Dealing with death and the various traditions that surround it is never easy. In fact, many of us choose to block it out of our mind until the time comes. This can lead us to never really thinking about death, planning or anything that comes with it until that moment. When a person dies, no matter how close you are to them or not, you may feel a whole range of confusing and difficult emotions.
You may also feel trepidation about attending the funeral, particularly if you have not yet experienced the ceremonies and customs surrounding death. To help you understand a little more about funerals and how to navigate them, we’ve put together a brief etiquette guide below.
Understanding the differences between a wake, a viewing, a visitation, and a memorial service
You can expect several different services to take place in addition to a funeral. The exact order and nature of the events will depend on the wishes of the deceased and their family, with some preferring to keep the funeral relatively private and hosting a more open wake or memorial service later on in the day.
You will be given a schedule for the day in advance to allow you to prepare. It is likely to include information about the funeral service itself, as well as information about who is invited to each part of the day. If certain events are limited only to family, for example, you must respect these wishes and refrain from attending. If you are invited to every event in the day but cannot attend the whole thing, you should try to attend the funeral service. Turning up only for the wake could be construed as rude or inconsiderate.
The following events may take place in addition to a funeral service.
1. A memorial service
A memorial service is an event in which friends and family members of the deceased gather to remember their loved one. Typically, the body is not present at this kind of event.
However, if cremation has taken place, the family may choose to display a funeral urn. Memorial services often include songs, prayers and a eulogy, with mourners expected to dress smartly as they would for a funeral.
2. A viewing
A viewing usually provides mourners with an opportunity to say goodbye to the body of their loved one. The body will have been prepared and embalmed ready for burial or cremation and will likely be present and visible in an open casket.
3. A wake
A wake is similar to a viewing but tends to involve more religious and social aspects. It may, for example, include a scripture reading or prayer.
4. A visitation
Visitations are arranged so that friends and acquaintances of the deceased can spend time with the grieving family and offer their condolences. Most visitations are held before the funeral at the family’s home or in the funeral home.
Funeral and memorial service etiquette
Funeral and memorial service etiquette are fairly similar as they are both formal events that require the solemnity and respect of attendees. These services are likely to take place at a church, funeral home, or another location depending on the faith and preferences of the person who has passed away.
You should dress in formal, conservative attire – preferably in black or muted tones. In terms of your behavior, you should arrive promptly, turn off your cell phone, stay until the end of the service, and remember to offer your condolences to the close family members of the deceased once the service is over.
Visitations tend to be less formal than funeral services, so you can afford to dress in slightly more casual clothing. Depending on how well you know the family, attendees will be expected to stay for only a short period of time.
If you aren’t well-acquainted with any of the family members, introduce yourself and pay your condolences quickly before moving on.
If you are not comfortable with spending time with a body at a visitation, don’t worry. While the body will present during the event, you should not feel obligated to stand by the casket or say a prayer – although, of course, you may do so if you wish. Just remember not to disturb other mourners standing by the casket.
Try to wear formal, muted clothing for a viewing and remember to offer condolences to any family members present. You should also feel free to speak quietly with other attendees about your memories of the deceased.
Wakes tend to be more celebratory than the events described above, often featuring alcohol and food. You should dress nicely for this type of event but will not be required to wear the kind of conservative attire worn at funeral services.
It is a good idea to think of a few warm stories to tell about the person who has passed at a wake and, of course, to offer your condolences to grieving family members.
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We hope that these tips can help better prepare you for any funeral that you may be attending. To learn more about other end of life topics or to gain tips on how to plan for your own end of life, check out our blog and resources.