Attending a funeral or memorial service is likely inevitable at some point in everyone’s life. While it is important to take the time to celebrate the life of a lost loved one, it is not uncommon to be unsure on what to wear, who to bring or how to act.
To help best prepare and feel comfortable at an end-of-life service, we have provided answers to funeral etiquette questions below.
1. What should I wear to a funeral?
Black is the traditional color of mourning and always a safe option. However, it’s not the only color you have to choose from. Most people also find neutral colors like grey, blue and eggplant also acceptable.
Remember this is not a time to make a fashion statement. It’s most important to dress modestly, so the attention stays on the grieving family and the deceased. Avoid plunging necklines, tennis shoes and ripped clothing.
If you’re attending a cultural or religious service outside of your own, be sure to ask or research what is acceptable and expected in terms of clothing.
2. When is it appropriate to send a sympathy card?
Many people still send sympathy cards even if they attend the funeral. It’s best to send a card within two weeks of a loss.
While two weeks is ideal, it’s never too late to send someone a sympathy card or note to express your feelings for their loss.
If you choose to do more than sending a sympathy card, gifting a bouquet of sympathy flowers is always much appreciated by the family and a great way to express your condolences.
If you see the phrase “in lieu of flowers” in an obituary or service details, the family may enjoy a donation or alternative sympathy gift. Other options could include sending a gift basket or homemade meal to the family’s home. The extra help is appreciated, especially during a time of loss and grief.
4. Are children allowed to attend a funeral service or memorial?
This is usually a judgment call for parents to make on a case-by-case basis. Keep in mind that funerals are a critical part of the grieving process, even for children. If your child is old enough to comprehend loss, most parents opt to bring them along. Children can bring an uplifting presence to a funeral. Babies and toddlers are more likely to be a distraction, but it does come back to a parent’s best judgment.
Just like going somewhere you’ve never been before, it’s always a good idea to arrive early to avoid any conflict. A good rule of thumb is to arrive 10-20 minutes early to allow time for guest interactions before the service starts. A funeral is a sensitive setting and arriving late isn’t a way to show your respect. If you do arrive late, use a side aisle to find a seat near the back to avoid interrupting the service.
There is an exception, however, if the service includes a viewing or wake. In this case, timing is a lot more flexible. Depending on how close you are with the family, it is not necessary to arrive extremely early or stay the entire time. Once you have introduced yourself and offered your condolences, it is okay to leave.
6. How long should I stay during visiting hours?
This may be to your surprise, but the average person isn’t expected to stay long during visiting hours. It is common courtesy to stay at least 15 minutes.
7. What should I say to those mourning?
It’s obvious that no words can express the depth of the loss of a loved one. In that case, less is always more. A few kind words will let the family of the deceased know that you are thinking of them.
Acknowledge their pain by saying something like, “This must be so hard for you.” This shows that you care for them which will, in turn, help them feel less isolated.
8. Is it okay to be humorous at a funeral and lighten the mood?
Yes, but you must do so with respect. If a eulogy includes humor and small jokes, it’s okay to laugh and continue the tone on your own.
9. Do I have to view the casket?
Viewing an open casket is often up to the individual and depends on the relationship between them and the deceased. If you decide not to approach the casket for a final farewell, this isn’t considered rude or in poor taste.
10. Do I have to sign the guestbook?
If a family has a register or book for visitors to sign their name, it’s proper etiquette to sign. Families use this as a way to remember who took the time to pay their respects and send thank you cards.
Not sure how to sign? Simply state your first and last name, along with a brief description of your relationship to the deceased. You can share your condolences here as well.
11. Am I allowed to use my smartphone at a funeral?
The short answer is no. You should turn your phone on silent and shouldn’t be using it during the service. It is not a time or place to be taking photos or calls or answering text messages. Give the family your undivided attention during the short time you’ll be there. Consider leaving your phone in the car.
12. How can I acknowledge a funeral that I cannot attend?
If you can’t attend a funeral due to conflicts or distance, pay your respects in a different way. Thanks to modern technology, there may be ways to attend without being physical present.
At Busch Funeral and Crematory Service, we offer the following:
Funeral webcasting: If the family selects it, we offer on and off-site livestreaming and webcasting functionality. The links to events are shared privately.
Virtual guestbooks: Even if you cannot attend services in-person, you can still show your support by leaving a message on your loved one’s online guestbook. To do so, navigate to buschcares.com/obituaries, find or search your loved one’s name, click their obituary, and then select “Guestbook.”
Send a virtual hug: Busch offers capabilities to record and send private video memories via SendHugs. Upon request, a private link can be sent to friends and families to video a record and share stories and memories.
Donate: Find out if there is a charity the family recommends you donate to in honor of the deceased.
13. What do I do after the funeral?
The grieving process doesn’t simply end after the funeral services are over. Your family members or friend will most likely need you now more than ever. They are going to be going through these next few weeks trying to find their “new normal,” and they are going to need as much support as you can give when reality sets in.
A few tips on how you can be there for your family and/or friends include:
Send a text or make a quick call to check in to see how they are doing.
Offer to run an errand for them.
Order food and get it delivered to their home or make something homemade to take to them yourself.
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Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2016, and has been update for comprehensiveness.
Considers it an honor as a Certified Celebrant to listen to life stories, and then design and conduct meaningful tributes. Cathy also trains celebrants nationally, equipping them to share those legacies in ways that comfort and enlighten. Honorably serving Busch families since 2004.