A Helpful Guide

Funeral Etiquette

"How-tos" for supporting loved ones during their time of grief

Do you have questions about what to wear to a funeral or memorial service? Or wonder what to say to someone who has just lost a loved one? The information below may help guide you through unfamiliar circumstances.

 What to wear to a funeral or memorial service

The appropriate attire for a funeral or memorial service is simple: dress to show respect for the person whose life you are remembering. This means selecting clothes that are more conservative, not flashy or brightly colored. Darker dresses, suits, pants, jackets and sweaters are appropriate. Flip-flops, tank tops, shorts, sundresses, casual tennis shoes and cleavage are not appropriate. Even though the service may be a celebration of life, many of those attending will be mourning. Your goal is to blend in, not be conspicuous. 

A special note to teenagers or young adults: You live in a very casual world where jeans and casual shirts are appropriate in most settings. A funeral is not one of those. If this is your first time attending a service, talk to your parents or a trusted friend to help you select what to wear. This is the kindest way to show the family you care. 

What to expect at a funeral or memorial service

Depending on where the service is held and the wishes of the family, services today vary widely. Regardless, there are some common guidelines to know:

  1. A guestbook will be outside the service for you to sign. Please do sign it and make your signature legible – the family will treasure reviewing the names of those who attend, and this will be the best way for them to remember you were there.
  2. Be on time or early. It is rude to enter a service after it has started. If you are late, enter from one side and be seated as unobtrusively as possible. If the family is processing, wait until they have finished and reached their seats, then enter after them.
  3. Seating: the family will have a designated seating area, usually at the front or the side of the room. This area will be marked, so look for “Reserved” signs and avoid sitting in these seats.
  4. If an usher is present, you will be shown to a seat. If an usher is not present, it is courteous to enter a row from a side aisle to avoid climbing over people already seated.  Much as at any event, seating is “first come, first served” so if you want a “good” seat, arrive early and do not expect people to move for you. The aisle seats are the ones most preferred.
  5. Enter the room and sit quietly. Turn off your cell phone and put it away. Your behavior should allow those around you to mourn without distraction.
  6. There may be an open casket. At most services, you are welcomed to walk forward prior to the service to pay respects at the casket. Do not touch the body or any of the surrounding items or flowers. However, it is not mandatory to go forward if you prefer not to.
  7. When the family enters, you will be instructed to stand until they have entered and taken their seats. Then you will be seated.
  8. When the service ends, you will be instructed to stand while the family exits. This recessional will vary depending on the service and the presence of an open vs. closed casket.
  9. After the service, the attendees may be ushered out by walking past an open casket. It is most courteous to follow the group. If you prefer not to view the open casket, just walk past without looking.
  10. If you are not escorted past the casket, watch for direction on how to exit the service: at-will or by escort row by row.
  11. If you are going to the burial and will be driving, you will form a queue behind the vehicles carrying the casket and family members. Turn on your lights and follow the car in front of you.  If your group is escorted to the cemetery, follow the directions of the officers; generally you will be waved through stoplights and stop signs, and out of courtesy other drivers may pull over to let you pass.
  12. At the gravesite, stand away from the site to allow the family to be seated before approaching. Then gather close so you can hear the brief service.
  13. Following the interment, you are free to leave as you wish. The family often lingers to speak to guests, and they will be your cue as to whether or not you should approach to express your condolences.

How to express sympathy following death

One of the most frequent questions we hear is, “What do I say to someone who has just lost a loved one?”  There may be special circumstances surrounding the death—an accident, a suicide, unexpected death during surgery—that make the question even more difficult to answer. Here are some simple suggestions:

  1. Please do speak to the family. They will hear eloquent messages and bumbling messages. But the most important thing is that their grief is acknowledged.
  2. If you knew the person casually or only slightly, stick with a short statement: “I am so sorry for your loss.”
  3. If you have something positive to add, make the statement a little longer: “I am so sorry for your loss. John was the best teacher I ever had.”
  4. If you won’t see the family, send a card or a note. The same message you would say in person can be written on the card.
  5. Make a donation in the person’s memory. Most people designate a place of worship, charity or other organization that was important to them. The recipient will notify the family of your donation (but not the amount that was given).
  6. Offer concrete assistance: a guestroom for family attending the service, grocery shopping or other errands, even staying at the family’s home during the service so the house isn’t unattended.
  7. Reach out later, when the flush of attention has ended and the days of grieving may be long and lonely. A simple phone call that says “thinking of you” can mean so much.
  8. Share stories that reflect the goodness of the life you’re remembering.
  9. Listen. And listen some more.

What NOT to say following a death

Most families can relate head-shaking stories of inappropriate comments made following a death—many of them well intended but offensive. Here is what to avoid:

  1. Do not probe for details. It is not your business.
  2. Don’t add value judgments: “It’s for the best,” “This is a blessing in disguise.”
  3. Don’t assume the family’s beliefs are the same as yours. Avoid comments such as, “He’s in a better place now,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “It was God’s will.”
  4. Don’t minimize the family’s loss: “Aren’t you glad it’s over?” “She wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
  5. Don’t assume you understand what the family is feeling. Everyone grieves uniquely.