Funeral Etiquette FAQs

Family giving their last goodbyes at the cemetery
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Do you need to attend a funeral but don't know what is expected of you? You're not the only one.

Before you find yourself faced with the need to attend a funeral, visitation, or wake, arm yourself with knowledge of proper funeral etiquette so you don't commit a faux pas. While each funeral is different, there are some things most of them have in common. 

At some point in everyone’s life, funeral attendance is inevitable. However, due to their somber and often depressing nature, very few people like to talk about them. Not exactly the best party topic, discussion of funeral etiquette has been pushed down to a subject most people don’t bother researching until they absolutely have to.

Rather than letting your fear of going to a funeral get the best of you, learn the basics of proper etiquette. These frequently asked questions cover many of the concerns most people have if they have never attended or haven’t attended a funeral in a long time.

The most important thing to remember is that the primary reason for your presence at the funeral, memorial service, or visitation is to show your sympathy and support for the family members of the deceased.

Funeral FAQs:

  • What do I wear to a funeral? Do you dress in black, head-to-toe, or is it okay to add color to your attire? It is not necessary to wear black to a funeral, but it's generally best to dress in a modest outfit in subdued colors rather than something bright and splashy. 
  • What is a funeral visitation? A funeral visitation gives people an opportunity to show respects to the family.
  • What am I supposed to do during the visitation? You'll speak to the surviving family members and offer your condolences. 
  • Where do I go? The first few rows at the church or funeral home are typically reserved for family members. If you aren't in this group, choose a seat behind the reserved section. The pews or chairs are often marked with small signs.
  • What are the responsibilities of a pallbearer? The main responsibility of the pallbearers is to carry the casket to the gravesite. This is a position of honor.
  • Should my child attend a funeral? Many people wonder about whether or not to take their children (especially babies) to funerals. The first thing you'll need to consider is whether or not the child can behave throughout the service. If your child has never been to a funeral, explain the basics before you leave the house. There are special considerations if the deceased person is the parent of an ex. This needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis.
  • What should I say to the family of the deceased? No words can express the depth of loss of a loved one. However, a few kind words will let the family of the deceased know that you care.
  • Are personal sympathy notes appropriate? Not only are they appropriate, but they also add another layer of comfort to the family of the deceased.
  • What should you not write in a sympathy note? Don't air grievances or say that the deceased is in a better place now.
  • Is it appropriate to bring food to the family of the deceased? In many cultures, food shows your respect and consideration for those who suffer grief from the loss of a family member.
  • Should I send flowers to the funeral or memorial service? It's best to send flowers to the funeral home or the home of the deceased.
  • How should those in mourning act at a funeral? When you are the one who has lost a family member, it's easy to forget how to behave. You're not expected to get into a deep conversation or be witty. It's best to accept everyone's condolences with a simple "Thank you" and allow the next person to express sympathy. If someone does something extra for you, send a thank-you note afterward.
  • Should I attend the funeral of my former spouse's family? If you're attending the funeral of an ex-spouse, a former mother-in-law, or someone from your previous life, you should always show respect and avoid any negative comments. If you haven't maintained contact with the family, show your respects but don't try to act like you're still part of their family.

Since there are so many cultural and religious variations of funerals and etiquette related to attendance, you may need to do some additional research. There are differences among the different faiths and how they conduct funerals.

If the deceased was an atheist, the funeral may simply be a celebration of the person’s life. It may be a sad occasion, or if the person suffered during his or her final days, it may be more joyous of an event. Before you go, be prepared for either mood. If you are a Christian, it is acceptable for you to discretely bow your head and pray for the surviving family members.

Important to Remember

The main purpose of having etiquette rules for funerals, memorial services, visitations, and wakes is to have an element of order that provides comfort for the loved ones of the deceased. Each religion and custom has certain elements that are symbolic of something in its foundation. Since everyone will die someday, nearly every religion has some sort of tradition as a foundation to build from.

Many funeral directors allow some flexibility to tailor funerals to suit the needs and desires of the family in mourning. If you have any questions or concerns, whether you are planning the funeral or attending one, you may discreetly ask someone from the funeral home or the person officiating the ceremony. Most of them are used to answering questions.