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MAIN Arrow to Society Death & Dying Arrow to Funerals Funerals Arrow to Funeral Etiquette Funeral Etiquette

funeral sprayNatural feelings of awkwardness or dread my accompany one's attendance at a wake or funeral.

However, it is an event where your attendance (in whatever capacity) is most appreciated by a grieving family who at a time of great loss needs a sense of community to adjust..

"Funerals are for the living" goes the old adage.

Simply put, a warm conversation with a family member or other expressions of sympathy - such as flowers, a condolence message, or just your mere presence at a wake or funeral - helps comfort those who mourn.

For those unaccustomed to proper behavior at a wake or funeral, there still exist established rules of funeral etiquette that serve as a guideline for addressing the needs of those who grieve:

What to say at a wake, visitation or funeral

Depending on the family's religion and heritage, a wake or visitation may be situated at the family's home or at a local funeral home.

In either case, it's proper etiquette to pay a visit to the family to pay your respects to the deceased and express your condolences to the living. At funeral homes, the family may escort you to the casket to offer a prayer for the deceased. Often there is a guest book to sign.

If you haven't seen the family for a long time, introduce yourself! Since a death often results in heightened sensitivity for a grieving family, kind and gentle words of support — "I'm so sorry" or other statements that the deceased was admired in life and will be missed — are all that are required.

At a wake, you may then sit and talk quietly with other mourners, or participate in a special prayer service offered in honor of the deceased. Keep your visit to approximately a half hour or so depending on your relationship with the family, or longer if you think your presence is needed.

"I'm so sorry" -- or other statements that the deceased was admired in life and will be missed — are all that are required ...

What NOT to say at a wake, visitation or funeral

However well-intentioned, don't discuss the illness involved or the cause of death.

Questions about finances, plans for disposing of the deceased personal effects, or the family's plans for the future should also to be avoided.

Also be sure NOT to add to the long list of other classic funeral faux pas often spoken in haste (and regretted later) such as:

  • to a widow or widower: "Do you think you'll ever remarry?"

  • about the deceased at a wake: "He looks good."

  • after a long illness: "She's better off now."

  • after a sudden death: "At least they didn't suffer."

Even expressions of concern for family members such as "How are you doing?" or "Are you eating?" can grate on the nerves. Above all, the main concern should be about the family's fragile state of mind at this very difficult time. Be a good listener.

A word about cell phones

Turn it off, and save yourself the stares and embarassment when YOUR cell phone ringing during a visitation or funeral.

Also advise any teens in attendance that it just isn't cool to update their social media status, or -- heaven forbid -- to take a "selfie" during a visitation or funeral. Cell phone usage is a relatively new wrinkle in funeral etiquette, but there's a simple rule everyone should follow: TURN IT OFF.

Adding a personal note to a sympathy card

condolence cardIn lieu of attending the wake or funeral, a sympathy card is always appropriate.

When choosing sympathy card wording, avoid adding cliches like the grossly insensitive "...just remember the good times" or the very cliched "I understand how you feel" (no you don't.)

Rather, a more heartfelt expression of sympathy such as "Our thoughts and prayers are with you" or "We are thinking of you during this difficult time" sets just the right tone of condolence and lets mourners know they can depend on your support if needed.

A word about condolence e-mails:
These are most appropriate if you are a business colleague and not a close friend or relative of the family. Generally speaking, a hand written note or traditional sympathy card would always be more appropriate than an e-mail.

Proper dress

While black has been the customary color of mourning for centuries in the West, wearing colorful clothing is no longer considered inappropriate at wakes and funerals. However, it is better to err on the side of tradition by choosing more conservative dress and muted colors to show your respect for the family and the solemnity of the occasion.

Flowers and/or donations

Sending a floral tribute is another very appropriate way to express sympathy to the family and to honor the deceased.

Flowers can either be sent to the funeral home or the family residence. Whether ordering online, or from a local florist, funeral bouquets are usually accompanied by a card that records who they are from, together with a short and personal note of condolence.

In lieu of flowers, a family may alternatively request a gift or donation be made to a favorite charity in memory of the deceased. Many charities have Web pages or forms that have been created just for this purpose. Collecting information on the family, and the name of the deceased being honored, the organization will then send a note to the family announcing your gift or donation.

While some funeral etiquette experts advise that in addition to a donation you send a floral tribute anyway, it is best to rely on your own good judgment and relationship with the family before doing so.

Attending the funeral

pallbearers at a funeralIf arriving early to a funeral service, it is best to seat yourself behind the front rows to leave room for close family members to be nearer the casket. Sometimes a member of the clergy may start the proceedings, but today it is not uncommon for friends and family to begin with funeral readings, poems or songs before the ceremony.

After the ceremony you may simply depart, or proceed with other mourners to the burial site. At the cemetery, clergy will offer a prayer or words of comfort. Afterwards, the funeral party may either disperse or proceed to a reception for friends and family.

The post-funeral gathering may be catered, prepared in a family member's home, or arranged at a private dining room at a public restaurant. If held at the home of a family member, an offer of help in the kitchen (or with the final cleanup afterwards) can be an especially thoughtful gesture.

In the weeks that follow the funeral service, be sure to stay in touch with a follow-up sympathy note, a phone call, or personal visit to see if there’s anything a family member needs.

also see in Death & Dying -> Helping others cope with grief

More information about funeral etiquette around the Web:

What to Do, Say, and Wear at Funerals - "Funerals for Dummies", with a quick fact sheet on at funerals and burials, appropriate dress and attire, and more on Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist ceremonies.

How to Write a Condolence or Sympathy Note - Here's an expert Hallmark guide with proper address, wording, and closing for creating a meaningful expression of condolence or sympathy, plus what NOT to write in a sympathy card.

How to Dress for a Funeral - Check out this Wikihow guide with an extensive list of do's and don'ts for proper funeral attire that takes into account children's attendance, the weather, the solemnity of the service, with other related tips and advice.

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