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Etiquette for Funerals and Condolence Calls: Dos and Don'ts

I believe that the right words can effect change, influence hearts, and lighten the load.

At one time or another we all have to attend a funeral, but do you know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior?

At one time or another we all have to attend a funeral, but do you know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior?

The Downfall of Manners and Civilization

At my father's wake and funeral service, I was left with some pretty disturbing impressions about how lax we have become about things like respect, proper etiquette, and plain old-fashioned good manners. I witnessed behavior that would have made Miss Manners' hair stand on end:

  • The relative who, before my father's body had even been removed from the room, began to point out to me which pieces of furniture from his bedroom suite she would like to have
  • The fussy toddler, who was put down on the floor during the viewing and left to run around with virtually no parental supervision
  • The relative who arrived three-quarters of an hour late, disrupted the service, and then marched with her entourage of three others up the center aisle of the chapel to the casket during a moment of silent prayer and reflection
  • The attendee who not only answered their phone during the graveside service, but continued their discussion, at a volume loud enough to compete with the pastor, throughout the presentation of the flag and the reciting of the 23rd Psalm

The whole situation left me pondering whether or not some of us have become so self-involved that we are becoming incapable of deciphering the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior?

We All Need a Refresher Course in Proper Funeral Behavior

"I don't want to sound old-fashioned or outdated, but I can't help wondering if my grandmother might not have been right when she said that 'with the downfall of good manners will come the downfall of civilization,'" I said to my best-girlfriend one night as we were cleaning up the last remnants of the after-funeral gathering at my house.

"I know," she replied, "people don't seem to care about that sort of thing anymore. When we were kids, our moms cooked casseroles and brought them to the family. When my uncle died a few months ago, I was the only one who brought food to the house. If we don't teach our children any different, then it is only going to get worse."

I went to bed thinking about what my friend had said. When I woke up the next morning, I was thinking that maybe it wasn’t just our children who were in need of an education in manners and etiquette—perhaps some adults were in need of a refresher course as well.

To Call or Not to Call? The Guidelines for Condolence Calls

A condolence call is simply a visit to the home of the family of the deceased by a close friend, neighbor, or extended family member to offer comfort, sympathy, and assistance. A condolence visit may take place at any time within the first few weeks following the death of a loved one. Based upon circumstance and the nature of the visitor's relationship to the family, it may also be followed up with an additional visit.

The length of the visit may vary anywhere from one to several hours, and the criteria for determining that length should be based upon the visitor's relationship with the family or the needs of the family in mourning.

How May I Help You?

Whether a loved one passes suddenly or following a long and drawn-out illness, their passing leaves in its wake a multitude of tasks and details that must be seen to. When these tasks are combined with grief and everyday activities, the family member may feel overwhelmed. There are many small ways in which your help would be readily accepted and appreciated.

You might offer to put together a PowerPoint presentation of family pictures to be played at the funeral or memorial service, run an errand, or make phone calls. Maybe you could offer to watch their children so that they would be free to make arrangements, offer to walk their dog, pick up their dry cleaning, or mow and water their lawn.

A family that is grieving and trying to deal with funeral arrangements may not be thinking about eating or preparing meals, and so one way that you can assist the family is to prepare a meal that can be frozen and reheated at a later time. Casseroles, or other foods that offer large portions or servings, and require little to no preparation are best. If the family is to have a gathering post-funeral, then you may want to offer to bring something for that

Another really helpful gesture would be to offer to stay back from the funeral and watch any children whose parents have decided are too young to attend the service.

What Is Not Appropriate

  • Inquiring About the Cause of Death: If the family wants you to know, then they will tell you, but it is in extremely bad to taste to walk up to a grieving widow, spouse, or other family members and ask them how their loved one died.
  • Inquiring as to What Monies and/or Assets the Deceased May or May Not Have Left Behind: It is not appropriate in ANY social setting to inquire about one’s personal finances. Enough said.
  • Inquiring as to What Has Been Bequeathed to Who: Again, if they want you to know, they will inform you. If you are a person who might be a beneficiary of the deceased, or who believes that the deceased may have left something of sentiment to you, be patient, I am sure that you will be notified at the proper time, and rest assured, during a condolence call, IS NOT the right time.
  • Requesting That You Be Allowed to Take a "Keepsake" of the Deceased From the Home: No, I am unfortunately not kidding. I have personally witnessed incidents in which both friends and extended family members of the dearly departed loved one have wandered through the home of the family during a condolence call eyeing every knick-knack and family photo as though they were shopping in Ikea. (During a condolence call following the death of my own grandmother, the daughter of my grandmother's longtime friend asked to be allowed to take all four shelves of my grandmother's miniature clown collection, most of which had been given to my grandmother as gifts from her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and, assuming that she could have them, asked a flabbergasted me for a box to pack them in, as she began right then and there to pack up not only the clowns but also the four hanging glass shelves on which they sat!) Please remember that this is someone's home and not your local Wal-Mart!
  • Answering Your Cell Phone in the Presence of the Bereaved: If you must answer, then please remember to excuse yourself and step outside, and even then try to remember that you are there to offer comfort and support to the family, and try to keep your call short.
  • Texting, Facebook, Tweeting, and Games: Just like answering your cell phone, texting, updating your social networking status, and playing games on your cell phone are not appropriate activities during a condolence call. Try to remember that you are there to offer comfort and assistance to the grieving family, and keep your focus on them.
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What Is Appropriate

  • Expressing Your Sympathy: Whether verbally or by way of sympathy card or handwritten note, it is appropriate during a condolence call to express your sympathy and offer comfort to the bereaved.
  • Sharing Your Memories of The Deceased: It is appropriate to relate your memories of the deceased to his or her family. Try telling them a funny antidote, or relating a story that highlights the deceased's personality.
  • Offering Your Help or Assistance: It is appropriate to offer help and assistance at this time; Along with suggestions I've mentioned above, you may want to offer to set up for the post-funeral gathering or to clean up afterward. When my mother died, our home was under construction, and so my god-parents offered to have the gathering in their home.
  • Bringing a Gift of Food: It is appropriate to bring a prepared meal or maybe a cake or cookies or other snack food that can be shared with other callers. The family of the deceased should not have to worry about entertaining those who are calling on them. (If possible, you may want to coordinate with others who will be making condolence calls, and perhaps someone could bring paper plates, plastic silverware, or napkins, which would also spare the family from worrying about dishes and clean up.)
  • Bringing Flowers, Plants, or Other Expressions of Your Gifts That Convey Your Support or Sympathy: Although most people wait until the viewing or the funeral, it is appropriate to send or bring flowers or a live plant, or another gift to the family that conveys your support. (Perhaps a special photo that you would like to share, or a Mass Card, etc.)
  • Offering a Sympathetic Ear or a Shoulder to Cry On: It is appropriate and most appreciated, to offer a sympathetic ear, a hug, or a shoulder to cry on, as In some cases the family members of the deceased just need someone to listen to their memories or their expression of grief.
My father's recent passing along with the behavior exhibited by some during his viewing and funeral have led me to ask, have we come so far away from traditional values that we can no longer differentiate between what is and is not appropriate?

My father's recent passing along with the behavior exhibited by some during his viewing and funeral have led me to ask, have we come so far away from traditional values that we can no longer differentiate between what is and is not appropriate?

Viewing or Wake? Negotiating the Visitation

Whether you refer to it as a viewing, a wake, or a visitation, when someone dies, there is often a scheduled period of time prior to the funeral service where friends and family are invited to pay their last respects, view the body of the deceased, and pay their condolences to the family. It is a tradition that stems from the tradition of the old Irish Wake, when the deceased was laid out at home, and then family members, friends, and neighbors would come to the family home to view the body, comfort the family, and say some good things about the departed before carrying him off to the graveyard.

Nowadays, of course, this is usually done at the mortuary or funeral home, and for the most part, it is known as a viewing and visitation. In either case, it is usually held the day and evening before the funeral is to take place. If there has been an obituary placed in the local newspaper, it may give the dates and the times of both the viewing and the funeral.

The viewing and visitation is a good time for co-workers, associates, church members, etc., to pay their respects not only to the deceased but also to the family. This is especially true if you are someone who perhaps only knew the decedent through work, or through a social organization, but did not know the family very well.

The viewing is a somber and quiet event and is meant for silent prayer and reflection on the life of the departed. In some cases, the family of the deceased may wish to escort you to the casket to view their loved one.

What Is Not Appropriate

  • Cell Phones: Just as with the condolence call, it is not appropriate to answer your cell phone inside the viewing room. It is also not appropriate for the ringing of your phone to disrupt the prayers or meditations of others. Please turn off your ringer prior to entering, or if you are able, don't bring it into the room in the first place.
  • Texting, Facebook, Tweeting, Games: Same rules still apply for game playing, texting, and updating social networking status; Do it somewhere else please!
  • Children at Viewing and Visitation: While I believe that deciding whether or not one's children should be included should be left to the discretion of the parents of said child, I also believe that parents should be responsible for the behavior of the children should they choose to allow them to attend. Some of this is just common sense and old fashioned good-manners; If your baby is screaming, then please take him or her outside until they are through so as not to disturb the prayers and meditations of others. If you have a toddler, please do not put them down in the middle of the viewing room, and leave them to wander around without parental supervision, and please do not allow them to interrupt the prayers and meditations of others. No matter your child's age, if they are attending the viewing and visitation, for the sake of the family you are visiting as well as other families who might be there, please discourage them from running up and down hallways hooting and hollering and making a general nuisance of themselves

What Is Appropriate

  • Appropriate Attire: Over the last few decades the guidelines for what is and what is not appropriate apparel for events such as viewings and funerals have been greatly relaxed, men are no longer required to wear ties or suit jackets, women and girls can wear pants, and no one is required to wear black; this said, however, one should try to exercise common sense and good taste. For instance, bathing suits and flip-flops are probably best suited for the beach or pool, and not for a viewing.
  • Expressing Your Sympathy to the Family: When attending a viewing and visitation it is appropriate to express your sympathy to the family and to relate fond memories of the deceased to them. If you are not someone that the family has seen frequently, please be sure that when you approach them to offer condolences that you introduce yourself, and that you tell them how you know the deceased.
  • Paying Your Last Respects: It is customary at a viewing that, if the casket is open, you pay your last respects by viewing the body of the deceased; In some cases, a member of the family may wish to escort you to the casket. You may use this time to say a silent prayer or to meditate about the deceased. If the family wishes it, you may say a prayer for the deceased with a member, or members, of the family.
  • Leaving Something in the Casket of the Deceased: Many times when someone passes, we wish to leave a note, picture, or other item in the casket for them as an expression of our grief or in appreciation of their life. If you are not a family member but wish to leave something, you should consult the family before doing so.
  • Visiting With Others Who Are Attending the Viewing: Once you have viewed the body of the deceased, and have visited with the family, It is appropriate to visit quietly outside of the viewing room with other friends, colleagues, or neighbors who are attending the viewing.
The casket is carried to the grave site.

The casket is carried to the grave site.

Avoiding Funeral Faux Pas

No one really wants to go to a funeral; they just aren't fun. But just about everyone has to attend at least one or two in their lifetime. A funeral is a service of remembrance that is held either in a house of worship or at a funeral home. Except in cases where the family has requested a private burial, it is often followed by a graveside service and the burial.

While the funeral of a loved one is a sad and somber affair, it does have many beneficial aspects for the family and friends of the deceased, such as allowing for closure and for an outlet of their grief. The standard funeral will include a eulogy, a sermon or message, and one last opportunity for the mourners to pay their last respects. The casket of the deceased is usually carried by six to eight pallbearers from the church to the hearse and from the hearse to the grave site. Rituals will vary according to religious beliefs and denominational differences.

What Is Not Appropriate

  • Cell Phones: Just as they are not appropriate during a condolence call or at a viewing, a ringing cell phone is not appropriate at a funeral. Answering and talking on your cell phone during a funeral is also not appropriate, and just in case it isn't clear to some of you, it is not appropriate to pull your ringing cell phone out of your bra and have a conversation during the graveside or burial service, it is just plain rude and disrespectful!
  • Texting, Facebook, Tweeting, Games: A funeral is a service of remembrance, it is a sacred affair and usually a religious one as well. It is meant to be a time of prayer and reflection and so no, you should not be texting, playing a game, or updating your social network status during a funeral.
  • Talking During the Service: Talking to your neighbor, or to the old friend across the aisle who you haven't seen in a year, while someone is being eulogized, or while the clergyman is speaking, or during a moment of silent prayer is not appropriate. You should have been taught in kindergarten that it is rude to speak while someone else is talking.
  • Cutting in Front of the Immediate Family During the Cortege or Funeral Procession: In everything in life there is an order to things, and in the realm of the Cortege or funeral procession, the hearse which is carrying the deceased is followed by the car or cars that are carrying the immediate family. Be patient and wait your turn.
  • Cutting in Front of the Immediate Family for the Procession to the Grave Site: The immediate family is supposed to be directly behind the casket as it is being carried to the grave site. It is absolutely inappropriate to cut in front of the immediate family during the procession to the grave site.
  • Sitting in the Front Row of Chairs at the Grave Site: Usually the funeral home or the cemetery personnel have placed a small grouping of chairs at the grave site for members of the family of the deceased to sit in during the graveside ceremony, it is inappropriate for you to sit in the first row of chairs if you are not a member of the immediate family, unless you have been asked to by the family.

What Is Appropriate

  • Appropriate Funeral Attire: While it is true that the standards for appropriate funeral attire have been relaxed in recent years and unless forbidden for religious reasons, women may wear slacks and a blouse instead of the traditional skirt or dress. Men no longer are required to wear a tie and jacket. Apparel should be modest, in muted tones or dark colors, and should be clean and without holes. Flip-flops should be avoided because not only are they too casual, but the noise that they make when one walks might be disturbing or offensive to other mourners.
  • Flowers, Plants, Memorial Gifts: Often times the family will ask that instead of sending flowers, that you send a memorial gift. A memorial gift is usually a donation to a specific charity or research organization. If you do send a donation in the name of the deceased, the organization that you made the contribution to will usually send a card to the family informing them of the gift that has been made in the name of the deceased. If you wish to send flowers, a plant, as a gesture of respect for the deceased, you may send it either to the home of the family of the deceased, or you may have it delivered to the mortuary or church where the funeral is to take place. It is also acceptable to bring your gift to the funeral, but if you are going to do that, you should arrive a bit earlier so that the flowers can be placed at the altar without disrupting the service
  • Expressing Sympathy to the Family of the Deceased: Just as with the condolence call and the viewing and visitation, you should express your sympathies to the family of the deceased, remembering to introduce yourself if you are an acquaintance of the deceased and not of the family.

Eulogy

Usually delivered by a family member, a close friend, or a member of the clergy, the Eulogy is a speech or written piece that reflects upon the life and personality of the deceased.

Funeral Procession/Cortege

The procession of friends and relatives from the funeral home or place of worship to the graveside. Often accompanied by a police escort.

Funeral Service

A service of remembrance held either at a place of worship, or at a funeral home, with the deceased present. Rituals will vary according to religious denomintation

Honorary Pall Bearers

Honorary escorts who walk along side the pallbearers and are not actively involved in carrying the casket. Often used in the funerals of the those who had been active in politics, business, church or civic circles, and usually a relative, close friend, church member or business associate of the deceased.

Mass Cards

Especially prevalent in Roman Catholic Families, a Mass card is a card that is sent to the family of the deceased to inform them that the sender has arranged for a Mass to be said in the memory of their loved one.

Memorial Donations

A contribution to a specific cause or charity made in honor or memory of the deceased, usually in lieu of flowers.

Memorial Service

A service of remembrance held without the body present, it usually takes place in a funeral home or place of worship. Is sometimes referred to as a Celebration of Life.

Military Funeral Honors

Graveside ceremony of an American Armed Forces Veteran to honor their service to their country. Military Funeral Honors include an Honor Guard of at least two active duty service members, and includes the folding of and the presentation of the flag to the next of kin, and the playing of "Taps" by a bugler. In some cases the ceremony may be performed by the members of the local VFW or American Legion, and may also include a 21 Gun Salute.

Obituary

The notice of a person's death, usually found in the newspaper, and most often including a short biographical account and the notation of survivors. It often times includes the place and time of the viewing and the funeral or memorial service.

Pallbearers

A member of the escort or honor guard who helps to carry the coffin of the deceased; Usually a relative, close friend, church member, or business associate of the deceased.

Private Service

A service held either at a place of worship, a funeral home, or graveside, where attendance is by invitation only.

Sympathy Cards

A greeting card, sent to the family of the deceased, which expresses sympathy and lets the family know that they are in the thoughts others.

Viewing/Wake

A vigil held over the body of the deceased the night before the burial, it usually coincides with the visitation, and provides an opportunity for the friends, associates and extended family members to pay their last respects, and to visit with the family.

Visitation

A designated time for friends and acquaintances to offer condolences and pay their last respects to the family. Usually at the funeral home or mortuary, and usually coinciding with the viewing or wake.

© 2011 Kristen Burns-Darling

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