For many of us, funerals aren’t something that we need to attend very frequently. As a result, we’re not always sure of what behavior is appropriate or how we should interact with others. Especially with the rise in technology and social media, we may feel that expectations for funeral etiquette have changed. We’ve put together six tips for attending a funeral and showing the proper respect for the deceased, the family, and the situation. Take a look at our article, Funeral Visitation and Wake Etiquette Tips for additional recommendations.
1. Etiquette for Attending the Funeral
First things first: Should you attend the funeral? In most situations, the answer is a firm yes. Funerals not only give you the opportunity to say goodbye to the deceased, attending a funeral shows respect to the family and acknowledges their loss. You should always make time to attend the funeral of a family member or close friend, of course. In most cases, going to a funeral for a coworker, member of your church or other religious group, member of an organization you belong to, or another individual who you interacted with regularly shows support for the family and honors the deceased.
Arrive at the funeral on time. Plan to get there a few minutes early so that there’s no risk of coming in late and disrupting the service. If you do arrive late for some reason and there is a processional, wait to go inside until after the coffin and mourners have entered; never walk with the processional unless you’re specifically invited to do so. Once they’ve entered, join the service from the back and enter from a side aisle, if at all possible.
During the funeral service, family members and pallbearers typically sit in the front of the service, followed by close friends. Coworkers and other acquaintances sit at the back.
If there is a procession of cars from the funeral to the cemetery, funeral procession etiquette typically says that all mourners are welcome to join. The hearse and cars carrying the family lead the procession, and other mourners follow with their headlights on. Drive slowly and stay close to the car in front of you. If the lead car passes through an intersection on a green light, the entire procession should go through the intersection, even if the light turns red.
Attending the Funeral of an Ex
A question arises when you’re talking about attending a funeral for someone who you may have had a difficult relationship with in the past. Many people aren’t sure if it’s appropriate funeral etiquette if the deceased is a former boyfriend or girlfriend, an ex-spouse, or a former step-parent, for example. There are two things to keep in mind in this type of situation:
- Would your presence (or absence) upset the family?
- Can you leave any bad feelings at home?
In the event that you had a very difficult and acrimonious relationship with the deceased and his or her family, it may be better to stay home. The family is already suffering with their loss, and there’s no need to make the situation worse. Even if you’ve gotten over any bad blood, avoid going to a funeral where you might make the family upset. You may want to send a card or flowers instead, if you think that will be better received.
On the other side of this issue, consider whether or not the family might be upset if you did not attend. There’s no reason not to go to the funeral of an ex that you dated years ago, especially if there were no hard feelings after the break up. In many ways, the funeral is for the family, and if your presence shows them honor and respect, then you should attend.
Of course, if you can’t let go of your anger or bad feelings about the deceased or his or her family, stay home. A funeral isn’t the place to focus on these negative emotions or to force others to deal with them. If you feel the need to express your anger or frustration at the deceased, wait until after the burial and visit the gravesite by yourself.
No matter your relationship with the deceased and his or her family, funeral protocol says that, if the funeral is private, you should not attend unless you’ve been invited.
Funeral etiquette says that all clothing for a funeral should be neat, clean, and conservative. Avoid bright colors and busy patterns. Darker colors are preferred, but black is not typically required. Ideally, men should wear a dark suit, white shirt, and a tie. Women should wear a dress or skirt and blouse, along with plain, low heel shoes. Only minimal jewelry should we worn.
While the strict rules for what to wear to a funeral have loosened in recent years, it’s still important to remember that what you wear shows your respect for the family and the deceased. Women should not wear low cut tops, for example; avoid jeans or ripped clothing. This is not the time to be a rebel or insist on showing your personality. The funeral isn’t about you – it’s about the family and the deceased.
3. Silence Your Phone
Turn off your cell phone or put it on silent before you enter the service, if possible. Unless you have a job that demands your attention – such as a police officer or doctor – don’t check your phone during the service. You should be paying attention to the service, not your phone.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of controversy about people updating social media during funerals or other private, solemn events. It’s best to put your phone away and not update during this time. While sharing the experience on social media might give you a sense of community as others share in your loss, it’s more often considered disrespectful or even offensive.
4. Expressing Sympathy
Even if you feel uncomfortable, do speak to the family and express your sympathy. No one is likely to be particularly eloquent at this time, so it’s OK if you are unsure or stumble over your words. You might think about what to say ahead of time, but just offering an honest expression of condolence is enough. Introduce yourself if you don’t know the family well, and keep your comments brief.
5. Sending Flowers
It’s traditional funeral protocol to send flowers either to the family or directly to the funeral home for the service. Some families ask that donations be made to a particular cause in lieu of flowers, and you should honor this request. In many cases, only the family’s flowers will be on or around the coffin during the funeral itself. It’s usually best to send flowers directly to the family, but if you’d like to send them for the service, it’s best to ask the family first. Sign your card with a simple statement, such as “With Deepest Sympathy.”
It’s important to note that it is typically not appropriate to send flowers to a Jewish funeral or to the family while they are sitting shiva. Funeral flowers are not part of Jewish funeral practices, and some communities object to the act of cutting flowers, which shortens their lives, for a funeral. Shiva is a period of seven days following the funeral and is a time of deep mourning. During this time, families do not beautify themselves or their surroundings, as it is considered a distraction. Sending flowers during this time would therefore not be appropriate funeral etiquette.
6. Always Show Courtesy and Respect
The most important tip for funeral etiquette is to always show courtesy and respect to the family. This is a hard time for them, and you should do all that you can to not make things even more difficult.
We all know the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated yourself. During a funeral or any other formal situation, take that rule one step further and treat others the way they want to be treated. Maybe it wouldn’t bother you if people attend your loved one’s funeral in blue jeans or sent text messages through the service. The more important question in this situation is whether it would bother the family of the deceased. It’s best to err on the side of caution and assume that it would. Always remember that you’re attending a funeral to show respect for the deceased and the family, and let your actions reflect that.