Funeral Etiquette

Over the years, many funeral traditions have changed to keep up with an ever-changing and diverse world. For many, formal dress and somber atmospheres have given way to more casual and colorful celebrations of life. Some families opt for quiet, private gatherings while others draw comfort from their entire community gathering to honor the deceased.


What hasn’t changed throughout history is the importance of gathering to share the weight of grief. Supporting friends, family, and members of the community in their time of loss is one of the most important and helpful things you can do.


Individual funeral etiquette rules and expectations may vary. But below are some general tips that can help guide you when you aren’t sure how to behave or what to say at a funeral.


How to Express Your Condolences

It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is experiencing loss and grief. But know that being there and offering your heartfelt support and condolence can go a long way toward easing the weight of grief.


One of the most meaningful things you can say in this situation is a simple, "I'm so sorry for your loss."


If you wish and are willing to follow through, you can add, "Please let me know how I can help you get through this."


If you personally knew the deceased, you might let their family know how much they meant to you by saying something like, "I was so sorry to hear of Sarah's passing. She was a wonderful friend to me."


Sharing favorite memories or just expressing your care and regard for the deceased can be a powerful comfort. If you weren’t especially close to the deceased but wish to support the family, just letting them know, “I’m here for you,” can be enough.

A funeral guest in formal attire holding a rose at a graveside service

What Not to Say to a Grieving Person

Everyone grieves differently, and you never know how a certain person is handling loss. Avoid minimizing their loss, or suggesting their loss was for the best in any way through statements like, "They're not suffering anymore," or "Everything happens for a reason." Platitudes might not be comforting for a family who misses their loved one terribly.


You should avoid talking about the cause of death, which might be a sensitive subject for the family. Also, avoid centering yourself and your grief. Part of the power of a funeral gathering is sharing the feelings of loss and memorial, but the family shouldn’t feel upstaged by their guests. Seek comfort from others in your circle who are further from the loss to relieve some emotional weight from the family.


What to Wear to a Funeral

If you are at all unsure about what to wear, it is safest to wear black or other subdued colors, like dark blue, eggplant, gray, or another neutral shade. Dressing somewhat formally is usually appropriate. Men might wear a button-up and tie, with or without a suit jacket. Women could wear a skirt or dress with modest pumps, or a nice pair of dark slacks.


However, there are no hard-and-fast rules for what to wear to a funeral. Many families prefer brighter colors and a more festive, joyful atmosphere for remembering their loved ones. You might even be asked to wear some specific article of clothing, like a Hawaiian shirt or concert tee from the deceased’s favorite band.


When in doubt, you can also ask whoever invited you to the funeral what they will be wearing, and dress similarly. Or you can reach out to someone close to the family to see whether they have any suggestions.


What to Bring to a Funeral

Flowers can be a beautiful reminder of life and joy at a funeral. However, not every family enjoys them, and they are not appropriate in some religious faiths. The obituary listing or funeral notice may specify whether the family wishes for charitable donations in place of flowers, and you can also check in with the funeral home for guidance.


Food is another time-honored gift for the grieving. If possible, plan meals that will stay good in the refrigerator for several days, like a casserole, and give food in disposable containers so the family won't have to do any extra dishes or find time to give dishes back to you.


In some cultures, cash gifts are customary. Others find this practice unusual or even insulting. If the family has a GoFundMe or other crowdfunding campaign, it is of course appropriate to donate to it. Otherwise, it may be best to show your support through a charitable donation or an offer to help in some specific way, like babysitting or cleaning, instead.


What to Do at a Funeral Service

The best rule of thumb for funeral service etiquette is to never draw attention to yourself. Try your best not to be late, and if you are, enter the service as quietly as possible. The first several rows of seats are typically reserved for the deceased's closest family and friends. If you are not part of this group, find a seat toward the middle or back of the venue.


Remember to silence your phone before you enter the service. Any amount of noise from a phone can be distracting and disrespectful, even vibrations. Because of this, it's best to turn your phone off completely or put it in airplane mode.

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