What Should You Wear to a Memorial Service?

Updated

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"Just wear black." Isn’t that the most often heard guideline for funeral attire? But that suggestion can muddy the waters when there are different expectations for a memorial service or funeral compared to a celebration of life ceremony.

Jump ahead to these sections:

What you wear to a funeral isn't always the same as what you'd wear to a memorial or celebration of life. Some modern-day ceremonies might even suggest a dress code. But it’s easy to get confused when you don’t receive explicit instructions for a particular memorial service or celebration.

Read on for ways you can identify the proper dress code for any type of memorial service.

COVID-19 tip: If you're attending or planning a virtual memorial service using a service like GatheringUs, try to wear your normal funeral attire (including the top and bottom half of your body) and follow the advice below. Make sure you put on something you can sit comfortably in for a couple of hours and doesn't look distracting or distorted (e.g. bright colors or busy patterns) on the computer screen. 

Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, closing accounts and other aspects of handling a loved one's 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.


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The Basics: Attire and Manners for a Memorial Service

List of things to keep in mind when considering what to wear to a memorial service with an image of dress shirts in the background

There’s no hard and fast rule for what kind of attire is appropriate for a memorial service. Outdoor memorial services generally call for more relaxed attire.

A memorial service at a church, temple, or other religious building calls for more traditional funeral attire. Here are some things to keep in mind when considering what to wear to a memorial service:

  • Timing
  • Level of formality
  • Color and pattern selection
  • Appropriate outerwear and accessories

Timing

Timing can be a factor when you consider what to wear. Typically, funerals take place within a week or so of a person’s death. Let’s say you plan to attend a memorial service for a person who died only a week ago or less — you can usually predict that the service will be more formal.

On the other hand, the service will probably be a lot more relaxed if you attend a memorial service or celebration of life a month or a year after someone’s death. 

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Level of formality

A good rule of thumb for a funeral is that you should never be the best-dressed person at a funeral or memorial service — but you shouldn’t be the worst-dressed person, either. Stick to these four words: somber, simple, subdued, and sophisticated.

Funerals are about paying respect to the dead, not doing anything to stand out from the crowd, or drawing attention to yourself. This is not the time to pull your flashiest outfit out of the closet.

Another good rule of thumb to follow when it comes to dressing for a funeral or memorial service is to be conservative. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing an outfit to church or to an important business meeting, it’s not acceptable for this occasion.

A good rule of thumb for women is to strive for a modest outfit that covers their shoulders, if needed. Makeup and jewelry should be similarly understated.

Men can pair a black or dark-toned suit with a crisp white dress shirt or a darker shirt. Even if you typically skip the tie, it’s a good idea to add a solid black one for a funeral or formal memorial service. Ensure that everything you wear is clean and pressed. Pick something small and classic if you wear cufflinks. 

Color and pattern selection

Guess what? Black isn’t a requirement — other dark tones are absolutely appropriate. Navy blue, dark charcoal gray, and even deep brown are all acceptable shades.

Solids are simple and classic. Avoid pinstripes, patterns, and prints. Don’t forget to pay attention to accessories. Shoes should be polished — not scuffed — and should coordinate with belts or handbags.

Outerwear and accessories

Bring appropriate outerwear if you anticipate bad weather for a graveside burial. Coats and hats should coordinate well with your outfit and be in similarly muted and dark colors. Even umbrellas should be black, not neon orange or pink plaid.

As you can see, it’s important to keep the small details in mind as you get dressed for a funeral or a more formal memorial service.       

What to Wear If It’s a Casual Memorial Service

In some ways, it’s actually easier to dress for a formal memorial service. Wearing all black and dressing nicely for the occasion are very well-established social norms. The idea behind a more casual memorial service can be confusing for some people.

When an obituary or funeral announcement indicates that the service is casual or asks people to “come as you are,” it can throw you for a loop. Remember, the ultimate goal should be to let people mourn a lost friend without putting undue restrictions on the dress code. This might prevent them from coming and rob them of an opportunity to say goodbye.

There are reasons why family members might opt for a more casual memorial service. Many memorial services end up being held in the early evening on a weekday, which means many attendees will have to come straight from work.

Relaxing the dress code allows people to wear work-appropriate outfits. Men might wear khakis and a polo shirt, pants with a button-down shirt and blazer (but no tie), and a lighter color palette. 

Women may show up in slacks and a patterned blouse or a dress with a floral print. Some professionals may need to wear suits for work, so they’ll still look nicely dressed for a memorial service. They just won’t necessarily be wearing black or dark colors, nor will they be wearing monochromatic outfits.

Making a memorial service casual also allows people to attend who may not have a formal outfit handy and may not be able to afford one for the occasion. Or maybe the deceased was a sports fanatic and wanted everyone to wear his favorite team jersey and jeans. Whatever the reason for a casual service, just make sure your clothes are as clean and neat-looking as possible.

Celebration of life services have become more popular as a way to honor the dead. These ceremonies are meant to be a joyous tribute to the deceased instead of a somber, sad occasion. They may revolve around a fundraising race to collect money for an organization that the deceased supported. They may include a symbolic gesture like a lantern release. They may even just be an occasion to sit and share positive stories about the deceased.

These ceremonies typically have a less formal dress code. Wearing black may actually be discouraged, as this kind of service is meant to be a happy occasion.

What to Wear If It’s in a Church, Temple, or Place of Worship

Tip on what to wear if the ceremony is in a place of worship

If a memorial service is being held in a church, temple, or another place of worship, odds are the memorial service is a formal one. That means you’ll want to dust off your old suit and pull out your most conservative black dress or slacks — you’ll want to opt for traditional and formal funeral attire.

Is the ceremony being held in a religious venue that you aren’t familiar with? If so, it’s best to research expectations for proper attire ahead of time. For instance, if you’re a non-Muslim woman who attends a Muslim funeral, you should dress according to custom.

This includes loose-fitting clothes that cover most of the body which leaves only your hands and face exposed. Even a conservative knee-length skirt would likely be considered inappropriate. You may also want to bring a headscarf with you in case it turns out that you’re expected to cover your hair.


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Memorial Service Outfit Ideas

Are you still feeling confused about what clothes might be appropriate at a memorial service? We’ve got you covered. We’ve broken down several specific memorial service clothing combinations that are appropriate to wear in various circumstances.

In the summer heat

For an outdoor summer service, it's best to wear lightweight clothing made of breathable natural fibers. Stay away from nylon and polyester, and opt for natural fibers like linen or cotton. 

If you decide to wear a dress, select one that is knee-length or longer, with a relatively modest top half. A short-sleeved dress with a collar or a dress with a boatneck top is preferable to something like a sundress with spaghetti straps and a low neckline. 

A skirt and blouse set should follow the same guidelines as a dress. Again, choose a short-sleeved blouse instead of a sleeveless one, not exposing too much of your shoulders or chest. 

Dresses and skirts alike can be paired with dressy flats or sandals. However, it's best to avoid casual shoes like flip-flops. Darker colors like black, gray, and dark blue are preferable for this type of attire, but there is some flexibility when it comes to modern funerals. 

If you decide to wear pants, go for lightweight slacks or dress pants and avoid shorts and denim. Pair those pants with a collared shirt. A nice polo shirt or a short-sleeved button-down shirt are both acceptable. You can complete your outfit with loafers, dress shoes, or even sneakers if they're in a dark color.

Lighter-colored pants like khakis are acceptable at memorial services, but they will ideally be paired with a darker-colored shirt. Shirts with patterns - especially casual Hawaiian-style shirts - should be avoided in favor of solid colors. Not only is a dark color more appropriate for a somber occasion, but it can also hide patches of sweat. 

Certain accessories can make you more comfortable during an outdoor service. Sunglasses will protect your eyes on bright and sunny days, while umbrellas can provide shade or protect you from an unexpected summer storm. Ideally, sunglasses and umbrellas alike should be simple and black. Avoid bright colors or busy patterns.

Sometimes an indoor memorial service is followed by an outdoor graveside burial. If that's the case, you may also want to bring a light sweater or jacket with you. This will be helpful if the air conditioning inside the church or funeral home is particularly chilly. 

On a cold winter day

Dressing for a winter memorial service poses a unique challenge because you need to ensure that your outfit and outerwear are appropriate for the occasion. Outerwear plays a more prominent role in outdoor services because you want to ensure that you’re dressed warm enough if you’re going to be outside for an extended period of time. Even if the memorial service is indoors, your coat should fit the occasion. 

Wool coats are the ideal outerwear in colder climates. Not only do they keep you warm, but they are also stylish. Black coats are the best, but other dark and muted hues like navy blue, dark green, and brown will work. Solid colors are preferred, but a dressy plaid can also work. 

If part or all of a winter memorial service is held outdoors, accessories are crucial. Items like gloves, scarves, and hats will keep you comfortable. For footwear, go with durable waterproof shoes like rain boots to protect your feet from slush or snow. Typical closed-toe winter shoes and boats are fine if the service is held indoors. 

At a beach

As funeral traditions have evolved, it’s not uncommon to see memorial services at outdoor venues. Beachfront memorial services are growing in popularity, particularly when accompanied by a ceremony where the ashes of the deceased will be scattered at sea. 

On the whole, memorial services on the beach tend to be more casual than a memorial service at a church or funeral home. Generally speaking, it’s best to follow the guidelines listed for a summer memorial service above. You may even be able to go more casual with a sleeveless dress or blouse, but it’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution. 

At an outdoor park

Once again, outdoor memorial services at a secular location tend to be less formal than traditional funerals. Often, a memorial service at a park will be more of a celebration of life which might have a more colorful and vibrant dress code. Check your invitation to see if you’re requested to wear a particular color. If not, stick to the summer memorial service dress code once more. 

At someone’s home

The dress code for memorial service at a private residence can vary widely depending on the tone of the celebration. If it’s a celebration of life, the invitation might request you to wear casual clothes or bright colors. If it’s a wake, you can dress less formally, but you should still look polished and presentable. If a more casual dress code hasn’t been specified, dress just like you would if you were attending a memorial service at a funeral or church.  

Tips for Dressing Up for a Memorial Service If You Don’t Want to Buy Anything New

Occasionally, there are circumstances where you would like to attend a memorial service, but you don’t have access to conventionally appropriate attire. Perhaps you didn’t receive enough notice before the memorial service to have time to go shopping, or maybe you don’t have the budget to buy a new outfit. Here, we help you figure out how to do your best with clothing options that are already available to you.

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If you have to wear jeans

Jeans are typically not considered to be appropriate attire for a funeral. If jeans are your only option, pick an unembellished pair without any rips or holes. If you have black jeans, that’s your best option. Otherwise, go for the darkest wash you can find. 

If you must wear jeans, do your best to dress them up. Pair them with a shirt, tie, blazer, or a blouse and blazer. For footwear, select dress shoes, loafers, flats, or dressy sandals in muted tones. Black is the best color, but darker colors like charcoal and navy blue will be fine.  

If you don’t have a suit or tie

If you don’t work in a more formal office setting, you may not have any suits or ties in your wardrobe. If that’s the case, don’t feel as though you have to go out and splurge on a new suit for a funeral. Instead, wear your nicest slacks with a button-down shirt. If you have a blazer or nice jacket that coordinates well with your pants, that can help your look feel more dressy. Complete the look with loafers or dress shoes with dark socks. 

If your wardrobe is more limited, you can also go for a business casual look. Khaki pants, a dark-colored polo shirt, and dark sneakers will work in a pinch. 

If you need something appropriate for cold weather

If you refer to the previous section, we broke down the ideal clothing options for cold weather funerals. Do your best to follow those guidelines with what you have on hand. If none of your winter coats are black, pick the most muted version of what you have on hand. 

If you need something appropriate for warm weather

Once again, in the previous section, we explored the best attire for a memorial service that’s held in the summer. Look through your closet and find the items that best adhere to those guidelines. Do your best to incorporate solid colors and darker hues into your look. 

If you need to dress up a baby, toddler, or a child

Children grow like weeds, so it’s understandable that parents wouldn’t necessarily have formal funeral attire on hand for their little ones. Other funeral guests will understand and will give children some leeway. Pick the nicest outfit they have, and stay away from bright colors and busy patterns. Instead, stick to neutral tones and solid colors. 

Proper Memorial Service Attire

The best rule of thumb to follow when planning your wardrobe is to accommodate the wishes of the deceased’s family. Pay attention to obituaries and funeral announcements, as they may specify the type of dress that is requested.

You don’t want to show up in a high-end suit if everyone else is wearing kilts or Hawaiian shirts. Conversely, you don’t want to show up in khakis and a polo shirt if everyone else is wearing suits.

In the absence of requests from the family, you can still dress appropriately for the occasion. It just takes a little more thought and care, and you’ll need to pay attention to context clues. Where is the service? If it’s in a place of worship, choose something that is conservative, traditional, and appropriate for a formal memorial service. If the service is held outdoors or in someone’s home, attire will likely be more casual.

Ultimately, you should adhere to the requests of the deceased’s family first and second, pay attention to established traditional cultural norms. As long as you don’t create an egregious fashion faux pas, people may not focus on your attire at all. Their focus is probably going to be mourning the loss of a loved one.

To sum it all up: Don’t dress to impress — dress to blend in. As long as you don’t stand out, you’ll do just fine.

infographic of what to wear to a casual memorial service

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.