At funerals, well-established funeral etiquette rules suggest what to wear, say, and do, whether you are a close family member, friend, or acquaintance of the deceased. As funerals are stressful times, what's most important is being respectful, courteous, and generous as you extend your condolences.
Traditions surrounding ceremonial events such as weddings and funerals are constantly in flux. What constitutes proper funeral etiquette may have changed or become less rigid over the last few years, but one thing remains constant. Funerals are a stressful time of great loss for the remaining loved ones.
Even a casual friend might feel an ongoing loss, but for the spouse, parents, children, and other people close to the deceased, life will never be the same. What guests do at the wake, funeral, cemetery, and reception makes a lasting impact.
During these times when Covid continues to disrupt everyday life, even funeral etiquette has changed. Our funeral etiquette guide addresses many of the questions others have about traditional funerals and memorial services surrounding cremations.
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What To Wear To A Funeral
Black is the traditional color of funeral attire. The spouse of the late departed might continue to wear dark clothing throughout a period of mourning lasting up to two years in some cultures or throughout the remainder of their life for others.
Today, black is often worn at funerals, but any subdued color such as dark gray, navy, or eggplant is acceptable. Mourners should leave the hot pink, orange, orange, or red at home, along with the bold prints.
Funeral clothing should be conservative and not draw attention to the wearer. Short, low-cut outfits that show cleavage and excessive skin are out of place, along with noisy jewelry and stilettos that might get stuck in the dirt at the cemetery are out of place. Some etiquette writers maintain that bare legs without hose are inappropriate, but this rule has softened.
A funeral is a formal occasion, so jeans and activewear are too casual, even for younger attendees.
Attending A Religious Funeral
Most religious faiths have customs, traditions, and dress codes surrounding funerals. Black or white may be the preferred colors in many religions, but some, like Quakers, don’t associate black with mourning. Strict religious groups may mandate head coverings, long skirts, or no exposed skin for women and dark suits for men.
Some groups, such as Muslims or Jews, may have rules governing funeral flowers as well as clothing and deportment. Rather than be out of place, it’s best to ask what is expected if the deceased belonged to an unfamiliar faith.
In some churches, the wake immediately precedes the service. It is common to enter the sanctuary, walk down the aisle past the coffin displayed at the front, and pay one’s final respects to the deceased. The family often sits in the front seats near the casket, so mourners can stop and quietly extend condolences to the family before assuming their seats.
Toward the end of the service, latecomers and anyone who wants another final look at the deceased may do so, but the line keeps moving without anyone stopping to chat with the family. In Black churches, the funeral is considered a homecoming, so the last walk toward the casket is regarded as a victory march.
Funerals are one time when observing the old adage “when you’re in Rome, do as the Romans do” makes sense, so sitting and standing when others do is respectful to the deceased’s faith.
When To Arrive At A Funeral
A funeral is not the place for a guest to make a grand entrance. Arriving 15 to 20 minutes early, so you are seated before the service starts, is appropriate. When the wake is right before the funeral, the arrival time is more flexible.
Prior to the service, mourners waiting for the services to commence should sit quietly or converse in soft voices. The service starts when the casket is brought in, and the officiant and the family enter the sanctuary.
Guests who arrive once the service has started should walk down a side aisle to find a seat rather than disrupt the proceedings.
Signing The Guestbook At A Funeral
Like at the wake, funeral guest books are positioned for signing before entering the sanctuary. If there are multiple books, signing one is all that is needed to let the family know you were there and leave your address. This makes it easier for the family to acknowledge sympathy cards and donations with the addresses at hand.
Where To Sit At A Funeral
The seats toward the front of the church are reserved for close family and the pallbearers. The larger the bereaved family, the more seats that may be reserved for them.
A seat marker or reserved sign may designate the area for the family, or an usher might direct guests to their seats. As the family in attendance may be larger than expected, you may be asked to move to make room for a family member.
Due to Covid, ushers may request visitors to sit a few seats away from other family groups. If the seats are arranged to allow for social distancing, guests should not move the chairs so they can sit near someone.
Pallbearers often sit together so that they are all available when it is time to escort the casket out of the church.
Those who participate in the service with the eulogy, readings, solos, or resolutions may sit anywhere that allows them quick access to the podium when it is time for them to do their part.
Attending An Open-Casket Funeral
It is customary to view the body at an open casket wake or funeral. However, mourners coming to funeral events to console the living need not feel obliged to approach the casket so long as they pay their respects to the family.
How To Interact With The Grieving Family
When speaking with grieving family members during a viewing or at the funeral service, gravesite, or reception, guests should offer expressions of sympathy for their loss and a gentle hug. Kindness and support go a long way in helping the family make it through a particularly sad time. Due to Covid, an elbow bump may replace a hug or handshake.
In an effort to make conversation, people sometimes make trite remarks that are offensive and intrusive. Finding the right thing to say is difficult as there are no words that can erase grief. A brief Interaction, a warm smile, and just being there go a long way to help alleviate sorrow.
At a crowded wake, a line of people may be waiting to see family members. Guests should patiently wait their turn to speak to the family without interrupting conversations in progress. When they finally reach the family, their interaction should be short, especially if others are waiting.
The events surrounding funerals bring people together who have not seen each other for a long time. Friendly conversation and laughter are perfectly acceptable so long as discussions do not become loud and distracting.
What To Say – And Not Say – At A Funeral
The funeral is not the time to probe for an explanation of how the deceased died unless the grieving family offers information. Nor is it not the time to make judgmental remarks such as:
- “Too bad he got lung cancer from his years of smoking.”
- “I wish she’d have started those chemo treatments earlier.”
- “The funeral director did a great job covering the scars from the accident.”
- “If he would have been nicer to people, more people would be here today.”
Personal questions are also inappropriate:
- “Did he have good insurance?”
- “Do you think you’ll sell the house?”
- “Do you think you’ll ever marry again?”
- “Are you planning to sue the hospital for Joe’s botched surgery?”
- “What will you do now?”
These are valid questions that a family member might discuss with select friends and advisors in the future, but they are totally inappropriate during services.
Many people find solace in spiritual sentiments when death impacts them. However, when others share their insights, the family that has suffered loss may not be consoled by statements such as:
- “It was her time.”
- “She looks so peaceful, just like she is sleeping.”
- “At least you had 10 good years together.”
- “God’s in control.”
- “God needed another angel.”
- “He’s in a better place now.”
- “God never gives you any more than you can bear.”
While everyone dies, and there may be some truth in what an awkward mourner says, statements like this are not helpful sentiments to share. What might be consoling to the family are sentiments such as:
- “I am so sorry for your sudden loss. My thoughts are with your family.”
- “Please accept my condolences. You’re in my mind during this difficult time.”
- “John was a very special person. If there’s anything I can do for your family, please let me know.”
- “I am here for you. Maybe we can grab dinner in a few weeks.”
At some wakes and funerals, guests may be invited to make impromptu remarks to the group. A guest who comments should be brief and tactful.
How To Introduce Yourself At A Funeral
Many mourners who attend a funeral knew the deceased but might not know any of their family. At a time when the immediate family is reeling with grief and a busy schedule, they should not have to guess who is there.
A guest should proactively introduce themselves and their relationship with the deceased. The conversation might start out, “Hi, I’m Georgia Brown. I worked together with Bill at ABC Chemicals. He was great to work with and was very helpful to me. I am sorry for your loss.”
Managing Complex Relationships At A Funeral
When modern families lose a loved one, the “family” may include a mix of current and former spouses, children and step-children, and multiple sets of in-laws and grandparents who come together only out of respect for the deceased. This combination of people may be awkward for the family members and guests.
Ex’s often do not attend the funerals of former spouses or in-laws, but this depends on whether they remained on good terms. If you are the ex, you should consider whether your presence will be upsetting to the family. If the answer is yes,” send a card or a plant and stay home.
Guests should avoid opening up old wounds and stay out of it if family members clash.
Bringing Children To A Funeral
Children who lose a parent, sibling, grandparent, or other people close to them may feel a loss they do not understand. Some experts advise that taking children 3 or older to a funeral helps them learn that death is part of the cycle of life. Their presence may be consoling to other grieving family members.
On the negative side, small children can be noisy and disruptive when they are overtired or in unfamiliar situations. Parents can make a judgment call about taking their kids to all or part of the services.
Parents of young children unrelated to the deceased might consider making other arrangements for them while attending the funeral. Bringing older children is acceptable.
Families of animal lovers may even welcome pets at the funeral. Always make sure to verify that pets are permitted as the family not want additional worries.
Joining The Funeral Procession
When interment directly follows funeral or memorial service, the funeral home staff may give directions for joining the motorcade to the cemetery and place a flag on the serial of those who are going.
Special traffic laws govern funeral cars, so drivers in the funeral procession should stay close to other cars en route to the cemetery and maintain the speed the lead driver has set. The procession has the right of way and can go through red lights once the lineup of cars has started to proceed through the intersection.
The slower speed keeps all drivers safe and may reference past days when people marched to the cemetery on foot. As a participant, you should keep the pace of other drivers, even if they are driving slower than you’d like.
Funeral Etiquette For Receptions
After a funeral, the church, family of the deceased, or close friends may host a reception to continue the tributes to the deceased. An invitation to attend may be issued from the pulpit, printed in the funeral program, or individually offered.
If the interment follows the service, the reception starts once everyone has returned from the grave site. If the deceased has been cremated or the burial is private and at another time, the event may start immediately.
The reception may take place in a church hall or at the funeral home, an off-site hall or restaurant, or the family home. A public event may be followed by a more intimate gathering for immediate family and close friends.
Mourners should not crash the event unless invited to attend.
Funerals In A Time Of Covid
Due to Covid, the family may state that the wake and funeral are for immediate family members only. Funeral homes, churches, and even cemeteries may be required to follow protocols that interfere with normal funeral-related activities. Funeral services and memorial services may be streamed events posted on social media or funeral home websites rather than in-person gatherings.
Those not specifically invited to attend any live events should put the health of the grieving family ahead of their own feelings, comply with any requests, send a card, or make a phone call expressing love and support.
As Covid restrictions have been lifted in many locales, a grieving family may schedule a memorial service long after the death, More friends of the deceased are welcome, but the rules for what to wear, say, and do remain the same.