Thoughts on Funeral Etiquette

Our reactions to funerals vary from person to person.  Often, people are uncomfortable and unsure of what to say, how to act and what to wear.  There are so many variables that go into what is appropriate for funeral/ memorial service etiquette.  Traditions in the south are much different than traditions in the Midwest or from family to family.  In my research, I found that there are several funeral/ memorial customary etiquette items that are true no matter where you live or who you are.

What to wear?

Today’s world has become much more casual in the way we dress for many occasions.  Funerals are no different.  However, there are a few things to remember when you get ready to attend a funeral or memorial service.  It is important to note that this is not the time to make a fashion statement.  The words “subtle” and “tasteful” came up in nearly all of my research.  You are not required to wear black, but you should stick to muted tones such as black, grey, blue, etc.  Think about what you would wear to a business meeting, job interview or a religious service.

Sometimes families will choose a theme for the celebration of the life of their loved one.  In this case, it can be appropriate to wear brighter and more flamboyant attire.  I remember a service for a man who loved Hawaiian shirts.  The family encouraged everyone to wear their favorite Hawaiian shirt to honor him.  However, resist making that fashion choice if it has not been suggested by the family.  Instead, you may use your memories of the person who has died in their Hawaiian shirt as a way to remember them fondly to their loved ones.

Where to sit?

The front seats at services are reserved for family and close friends.  Therefore, acquaintances should sit in the middle or the back.  Please be thoughtful when you come into the service, especially if you are late.  You should enter on the side aisles, not the middle.  If the procession has already begun, wait in the back until they have gotten about a quarter up the aisle before finding a spot in the back to sit.  The idea is to bring as little attention to yourself as possible.  If you know you will need to leave early, sit in the back, as well.  This way you can slip away unnoticed.  Don’t forget to sign the guestbook, though.  The family will want to know you were there.

What to say?

This is the tough part.  We all have different relationships with each of the deceased’s loved ones and finding the right words can be difficult.  By taking the time to attend the services, you are already saying that the person who died held an important place in this world.  That says a lot.  Sharing a fond memory of the person who died with their family can be comforting to them.  But you should avoid unfavorable stories or stories that may be too funny.  There are lots of no, nos when offering condolences.  Do not tell them you know how they feel or tell them that the medical care given was inadequate.  Keep the conversation light.   Instead of making the blanket statement, “let me know if you need anything”, you should consider making practical suggestions.  Some examples are offering to cut the grass for the next week or two while they get through the tough time or you may offer to take someone to the airport that cam in for the service.  Just be sure you have the time to help and you follow through with your offers.  Sherrie Dunlevy authored a book, “How Can I Help?”, that offers some insight.  I encourage you to check it out here.

What about children?

This is another toughy.  Many of us believe that it is important for children to experience funeral and memorial services so they can begin to understand death in a positive way.  If they are sheltered from ever participating in the final goodbye, it is a mystery and can become scary for them.  However, death is a very hard subject, even for adults.  If the adults have a hard time explaining it, then the children can’t understand it.  Our friends at Stauffer Funeral Home got it right, so I will quote them:

This is a personal decision, but the general thinking is that children should be encouraged to attend the services surrounding the death of a family member or close friend to whatever degree they feel comfortable. Children learn through these experiences that death is a natural part of life, and that we honor a loved one’s passing with rites and rituals that we observe together.

However, because young children can become restless or have trouble staying quiet, it is also appropriate to have them stay at home with a sitter. You could also bring someone with you to the visitation, funeral or memorial service who can take them home if needed.

Older children should sit with their family, closest to whomever can give them the most comfort. The children should wear clothing that is age-appropriate and similar in style to that worn by adult family members.”

What if I cannot be there?

Many times you will see “in lieu of flowers” at the end of an obituary.  This means that the family would prefer that those paying their respects to them make a contribution to a charity instead of sending flowers to the funeral home, church or residence.  In a previous post, found here, we discussed TMCFunding.  A crowdfunding web site created to help people make memorial contributions and support families after a loved one dies.  This is not to take the place of traditionally sending the contribution directly to the organization, but to make contributing easier.  Either way you make the contribution, I encourage you to leave your name and address, so the family and the organization can properly acknowledge your kind gift you made to remember them.  Sending a handwritten note of condolence is a nice way to let the family know you are thinking of them.  Sometimes it is appropriate to send food to the family’s house.  This is usually done by those who are close to the family.  Unless you are from the south… then everyone sends their best dish.  You may even consider sending it a week or two after the services.  This is a time when everything has settled and it may be heartwarming for the loved ones to know people are still thinking of their loved one.

A word about cell phones…

In this day and age, we all have them and we all use them all of the time.  Except at a funeral/ memorial service.  You should never have your phone out when attending a service.  Many would say it should be in the off position because everyone can still hear it when it vibrates.  I read a story about someone who’s phone rang and they actually answered it!  Very disrespectful.  It is not unreasonable to give an hour (or less in most cases) of your full attention.  You are here to remember the person who has died and lend love and support to those they left behind.  Nothing is more important than that and you should be completely present 100% of the time.  Unless the immediate family requests that you take photos, it is highly inappropriate at the service.  You may have a chance to take pictures with people that came to the service and you haven’t seen in a long time at the reception following the service.

There is so much more to talk about when it comes to funeral etiquette, but this post is long enough.  I hope some of these tips will help you.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to a friend and ask them what they are wearing or maybe you can combine your efforts and send a food tray to the family.  While it is possible to be out of line and inappropriate, I think that most people are helpful by just showing up and supporting the loved ones.


– SarahB

Sarah Barickman is an outreach director and life celebrant at Altmeyer Funeral Homes and CARE Funeral & Cremation Specialists in the Ohio Valley.  She and her husband, Mike, have lived in Wheeling for 18 years, where they have been raising their two children, Lilly & Haden.  Sarah is a collector of people, she has never met a stranger and will always strive to be of service to others.