate family only, depending on final wishes.

Once the official funeral service begins (usually right after the viewing, if there is one), a member of the church or funeral home will typically deliver a speech that may include scripture, poems, or other passages. In some funeral services, there will be an opportunity for family and loved ones to get up and speak. They may share stories about their relationship with the deceased, read special passages or poems, or even sing songs.

Following the funeral service, it is common for a brief service to be held at the burial site. At this service, additional prayers or readings may be made as the body and casket are lowered into the ground.

It is not uncommon for the immediate family to host a small reception following a funeral service, usually at a family member's home, a church, or even a local restaurant. These are often referred to as "mercy meals" and are typically by invitation only. A verbal invitation may be expressed at the end of the funeral service, though depending on the size of the crowd, it is not uncommon for these events to be restricted to family only.

What Should You Wear to a Funeral?

If you'll be attending an upcoming funeral for the first time, you may be wondering what to wear.

Traditional Funeral Attire for Men and Women

Traditional funeral attire consists of modest yet formal clothing in dark or neutral colors. In many religions, black is considered to be the color of mourning, making it a common color worn at funeral services.

For men, you can't go wrong with wearing a full suit to a funeral service. If you'll be attending an outdoor ceremony, such as a burial service after the funeral, it is considered appropriate to remove your suit jacket—especially in warmer weather. If you choose to forego a full suit, men should wear dress pants with a button-up shirt and tie. Avoid anything too casual, such as jeans or baseball caps, as this could be considered disrespectful.

Women typically wear black or dark-colored dresses to funeral services. Just be careful that your dress isn't too short and doesn't have a plunging neckline. If you don't want to wear a dress, you may want to consider a modest skirt and blouse or even dark dress pants with a blouse. Play it safe with close-toed shoes, such as classic pumps or flats.

If you'll be attending any outdoor portion of the service, be prepared for any type of weather by bringing along a jacket, sunglasses, and an umbrella. You can store these in your car if needed.

Less Traditional Funeral Attire

These days, it is becoming increasingly common for families to actually request that funeral attendees wear clothing other than the "traditional" black formal wear. This is often the case when the deceased has outlined in his or her final wishes that they would prefer if people dressed more casually. In some cases, they may even request that attendees wear bright colors or their favorite color to lighten the mood a bit.

If you are being asked to wear anything other than "standard" funeral attire, these wishes will be communicated clearly on the funeral announcement.

Proper Funeral Etiquette

In addition to dressing appropriately, there are some other basic etiquette guidelines you should be aware of when attending a funeral for the first time.

Arrive on time
Plan to arrive about a few minutes prior to the start of the funeral service. If you do arrive late for any reason, use a side aisle to find a seat as quietly as possible. When you enter a funeral home, there will likely be a guest book available for you to sign. You should take the time to sign the guest book, as it will show close family members of the deceased that you attended.

Mind where you sit
Be mindful of where you choose to sit at a funeral service. It is generally an unspoken rule that the first two rows of seating are for immediate family only. 

Stay off your phone
During a funeral service, be sure to keep your phone off (or at least make sure the ringer is on silent). In general, it is considered disrespectful to use your phone at a funeral service, so try to keep it put away for the duration.

What to say at a funeral
You should try to make a point of expressing your condolences to the family. The word "condolences" is just a fancy way of saying "feelings of sorrow, support, and comfort." The ideal time to do this is during a wake or viewing prior to the actual funeral ceremony when the family typically lines up to receive condolences from guests. If you haven't had the opportunity to express your condolences prior to the funeral service, you may want to wait until the formal proceedings are over. Family members of the deceased can easily become overwhelmed by all of the interactions with guests, so keep your comments brief and sincere. Many people have a hard time knowing what to say, though. Learn how to express condolences in a meaningful way.

Flowers, gifts, and charitable donations
You should not feel obligated to bring a gift to a funeral service, though sending sympathy flowers can be a nice gesture. It's not generally expected that casual friends and acquaintances send flowers to a funeral, though. In some cases, it may be more appropriate to donate money to a charity that the deceased was passionate about. Often times, a list of charities will be included in the obituary or funeral announcement. If you decide to gift flowers, this should be done in advance so as not to interrupt any part of the service. A local florist can help you coordinate the delivery of the flowers accordingly.

Have you thought about your own funeral wishes?

With all this talk about funerals, have you taken any time to think about your own final wishes? Funerals can prompt us to think about our own preferences. Some people would prefer a somber affair. Others would like to for their funeral to be a unique celebration of their life to cheer up their loved ones.  Should people wear black? Or bright colors? Would you like for people to toast champagne? Or donate to a cause you really care about?

Expressing your last wishes in an end-of-life plan is a huge gift to leave behind for your family. It helps them honor your wishes and grieve better with fewer hard decisions to make.  It's never too early to start. Cake is a free website that makes it easier to plan ahead for death. You can create, upload, and share all your important end-of-life-planning documents with loved ones who will need access to them.  You'll plan for healthcare, legal, funeral, and legacy decisions.

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"13 Helpful Tips for Proper Funeral Etiquette." FTD. 3 March 2017.


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