Etiquette for the Surviving Family: Planning the Funeral

Bereaved Etiquette

A funeral is a formal service of remembrance with the body present, in either a closed or open casket. A memorial service is similar to a funeral but the body is not present. Your funeral director or clergy can advise you on many aspects of funeral planning etiquette relating to the actual service.

See also Celebrations of Life

The many aspects of funeral planning etiquette relating to the actual service will depend on the customs and traditions of your religion and your culture. Your funeral director or clergy can advise you on the details of etiquette for your service.

If your loved one has preplanned, then many of the decisions relating to the funeral will already be made. If they haven’t made arrangement in advance you will need to make a number of decisions.

Funeral Planning Etiquette: Decisions about the Service.

Where to hold the funeral: Traditional choices include a funeral chapel or a place of worship. Funerals also are held in places that hold special meaning for the deceased. It is legal to hold a funeral on private property anywhere in the U.S. When choosing a location, consider whether or not it will be appropriate for the type of service you are planning.

What kind of service: Your clergy or funeral director can help you understand your options for the service. This includes items such as:

  • Who will perform the service.
  • Who will give the eulogy.
  • Whether to include music, photo display or a video or digital tribute.
  • If the service will be public or private.
  • Whether to have an open microphone for people to offer impromptu tributes.
  • Measures to take if the deceased was a military veteran.

Open or closed casket: Deciding on whether or not to have an open or closed casket can be a difficult decision for many families. Do not feel pressured. Do what you think is best or what the deceased specified. If having the casket present is not an option for you for any reason, it is appropriate to hold a memorial service or celebration of life instead.

Whom to choose as pallbearers: Traditionally, close friends or business associates are invited to be pallbearers. While not common, family members may also be chosen. See pallbearers.

Whether to have a public or private interment: If the deceased is to be buried, generally there will be a funeral procession from the funeral location to the grave site, followed by a brief, simple service before the casket is lowered. Similarly, if the deceased has been cremated, the remains can be inurned during a brief ceremony at the cemetery or the ashes scattered at a desired time and place.

See also Celebrations of Life

Funeral Director

Funeral directors are professionals who are trained to help families make decisions regarding burial or cremation of a loved one. If you are expecting a death in the family, you can contact a local funeral home and ask the funeral director any questions about funeral planning etiquette you might have. When death occurs, no matter what hour of the day or night, you can call the funeral director who will be prepared to assist you with transporting the remains and taking care of all other arrangements that are necessary.

Burial Garments

You will need to decide on the final clothing for the deceased and provide it to the funeral home, or consult with the funeral home for clothing they can provide that is specially made for this purpose and particularly suited for open-casket viewing.

  • If you would like the deceased to be buried in a work uniform, confirm with your loved one’s employer that they will not expect the uniform to be returned.
  • In addition to clothing, you may also include items such as jewelry, a favorite book, or, for a child, a special toy or blanket. Be sure to consider these items carefully before deciding to part with them permanently.

Receiving Condolence Calls

Expect many calls as soon as word of your loved one’s passing is made public. If calls from concerned and sympathetic friends are overwhelming you, it is appropriate to have a friend or another family member screen the calls. Be sure they write down the first and last name and phone number of each caller so you can return or acknowledge the call as needed. This is especially important for those who are offering tangible help or gifts of food; you may want to get in touch with them later.

Children Attending Funerals

If there are young children in your family, you will need to decide whether they should attend the services. Children younger than five will have little or no understanding of what is going on, and they may be disruptive during this solemn occasion; consider also that they could be upset by the grief expressed during the service. Children who are old enough to attend 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 avoid spontaneous and potentially embarrassing questions during the service.


If you have a church affiliation or are a member of a congregation, it is proper to notify your pastor, priest, or rabbi when death is expected or imminent, or immediately following the death. The role of a clergy member is to offer comfort, prayer, and advice throughout this difficult time. You can also request their assistance in planning the funeral or memorial service, in officiating, or with tips on funeral planning etiquette. It is customary to thank the clergy for their assistance and to offer an honorarium if they are involved in the service. See Honorarium.


If your loved one will be buried, you may want to have a formal committal, which follows the graveside service.

  • A prayer is offered, and the family and close friends witness the lowering of the casket into the ground.
  • If desired, someone shovels the first dirt onto the casket.
  • Flowers also may be tossed onto the casket.
  • It is acceptable to leave before the casket is lowered since this ritual is a painful sight for many grieving family members.

Death Away from Home

If a death occurs in a city other than the one in which the person will be buried or cremated, arrangements must be made for the body to be transported. Your first step will be to contact a funeral director in the destination city; the funeral director can advise you on the protocol and practical considerations for returning your loved one to the desired location.

Donations (memorial gifts)

  • It is acceptable to request that donations be made to a favorite cause or charity in lieu of flowers.
  • You can select an organization that was a favorite of your loved one, or perhaps one that has some special meaning; for example, for someone who battled breast cancer, an appropriate choice might be Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
  • The “in lieu of flowers” notice can be included with the obituary. (Be prepared to receive flowers anyway, since there will be some who prefer to follow this custom rather than make a donation.)
  • Well-meaning friends also may desire to make a financial contribution directly to your family, especially if the deceased was the major breadwinner or your situation seems to be tenuous, perhaps after a long illness. If so, be prepared either to graciously receive monetary gifts or graciously refuse them.
  • All gifts should be acknowledged with a note of thanks.


If you are holding a funeral, memorial service, or wake, it is appropriate and expected that a eulogy will be delivered. This speech can take the form of a remembrance given by a clergy member, family member, friend, or colleague. A eulogy also can accompany a slide show or be told through a video.

If you leave the writing of the eulogy up to the person in charge of the service, expect that the obituary probably will be read word-for-word. Is that really what you want, or is there more personal information to share, perhaps a funny story or interesting or inspirational details about the person’s life, family, and work?

Perhaps a family member wants to write the eulogy but have the clergy or funeral director deliver it; this can be a good and acceptable solution for honoring the deceased’s memory while protecting the bereaved from a public show of grief. Many family members would find it extremely difficult to keep their composure while delivering a eulogy but would feel quite comfortable writing it for someone else to deliver.

See Writing Eulogies for additional information such as how to choose a theme, how to organize a eulogy, and how to deliver a eulogy.

Guestbook (register book)

Supply a guestbook for people who attend the visitation, wake, funeral, or memorial service. The guestbook also can be used when visitors call on you at home. The register isn’t just for the convenience of your visitors or for sending thank-you notes; it also will be a source of comfort when you read the guests’ names and comments later.

A selection of guest books or registers usually will be offered for purchase as part of the funeral home’s services. You can also find them online, in office supply, and gift stores.


It is customary to thank the clergy for their assistance and to offer an honorarium if they are involved in the service.

  • A thank-you note or card should be sent separately from the honorarium.
  • It is considered inappropriate to ask the clergy what fee they “charge” for funerals. A typical honorarium is $150–300, in consideration of the hours spent with the family and performing the service.
  • A smaller amount is often given to the soloist, choir director, and/or musician, especially if he or she is not a close personal friend.

Memorial Gifts

See Donations.

Memorial Service (celebration of life)

A memorial service is similar to a funeral, but the body is not present. In the past only the most formal and solemn funerals were appropriate, today it is more common and acceptable to hold a “celebration of life” to remember your loved one.

If the deceased did not preplan, you will have many decisions to make; see Funeral.

  • Generally, the tone and spirit of a memorial service is more informal and more joyful, in remembrance of a life well lived and a person well loved.
  • As long as the dignity of the occasion and the respect for the deceased are maintained, you are almost unlimited in your choices regarding what will best honor your loved one’s memory.
  • Many memorial services include open microphones for impromptu tributes, music that was meaningful to the deceased, digital or video presentations, a memory table, decorations, speeches or toasts, food and drink, balloon or dove releases, and so on.

Obituary Notices and Other Notifications

When a death occurs, notify family as quickly as possible, especially those who are out of town.

  • Contrary to popular belief, airlines rarely offer concessions on tickets these days (“bereavement fares”), and the sooner you can decide on a date for the funeral and notify extended family, the less they may have to pay for transportation.
  • An obituary notice is a public notification of a death that appears in a newspaper or online. Most newspapers today charge to publish an obituary.
  • If you are working with a funeral home, the funeral director will assist you reporting the death to the proper authorities and drafting the obituary.
  • Your responsibility will be to supply any desired photographs and information about your loved one’s life and accomplishments.
  • The obituary is often the only means of notifying the community about the funeral or memorial plans, so be sure to include that information, as well as any notification that you wish to have donations to a favorite cause “in lieu of flowers.”

If the deceased was a long-time resident of another town or city, it is appropriate and helpful to that community to place an obituary in their local newspaper.


Pallbearers carry (or, if honorary, accompany) the casket during formal services. If the deceased didn’t select pallbearers in advance, you may choose six among the deceased’s close friends, business associates, or fellow church members. If you are unable to find pallbearers, the funeral home can provide them.

Be sure that pallbearers you are selecting (unless honorary) can actually perform the task of lifting and carrying a casket with dignity and respect. You should thank each pallbearer after the funeral with a personal note or card.

Although it uncommon for immediate family members to serve as pallbearers, this practice is more acceptable today. It’s best, however, to avoid selecting people who will need to be there to support another family member. For example, a grown son may need to sit with (and offer moral support to) his mother rather than serve as a pallbearer at his father’s funeral.


Decide in advance whether there is a reason to allow photography or videotaping during the service; perhaps you have out-of-town family members who will want a remembrance.

It is generally considered inappropriate to photograph the open casket, but again, the bereaved may make this decision. If photography is allowed, it is best to keep it as discrete as possible, with no flashes going off during the service and no invasion of the privacy of the bereaved. You also need to be particularly aware of what may be going on in the background of your photos. You want to be careful not to intrude on the privacy of those attending the service.

Private or Public Service?

Will your loved one’s service be private or public? As the bereaved, you may make this decision taking into account the wishes of the deceased, his or her noteworthiness in the community, and the number of people who may want to pay their respects. The obituary should include the notification regarding whether the services are public or private. It is acceptable to have both, e.g., a public memorial service and a private graveside ceremony.

Contributor: Jenny Mertes


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