A Guide to Good Etiquette for Attending Funeral Services

The Day of the Funeral or Memorial Service

Should you attend the funeral? Unless the obituary says it’s a private service, then you can assume the public is welcome, and you should go. Until you’ve lost a family member yourself, you won’t understand what a comfort it is to the family to see “a full church [and] the pews packed with people who also care for and remember the deceased. … The family knows that attending a funeral is inconvenient, and that’s why they’ll never forget that you came.” (from The Art of Manliness)

Funerals today range from the rigidly ritualistic to the extremely informal. Don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from going. Even if you’ve never been to a funeral of another faith, your presence is appreciated, and if necessary, the funeral director or clergy will tell the mourners what to do and when. (For a glimpse of the differences, see Funeral Customs.)

Arrive early. Services often are delayed because of the people who show up five minutes before the starting time and find they have to park a block away and then try to find a seat, perhaps after the service has already started.

Etiquette for the Bereaved:
Planning the Funeral
During the Funeral
After the Funeral
Sending Thank You Notes

If there is a registry or guestbook, be sure to sign it with your first and last names and, if appropriate, your relationship to the deceased (“co-worker,” “friend,” “colleague,” “college roommate”). It is important to the family to see who attended the service, and they may use the registry to send thank-you notes.

Don’t try to seek out the family before the service; if you find that they are greeting people, keep your interaction brief and find your seat quickly. Sit toward the front only if you are a member of the family; close friends generally sit behind the family, while those who are co-workers or acquaintances sit further back or in the rear.

Be respectful. Don’t chat with those around you or eat or drink anything (leave that latté in the car). Turn off your cell phone; the last thing the family wants to hear is a ringer going off during one of life’s most solemn occasions. Resist the temptation to check your text messages. Unless you have a dire emergency, stay for the entire service. If you brought small children who start making noise or causing a distraction, take them outside immediately.

Tears are normal and expected at a funeral; however, if you find yourself crying uncontrollably, in a manner that would be upsetting to others or call undue attention to yourself, it is best to excuse yourself from the service until you can gain control.

An open microphone for sharing memories of the deceased is sometimes available at memorial services. If you decide to participate, keep your remarks respectful and brief. Long-winded or off-color stories are inappropriate.

At a religious service, whether or not you agree with the rituals, try to go along to the best of your ability. Your cooperation shows respect for the deceased and the bereaved family rather than agreement with the religion.

If the funeral is an open casket service, there often will be an opportunity to file past the casket at the end of the service. If this is something you don’t feel you can do, you may gracefully and unobtrusively slip out.

If you are tempted to use your cell phone camera to photograph the service, think twice; this act can be seen by the grieving as an invasion of privacy. If you believe you have a legitimate reason for taking pictures, check with the family and/or funeral director or clergy first.

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Ashes (cremains or cremated remains)

Be as respectful toward an urn as you would be toward a casket bearing the remains of your loved one. Make sure that your children also understand the respect issue, as tempting as it may be for them to want to hold it to see how heavy it is, look inside, or shake it.

Children and Funerals

Should you take your children to a visitation or memorial service?

  • Ask yourself whether your child will be disruptive during this solemn occasion (crying, fussing, talking, wiggling, or unable to sit still). Children who are very young and can’t understand what is going on generally should not attend services, not only because they may disrupt the service, but also because the grief displayed during the service may be upsetting to them. It may be appropriate to take older children who knew the deceased and have at least a basic understanding of the service.
  • Children old enough to understand death also should understand the purpose of a funeral and be allowed to ask questions before or after the service and to work through their grief.
  • If they will be attending the service, they should be told what to expect so they can be prepared. This is especially important if there will be an open casket. Addressing questions in advance also helps quiet spontaneous and potentially embarrassing questions during the funeral.

Recognize that children, like adults, may respond to grief with humor, behavioral issues, and sleep problems. Be patient and tolerant.

Clothing at Funerals

For many people, wearing black to a funeral has been a symbol of grieving and sympathy. Although people are less sensitive about dress today, one still shows respect for the family by dressing in subdued colors and clothing that is conservative—that is, clothes that don’t call attention to yourself by being too casual, loud, or revealing. Some colors and styles are culturally inappropriate for certain traditions, so if you are attending a service of another faith or ethnicity—one with which you are unfamiliar—see Funeral Customs for more information.

Crying at Funerals

Don’t feel guilty about saying or doing something that causes a loved one to cry or crying yourself. Crying is healthy. If, however, you find yourself weeping uncontrollably (you’re causing a scene or making other mourners uncomfortable), it is polite to excuse yourself until you regain control.

The cardinal rule is to ensure the focus is on the survivors, not on yourself and your grief. You are there to console the family, so don’t put them into the awkward position of consoling you.

Ex-spouse’s Funeral

Whether to attend the service honoring the passing of an ex-wife or ex-husband (or a member of their family) can be a difficult decision.

  • If your relationship with the family is cordial, and you wish to pay your respects, perhaps in memory of the years spent together or the children you share, then by all means, go.
  • If you know or feel that your presence would be upsetting to the family of the deceased, or they might have a difficult time putting hard feelings aside, it’s kinder to simply send a note or flowers.
  • If you do attend, don’t call attention to yourself or compete with the family for attention.
  • Avoid saying anything derogatory, demeaning, or mean-spirited about the deceased, even if what you are tempted to say is a fact.
  • Rise above your feelings or history to encourage and uplift the survivors who loved and cared about your ex.

Funeral Processions

The etiquette for driving in a funeral procession is fairly simple: follow the instructions of the funeral director (if applicable), turn on your headlights, and closely follow the vehicle ahead of you. Funeral processions generally have the right of way at intersections, and other vehicles should yield. Refer to Funeral Processions for more information.

Graveside Services

There may be a public graveside service for interment or inurnment after the funeral. If the cemetery is distant from the funeral, there likely will be a motorcade or procession. See Funeral Procession.

  • When you arrive at the cemetery, pull off to the side but don’t park on the grass unless directed to do so.
  • Keep in mind that the chairs at graveside are for the immediate family members (or the infirm); others will be expected to stand.
  • If you’re male, remove your hat during the service.
  • It is not polite to laugh loudly in a cemetery, engage in cell phone conversations during the service, or sit, walk, or lean on gravestones or markers.
  • Keep your children in check and remind them that this isn’t the park; games of tag or catch are inappropriate.
  • Avoid walking directly on graves if you can (stay between the headstones).
  • Clothing choice for a graveside service is the same as for a funeral service: conservative is best. This isn’t the place to make a flashy fashion statement or show up in gym clothes.

The graveside service also isn’t the time to pull out your camera and start snapping photos, unless you have a legitimate reason for recording the event. Photography should be done only with the permission of the family.

Helping the Bereaved

As kind as your intentions may be, a general offer of “If you need anything, call me,” usually isn’t helpful at all.

  • If you wish to help the family of the deceased in some manner, it’s best to make a specific offer, e.g., “Would you like me to go with you to the funeral home?” “I would love to provide child care during the service,” “I can serve coffee while you’re receiving visitors,” “I’d be happy to sit with you and answer your phone for a while,” or “Next time your car needs an oil change, call me and I will come do it for you.”
  • Friends often bring food to the bereaved family, and while this practice can be extremely helpful, it also can be a burden. You may wish to call first to find out whether food is needed; if the family’s fridge and freezer already are overflowing, you may want to wait a few days.
  • Help in the form of financial assistance must be done discreetly. Even if the family is in dire straits financially, it may be a matter of pride to keep that situation confidential, and cash donations can be embarrassing. In some circumstances, there will be a public account set up at a bank in the name of the deceased, or you may be able to provide a donation anonymously with the help of the family’s priest, rabbi, or pastor. It is generally inappropriate to approach the family and offer cash directly.

Pallbearers

If you are asked by the family to be a pallbearer, consider it an honor. You should accept if at all possible, unless physical limitations would keep you from helping to lift and carry the casket. (If you must decline, do so with regret, and explain why.)

The funeral director will inform you of your duties at the funeral and, if applicable, at graveside. Pallbearers usually carry (or, in the case of honorary pallbearers, accompany) the casket to the front of the church or funeral home, to the hearse, and from the hearse to the burial site.

Photography at Funerals

There are very few reasons for taking pictures at a funeral that conform to good etiquette. In some religious traditions, any type of recording device is forbidden at a funeral (see Funeral Customs).

  • If you have been specifically requested by the family to photograph the service—perhaps because certain family members couldn’t attend—do so with the utmost discretion, using natural light if possible rather than a flash, and avoiding close-up photos of grieving people.
  • Etiquette demands extreme respect for others; keep this tenet in mind when taking photos.
  • Photographing the deceased in the casket, unless the family has asked you to do so, is generally considered in very poor taste.

Visitations

If you were close to the deceased or the family, it is customary to visit the family upon learning of the death.

  • This visit may be at the family home, at the funeral home, or at another designated place chosen by the family.
  • If you knew the deceased but not the family, be sure to introduce yourself by first and last name and let them know what your relationship was to their loved one: “I am Heather Jones, and I worked closely with Suzanne at XYZ. She was a dear friend and colleague. I am so sorry.”
  • If visiting at the funeral home, take a moment to stand by the casket (if it is present) to pay your respects, whether you offer a silent prayer or simply reflect. Greet the family either before or after you pause at the casket, depending on if the family is occupied when you arrive.
  • Be sure to sign the guestbook or registry if one is available.
  • A formal, scheduled visitation period may include a prayer or a brief service; it is impolite to leave in the middle of it.
  • It is appropriate to bring along a card with a personal note and flowers or a basket garden, although flowers are not customary for all religious beliefs and ethnicities (see Funeral Customs). Flowers should always be in a vase to relieve the family of the burden of locating one.

If visiting at the family’s home, you may want to take along a re-heatable casserole or other dish, but it’s wise to call first to see whether such help is desired. Close friends of the family may offer to take on some household chore, if your visit comes at a time when many others are visiting—see if you can serve coffee or help in other behind-the-scenes ways to free up the family to receive callers.

Keep your visit brief, unless you are lending a hand or are encouraged by the family to stay longer. After you have expressed your heartfelt sympathy, asked if you can help in a meaningful way, and perhaps offered a warm memory or two, leave. This is not the time to “hang out,” talk about your own bereavement, or catch up on old times.

Wake

A wake is similar to a visitation and can be a celebration of life, with singing, libations, and laughter as mourners share their memories of the departed. When you arrive, it’s proper to go directly to the family to offer your sympathy before joining the other mourners. Remember, even with a party atmosphere, the primary purpose of a wake is to comfort the bereaved and remember their loved one.

Contributor: Jenny Mertes

See related topics:

What to Say / What to Do
Sending Sympathy Flowers
Making Memorial Donations
Sending Thank You Notes

Go to Funeral Guide — Index of Topics.