Funeral etiquette unfolded

When you are attending a funeral, it can be difficult to know what is considered appropriate funeral conduct, particularly if you haven’t been to a funeral before. Often, it is not the right time to ask the bereft questions about the service, as funerals are usually a very difficult and sensitive time for the family of the loved one.

To help you navigate this delicate time comfortably and inoffensively, here are some answers to the questions you may have about what to do before and during a funeral. 


Should I contact the family before the funeral?

Once you hear the sad news of someone close to you passing away it is quite acceptable to contact the family prior to the funeral. However, as it could be quite a shocking and trying time for the bereaved family, it is best not to invite yourself over or, in some cases, to make contact via telephone, unless you are particularly close to them. The obligation to host visitors while trying to cope with the passing of a loved one can be an extra burden.

The best approach is to send a card or flowers to let the family know that you are in their thoughts and you are available if they need any help or support over the next few days or coming weeks.


What is the etiquette for sending flowers & donations?

It is appropriate to send flowers prior to the funeral directly to the family at their home address. If you are not that close to the family and loved ones of the deceased, it is also acceptable to have flowers sent to the funeral home or venue or to even bring flowers yourself to the service.

It is a good idea to ensure your flowers are a standalone arrangement in that it does not require the family to organise a vase. The family will likely be inundated with floral arrangements and may not have the means to accommodate everything that arrives.

Quite often, the family will kindly ask for a donation to be made to a relevant charity in lieu of receiving sympathy flowers. In this case, it’s best to respect the family’s wish for a donation.


What should I wear to a funeral?

How we choose to dress at a funeral reflects the level of respect we are paying to both the bereaving family and the loved one. Look for special instructions in the funeral’s public notice or check with common friends to get an understanding of what may be appropriate. You may be able to dress in a certain colour or style depending on the deceased’s wishes or background.

Unless the family has asked funeral attendees to dress in a certain way, it is best to choose attire that is smart, understated and neutral in colour. Although it may not be your intention, bold or revealing clothing could look like you are trying to draw attention to yourself, rather than showing respect to the occasion.

A good rule of thumb is to dress as if you were going to an office job or job interview. For men, a collared shirt, long belted trousers and closed shoes are appropriate. You could also add a simple tie and coat jacket, so long as your tie is in line with the tone of the ceremony.

A pant-suit is also appropriate funeral attire for women. A dress, or skirt and shirt, are also good alternatives; modest necklines and hems are a safe and respectful choice. If in doubt, avoid skirts and dresses that are higher than mid-thigh or expose too much décolletage. If you want to ensure your modesty, add a blazer, shawl or cardigan to the outfit.

If you are attending a funeral in another religious faith or tradition, it is best to do your research on what is typical and acceptable dress code for the event.


Where do I sit at a funeral?

There is usually no set seating arrangement at a funeral. However, it is traditional for the family and close loved ones of the deceased to sit in the first few rows of the church, chapel or service venue.

For other attendees, it is a good idea to take a seat in the middle rows of the venue. If the funeral turns out to have a very small attendance and there are empty rows between yourself and the family, it is a good idea to move forward just before the service starts. Avoid sitting sit right at the back if there are ample rows of empty seating available.


What happens at the end of a funeral?

When the service has finished, it is considered respectful to wait until the family of the loved one have left the venue before you leave yourself. Usually, there will be someone to guide the funeral attendees to the next part of the ceremony.

The coffin will normally be led out to the hearse and the close family will follow it out. Normally, the recession from the church or venue flows in a pattern of one row at a time from the front to the back.

The hearse will take the coffin to either the crematorium or the cemetery. The burial or cremation might be considered a more private part of the ceremony, with only family and loved ones invited. Unless you are specifically invited to the graveside, you should continue directly to the gathering after the service and reconnect with the family there. Often guidance is given regarding attendance to the cremation or burial in newspaper obituaries. If the family allow attendance to these, it’s respectful to attend to show support.


What happens after the service?

The gathering after the service (sometimes known as a wake) is a chance for the family to meet with the friends and acquaintances of their loved one. This provides the opportunity for people to reconnect with each other, share fond memories or simply pay their respects to the close family of the loved one. The location will be communicated during the service and is usually at the home of the family or a close family member.

For these types of gathering, you only need to bring yourself as the wake will normally be hosted and catered for by the family. For example, usually there isn’t an expectation to bring any flowers, cards or food & drink. It is, however, a great chance for you to express your condolences to the family directly.


Should I follow up with the family after the funeral?

After the funeral, the family will be coming to terms with the loss of a loved one for some time.

If you would like to follow up with the family after the funeral, it is good to remember that people deal with grief in different ways, so patience is key here. Everyone deals with death differently so it's important to listen and try and support those around you.

Offering to help with everyday tasks like chores, offering companionship, or simply being a social outlet can be very helpful at this time. It’s important to be there but also not to impose yourself too much during this time. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is let people know you’re there for them if they need you.

Funerals are not only about celebrating the life of a loved one, but also about respecting the needs of the family and close friends. Being discreet, thoughtful and appropriate in your dress and behaviour is the key to being considerate to the grieving family and showing respect to the recently departed.

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