Funeral Etiquette: An Attendee's Guide to End of Life Events

Funeral Etiquette: An Attendee's Guide to End of Life Events
In this funeral etiquette guide, learn what behavior and conduct is acceptable and expected from attendees at funeral rites, services, and events
7 minute read

Everyone will likely attend at least one funeral in their lifetime, so it is important to understand what behaviour and conduct is acceptable and expected. Here is a guide that outlines funeral protocol and everything you need to know about basic funeral etiquette at funeral events, rites and services.

Who can attend a funeral?

One of the first things you might consider is if you should attend the funeral. Funerals are usually open events, so anyone is welcome to attend. However, there are some things to consider when deciding if you should attend a funeral.

In most cases, if you have a connection or relationship with the deceased person, you are welcome to attend the funeral. Likewise, if you were not close to the deceased person but close to their family and would like to support them, attending the funeral would also be welcomed.

Uncertainty comes into play in situations where you are unsure of if your presence will be welcomed or not. If you feel that your attendance will cause conflict or make others feel uncomfortable, it is best not to attend. Similarly, if a funeral is a private event and you have not been invited, you should not attend.

Another concern that may arise when deciding to attend a funeral is who you can bring with you. In most cases, adults (e.g., spouse, significant other, friend, etc.) and older children are typically always welcome. It is also okay to bring younger people that would like to attend if they are well-behaved. However, it is a good idea to leave babies and infants at home with a caregiver when possible as they are more likely to be distracting at the event and require your attention. If you cannot find accommodations, young children can attend, but it is essential to be conscious of any disruptions they may cause and do your best to minimize them.

What should you wear to a funeral?

One of the first things to consider when attending a funeral is what you should wear. Your attire can vary depending on the type of funeral. For example, a memorial or wake may be more casual, while a visitation may be more formal. However, it is safe to assume that formal and modest attire is expected unless specified otherwise.

For women, this can include dresses, dress pants, blouses, etc. For men, this can consist of suits, collared shirts, ties, etc. Children should follow a similar dress code, but younger children can be dressed in slightly more informal clothes.

In most cases, black-coloured clothing is viewed as the ideal choice. However, darker colours such as browns, grays, and dark blues are acceptable. It is best to avoid bright colours such as greens, reds, pinks, yellows, etc.

If you are unsure of what to wear, it is good to consult the people planning the funeral. You can learn more about appropriate funeral attire in this article: What to wear to a funeral.

What should I say to a grieving family?

Choosing a few supportive words to say to a grieving family is often one of the more difficult parts of a funeral. In most cases, if there are good intentions behind your words, it will be appreciated. However, below are some general guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Saying anything is better than saying nothing.
  • Keep things general, such as "I'm sorry for your loss" or "I am here for you."
  • Avoid cliches and explanations. Don't say: "Everything happens for a reason" or "at least they aren't suffering anymore." This may be comforting to some, but these types of comments have the potential to do more harm than good.
  • Avoid religious-based comments or references like this is all part of God's plan. Although these comments are usually well-intentioned, this may offend some people or come across as ingenuine, especially to people who are not religious or are part of a different religious affiliation.
  • Offer support or help. This can help relieve some of the stress for those grieving and lets them know you are thinking about them and their well-being.
  • Don't make it about you. Avoid statements like: "I know how you feel." Everyone grieves differently, so it is best to avoid phrases that focus on you and stick to one that focuses on the family.
  • Don't tell someone how to feel or act - Avoid saying: "Stay strong" or "Don't cry."
  • If you are unsure of what to say, it is best to simply listen and be there for the bereaved family and friends.

You can learn more about what to wear to a funeral in this article: What to say at a funeral.

What gifts should I bring to a funeral?

In most cases, bringing a gift to a funeral is not expected or required. However, if you choose to bring something, then flowers, cards, or donations (to the family or charities or causes significant to the deceased person) are usually safe. You can choose to bring gifts to the funeral with you or send them to the funeral home or reception location.

You could also give the grieving family a gift that will help them through the difficult time. For example, you can drop off a homemade meal or pick up some groceries for them. With everything going on, it can be challenging to find the time or energy to cook regular meals, so a gift of service can be very helpful. Additionally, you may also choose to send gifts to the family after the funeral to let them know you are thinking about them.

How should I prepare for a funeral?

One of the most important things to do before a funeral is to understand what type of funeral it will be and the expectations around that funeral. For example, a viewing or visitation is often more formal and sombre. Therefore, dressing in casual clothes, bright colours, and behaving upbeat or in an extroverted manner would be disrespectful. However, a lighter approach and attitude may be allowed at a more casual event such as a celebration of life.

If you are asked to say or share something at the funeral, it is best to have a general idea of what you would like to say. Moreover, if you are tasked with writing a eulogy, it is a good idea to have your speech written beforehand.

Finally, funerals are usually never easy, so mentally preparing yourself beforehand is a good idea. Understand that it may be difficult; remind yourself that it is okay to cry. Let yourself feel and experience all your emotions (happy or sad). And prepare yourself to say goodbye.

What should I do after a funeral?

In some cases, families may opt to have a small reception directly after the funeral, such as a repast. This involves family and friends of the deceased person sharing a meal after the services are complete. A repast, or other receptions, can be an open or private event. If the event is private, those invited will be notified separately. If public, the funeral director, member of the family, priest, etc., will announce this and provide the location at the end of the funeral service or proceedings.

Some funeral events, such as a memorial, celebration of life, or ash scattering, may occur several days, weeks, or months after the funeral. If you want to attend these events, you must set these days aside or arrange time off from work or school. See additional information about what happens at various funeral events in this article.

Apart from attending funeral events, it is important to continue to support the bereaved family. The grief journey does not end after a funeral. It can sometimes be the beginning as death becomes more real and permanent afterward, and your family and friends will continue to need your support. Sending a gift is a great way to let them know you are thinking about them. However, just being there to offer help, talk to or provide a distraction (e.g., going out to dinner) can be beneficial, especially during more difficult times like the holidays and anniversaries.

How to conduct yourself at a funeral

How you are expected to act at a funeral depends mainly on the type of funeral it is. For example, at a viewing or visitation, you are often expected to keep your conversations and condolences with the family of the deceased short. However, hours may be spent talking and reminiscing with friends and family at a celebration of life. Similarly, a funeral mass or religious ceremony is often more sombre. In contrast, a celebration of life is typically upbeat and joyous. Therefore, the type of funeral will often dictate how you conduct yourself at the event.

However, there are some general things applicable to most funerals. These include:

  • Be respectful to family, friends, and other guests. Death affects everyone differently. Therefore, it is crucial to have patience, understanding, and respect for those around you.
  • Minimize distractions. Leave your mobile phone at home or in the car when attending a funeral. If not, put the phone on silent or vibrate and out of sight during the services. Excuse yourself and handle the call in a private area if you must take a phone call. Other distractions may include young children, clothing mishaps, planning mistakes, etc. Where possible, minimize the impact of any distractions that you can control.
  • Respect religious and cultural beliefs and differences. As a guest, you are not required to participate in any funeral or cultural practices you do not feel comfortable with. However, you must be respectful of them. For example, you do not have to say a prayer, but you must be quiet and reflective when one is being said.
  • Take part in the funeral when possible. You do not need to do anything you are not comfortable with. However, something like signing a guestbook (if applicable) or saying a couple of words about the deceased when asked is often appreciated.
  • Be punctual. You are expected to be on time for all parts of the funeral. If you are going to be late, it is good practice to let people know ahead of time when possible and minimize distractions to the proceedings when you arrive.
  • Don't overindulge. It is common for food and drinks to be at a reception or certain funeral events. Therefore, it is a good idea to limit yourself so that all guests can enjoy the food and drinks and so that you do not become inebriated.
  • You don't always need to be sad. Losing a loved one is difficult, but that does not mean you have to be sad the entire time. It is okay to reminisce about fun times, talk, laugh, celebrate, sing, dance, and be happy. Sometimes a joyous event may be what the deceased person would have wanted.

How to thank funeral attendees and those that have been supportive

If you have received support from friends and family after losing a loved one, and you are wondering how to thank everyone for a helping hand, a supportive gift, or for simply attending the funeral, here is how to write funeral thank you notes.

More funeral etiquette resources:

Questions about funeral etiquette?

Ask our experts at Eirene Cremations about any funeral etiquette questions you may have or about cremation or aquamation - email us at support@eirene.ca or contact us. We also can help you make arrangements for a loved one or preplan your own.