Funeral Etiquette if You Didn’t Really Know the Deceased
No one enjoys going to funerals, those somber occasions that remind us of our own mortality and uncertainty about the future. However, such gatherings can be even more distressing for those who weren't close to the deceased, such as a new acquaintance of the family or someone who was asked to attend by the mourners to provide emotional support.
If you are this individual, you might suddenly feel responsible for the Herculean task of holding everything together lest it bury everyone in emotional rubble. Moreover, you may feel like a phony. You may think yourself a heartless wretch who is unable to grieve properly for someone you hardly knew, and whose condoling sentiments are somehow hollow because, honestly, what could you know of the pain everyone around you is experiencing?
Stop, and take a deep breath before you make yourself dizzy. Just knowing you're there for a friend or family member is a great comfort to them, so relax.
In general, common sense and polite discretion are the best guides for your behavior at a funeral. Nevertheless, here are some tips addressing issues of personal dress, speech, and other aspects of a funeral:
- It is no longer required that you wear all black. However, darker and more subdued colors are recommended to show respect for the dead.
- Conservative outfits are mandatory for both men and women. Do not call attention to yourself in anyway, as the focus of this occasion is the deceased, not you.
- Do not wear shorts, evening dress, or oversized/noisy jewelry.
- In some instances, the deceased may have previously communicated their wishes to the family in regards to appropriate attire, such as military uniforms or fraternity jackets. For example, one man's friends and family all wore Hawaiian shirts during the ceremony to honor his love for sailing.
What to say:
- Upon entering the funeral home, it's proper to pay your respect to the deceased by approaching the casket and offering a prayer or quiet reflection.
- After paying your respects to the deceased, you may speak to the family. If they don't know who you are, please introduce yourself and offer a handshake or hug if warranted.
- Don't be afraid to talk about the deceased if you have some amusing and touching anecdotes. Keep in mind that funerals are not only about the passing of a loved one, but also a celebration of their lives.
- If you personally cannot say anything, a simple "I'm sorry for your loss" is always appreciated. Another option would be to mention something you've been told about the deceased by your friend, like: "Charlie always said his ‘Nan was a fantastic cook. I know he'll really miss her sweet smile and apple crisp."
- Be a good listener. The family might want to talk about their dearly departed. If this is the case, be there and avoid conversing with those around you after you've sat down.
- It is proper to sign the register and leave a short note stating your connection with the deceased, even if it's just "friend of the family."
Gifts and other expressions of sympathy:
- Flowers can be a great comfort to the family and may be sent to the funeral home or to the residence.
- Food- The last thing on the family's mind is going to be cooking, so offering easy to prepare dishes is always appreciated. Moreover, there may be several visitors in the house who need to be fed, so anything helps.
- Memorial gifts/contributions- These can be requested by the family in lieu of flowers, and usually involves a specific organization or charity. Remember to provide the family's name and address to the charity so they can send proper notification.
- A specific offer of "help"- Simply saying, "If there is anything you need, please call me," leaves the family at a loss, as many times the grieving family hasn't really thought about what they need. Specify what you can do for them, like walking the dog, or driving visitors to and from the airport.
Other appropriate behaviors to observe:
- Arrive on time or a little early for the funeral or viewing. Turn off all cell phones and electronics.
- Bring prepackaged tissues with you; the person next to you may need them.
- Sit down in the area behind the reserved seats for the family. Stand when the casket is brought into the room, remain standing until it is in front of the room and the family is seated.
- After the ceremony is over, proceed to your car to drive to the burial site. When following the funeral procession, be sure to turn on your headlights to let others know you're part of the procession.
- In the weeks after the funeral, check on the family to see if there's anything they need. It is nicer not to mention the death as this might evoke painful emotions.
Be honest, be sincere, be yourself. After all, there's a reason you were asked to attend. Why not cherish the fact that your friends consider you the most capable of offering them comfort and solace in their time of need?