Most Common Funeral Etiquette Practices

Mourners standing around a casket at a funeral
Show respect to the family of the deceased when attending a funeral. RubberBall Productions/Vetta/Getty Images

There are some things in life that no one enjoys doing, but it's important to do anyway. If someone you know or a friend's loved one has passed away, chances are you'll be going to the funeral or memorial service. Whether this is your first time or you've been to many but still aren't sure of what's expected, here are some things to consider.

Most people don't discuss funerals until they have to go to one, so you may have some questions regarding what to expect and how to behave. It is rarely a happy time, but you can minimize the possibility of creating unnecessarily uncomfortable situations by knowing some basic funeral etiquette.

After a family member or friend passes away, you will want to attend the funeral to show your respect for the deceased and to offer sympathy to others for their loss. Funerals are such emotional events you need to be on your best behavior at all times. To do otherwise would make the sad situation worse.

What to Wear

Black has traditionally been the color for those in mourning, but this has changed in recent years. Although it is still acceptable to wear black, choosing other colors and prints does not show disrespect as long as you keep the tones subdued unless asked to do otherwise. Dress modestly; a funeral is not the place to show too much skin.

Women may wear dresses, pantsuits, or skirts and blouses as long as they don’t call attention to the outfit. Men are generally safe wearing suits or dress slacks and jacket. Pallbearers should always dress conservatively. Keep in mind the customs and traditions of the family of the deceased. Some cultures require head coverings, so if you are in doubt, do some research before you go.

Expressing Sympathy

Knowing what to say to the family of the deceased can be difficult for anyone. Before you leave the house, think of some very short, heartfelt phrases so you won't accidentally blurt something inappropriate. Even if it’s unintentional, this is one time you want to avoid a blunder.

Here are some examples of what you might say:

  • I am so sorry about your loss.
  • I know how much she was loved by everyone who knew her.
  • We will all miss him very much.
  • She was such a sweet woman, and everyone who knew her will miss her very much.
  • He loved his family and friends.

If you have time and the opportunity, you may want to share a personal experience. Make sure you portray the deceased in a positive light. Pay attention to how the person receives your condolences and stop when you think you’ve said enough because continuing to talk gives you more opportunities to say the wrong thing. Besides, there will probably be someone else who would like to offer some words of sympathy.

Visitation or Wake

In most cultures, mourners have an event before the funeral that enables family members to mingle with visitors who want to express their condolences. Often the casket or urn is in the receiving room with the family. Sometimes the casket is open for anyone who wishes to view the deceased. Wreaths and flower arrangements that have been sent for the funeral are often on display in this room.

Speak in soft tones and avoid outbursts of any kind of emotion. A few tears are understandable, but if you begin to sob, excuse yourself and leave the room.

Memorial Service and Burial

Memorial services and burials may be conducted together or separately, according to the wishes of the family. During the memorial service, prayers and eulogies may be offered. Remain quiet and respectful toward the religious customs of the deceased, even if yours are different. If you are asked to participate in the service, don’t be afraid to ask questions about anything you are unsure of before the funeral. The director at the funeral home or person officiating the services will provide you with what you need to know.

After the Funeral

In many cultures, family and friends gather after the services for a funeral reception with a meal or refreshments, symbolizing life and how it continues, even after the death of a loved one. This is the time to open up and share even more memories with others in attendance.

Laughter is appropriate during this time. You will still want to be on your best behavior, but you don’t need to maintain the somber mood of the funeral. Always be conscious of those who were closest to the deceased and show your respect for their feelings.

Ways to show respect to the family of the deceased:

  • Allow them to be served first.
  • Make sure they have a place to sit.
  • Have a tissue or handkerchief ready to offer.
  • Offer assistance after the gathering is over.
  • If you haven’t already sent a sympathy note, go ahead and do it immediately after the funeral.
  • Follow up with a phone call to the surviving spouse or close family member a week after the funeral is over. This is a good time to offer assistance, such as mowing the lawn, helping with housework, or babysitting if there are small children.