How to Behave at a Funeral
Most people dread going to funerals because they are never sure about what to expect or how they should behave. If they can find reasons to keep from attending, they use them, but this is the coward’s way out.
- If someone you know or someone who was important to a person you know passes away, the right thing to do is show up and make the best of the situation.
- If the deceased is a stranger or is related somehow to a person you only know casually, you can get away with sending a nice sympathy card and staying home.
However, if you feel that you need to attend, you should understand that your presence will be very important to those who have lost their loved ones because they are in crisis and will need all of the support people are willing to give.
Not All Funerals Are the Same
The advice I’m giving here is for the more formal types of funerals, but all are not the same. Much depends on the culture and religion that surround the deceased, his final wishes and the attitudes and views of his loved ones. For example, some people choose to be cremated, but in certain religions, this is taboo.
Also, what people do with the remains of a cremated person can vary greatly:
- Some will place the remains in a closed coffin and hold a formal funeral where they bury the remains.
- Others will display the urn and surround it with memorabilia and have a “celebration of life” rather than a formal funeral.
- Many will simply avoid having a formal funeral at all and will either just keep the urn at home or privately scatter the ashes in some favorite place.
I knew one man who had his family divide his ashes and spread them in two different places. He was a golf pro at a country club, so half of his ashes rest there. However, he was also a big football fan, so the other half of them were spread on the field of his favorite team!
Therefore, if you are informed that the event won’t be conservative or formal, you will want to plan accordingly. However, since most survivors grieve heavily, it is likely that any funeral you attend will be what I am describing here, and that your appearance and behavior should follow these guidelines.
Don’t Be Afraid to Attend
Many people worry about going to funerals because they are afraid that they will say or do something wrong, but the truth is that this is unlikely to happen. The reason is that in most instances, you won’t be alone. There will be others present who likely will feel as you do but who understand how to react. Thus, you can simply follow their lead.
How to Dress
Most funerals are somber occasions. Some people think it’s OK to dress casually for them, but this is unacceptable even when the event itself might not be a formal situation.
Shorts, crazy hats, loud shirts, glitter, low cut dresses, and flip-flops are inappropriate and indicate that you do not respect the deceased or his family enough to dress properly. Instead, wear dark colors. Dress conservatively in a way that does not call attention to you. The attention should all be for those who are grieving as well as the deceased.
Watch Your Language
Vulgar language is also unacceptable, as is speaking in a loud voice. You also need to take care with what you say to the bereaved. Positive statements are welcomed, but negative ones are not. For example, you should never make statements such as
- "His heavy drinking and smoking probably caused his death" or
- "Now that she's gone, I can take over the job she held with our company".
The last thing you want to do is upset those who are grieving or take people’s attention away from the seriousness of the occasion. Keep your language clean and your voice low, and you’ll be fine.
If you see people you know, by all means, socialize prior to and following the formalities. Doing this is a good way of easing stress, as long as you do so quietly. This is not the time for loud, boisterous laughter!
What You'll See When You Enter
If you have never been to a funeral, this information will help you to know what to expect. When you go into the funeral home, you normally enter the visitation room from the rear.
There usually is a guest book by the door, which you should sign. The funeral home gives this book to the family so that they can see who visited and know who should receive thank you notes. If there is a casket, it will be located in the front. It may be opened or closed.
- If open, you will be able to see the upper part of the deceased’s body. For most people, this is the most difficult part of the situation because actually viewing someone who has passed away is painful. Most people do not deal well with death because it reminds them of their own mortality.
- If closed, you will only see the casket and likely will be happy that this is all you must view!
As noted above, there might not even be a casket, so what you see might only an urn that holds the person’s ashes or simply a table that is set up with photos and memorabilia from the individual’s life.
The first thing you should do after entering is to stop and give your condolences to the loved ones. They will be seated in the first row.
It doesn’t take much. Simply saying something such as “My name is John Smith. I used to work with your brother. I am so sorry for your loss” and taking the loved one’s hand will show them that you cared enough to show up and give them some emotional support.
There are other details you can add if you like, such as “He was really a great guy” or “We’ve known each other for a long time, and I’ll really miss him”.
Positive statements that let the grieving relatives know bits of information about the deceased are always welcome because it gives them small pieces of his life about which they might have been unaware. For example, they might not know that you were friends for years or that he worked with you. After sharing your sympathies, you can then walk up to the casket or urn, bow your head for a moment, and then take a seat behind the family.
Once everybody is seated, either someone from the clergy or a designated family member will eulogize the deceased.
If this is properly done, the speaker will include some humor in his speech so that visitors will be put at ease and remember the good times as well as the bad one that is presently occurring.
Once the main speaker finishes, others, including family members, may stand up to speak as well. Sometimes the main speaker will invite guests who wish to add their own experiences to also speak.
Many will use this time to recall their personal memories, some of which can be quite funny. At my former husband’s funeral, one of his friends recalled the day they were on a fishing trip and were towing a boat behind their car. The boat somehow became loose, and both men were very surprised to see it pass their car as they drove down the highway!
Stories like these remind mourners that the deceased had funny, happy times in his life. This provides them with good things to think about that help to offset the bad ones that brought the deceased to his death.
Once the service ends, the family members stand by the exit and greet the visitors as they leave, each one again expressing his sympathies. After the last person leaves the building, those who wish to do so get into their cars and drive to the burial site. While they are departing, the funeral home’s staff loads the casket into a hearse and takes it to the burial site.
Once everybody has arrived, the casket is carried to its final resting place by 6 pallbearers who usually are friends or relatives of the deceased. Visitors stand quietly and respectfully as they listen to the final words and prayers of the clergyman or family member.
Visitors then file by the casket and say their final farewells. Some go home after this, but others drive to a predestined site where they will eat, drink, socialize and remember their loved one while at the same time making offers of help and support to his survivors.
The After Party
Now the strain of the funeral is gone, and guests start relaxing. They are tired, thirsty and hungry and are happy to be somewhere where food and drinks are provided. These events often are held in the homes of family members, but can also take place in restaurants or even in the funeral home or church where the main service was held.
Sometimes guests will bring food. Other times the family will provide everything. Someone close to the family usually sets everything up while everybody is at the funeral so that when they arrive, food and drinks are immediately available.
The food might consist of a formal meal, but it is more common to have a buffet set up that has a variety of foods from which to choose. Sandwiches, veggie trays, and desserts are commonly served.
While it may seem that these parties would be sad, usually the opposite is true. There is often a great deal of storytelling and laughter as people remember all of the good times they had with the deceased or all of the great things he did with and for them.
These conversations are especially good for the morale of the family, so if you have something you want to share, you should do it. They actually should be viewed as a celebration of the person’s life rather than as the sadness of his passing. This makes the day much easier for all concerned and leaves visitors grateful that they attended.
After the funeral is over, it's always a good idea to send a note expressing your sorrow or offering to help the bereaved in some way.
Flowers are also a nice touch, but for some people, they serve as reminders of death because, while they are pretty, they die quickly. Instead, you may want to send a fruit basket or a small plant.
These are nice touches, no doubt, but the best thing you can do for someone who is grieving is to spend time with them or, at least, call them regularly to make sure they're doing OK and see if they need help with anything.
The most difficult time for the bereaved occurs weeks after the funeral when reality sets in, but all of the people have moved on with their lives. This is when you can do the most good and when you should try to do so.
The Purpose of a Funeral
Regardless of the type of funeral, the underlying purpose is always the same which are to deal with the remains of the deceased, respect him and his survivors by showing up and give as much comfort to the mourners as possible.
As long as you dress properly, and comport yourself in a way that shows respect you’ll do OK, even if you have never been to a funeral before.
By attending, you strengthen your relationships with the loved ones. They will always remember who came, who behaved well and who comforted them at one of the worst times of their lives.
You’ll feel better for having gone, and they’ll fell better because you attended. Therefore, making it a point to attend is worth any sacrifice you might have to make in order to do so.
Do you think the advice in this article will help you if you must attend a funeral?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Sondra Rochelle