12 Funeral Etiquette Tips
Aug 23rd, 2019
This may sound almost unbelievable, but I’m coming off a run of five deaths in as many days so I’ve been to my fair share of funerals lately. With my dad’s passing, I didn’t realize it, but I was observing the funeral guests and noticed a few things that I thought were really amazing and intuitive and a few things that weren’t. In an effort to help those of you who may not have the exposure to death that I do, here’s my simple funeral etiquette guide to help you navigate the fragile waters with grace and an open heart.
1. Show up.
Yes, we’re all busy. Yes, you may not know the person that died, but there’s a reason you’re considering going. Just go. Go to the visitation if you can’t make the funeral. You don’t know what it’ll be like until you get there, but it’s important to go. Depending on your headspace and how you feel about death, it can be stressful or anxiety-inducing or upsetting. I get that. All true, but go anyway. You’re going for the family, not you. That’s all there is to say. Attending the funeral or the celebration of life — showing up for the visitation, is an act of grace and it will be appreciated by the person or people in the family that matter to you. Be bigger than your fear or your hesitation. And maybe even open your heart. Feel the feelings. Give yourself permission to feel the sadness of a loss that you suffered, to feel angry for the absence of that person that you miss. Funerals can be healing and they deeply connect you to the person you show up for, no matter how fleeting your presence or how few your words.
2. Sign the guest book.
This seems trite, but it means a lot to the family. Do this on your way in and if it isn’t at the door, ask someone. Make sure you sign it! The family is grieving and they’re sleep-deprived. They may not remember much detail about the day so they will refer back to the book to know who was there. Take the time to find the book and sign it. It’s important.
3. Plan ahead.
Know how you are at funerals. If you’re a get in, get out kind of person, then plan to express your sympathy and your exit. Know what you’re going to say before you get there. If it’s someone outside of your immediate sphere, a simple “sorry for your loss” or “my condolences” suffices. You don’t have to hug them or linger. Save your conversation for the person you came for. You’re moving through a receiving line of sorts and the people on the receiving end are exhausted, grieving, semi-present and are just hoping you don’t make it awkward for them.
Don’t make them explain their relation to the deceased unless it really matters to you. This is not the time to make small talk or ask questions. If the line is stalled because of a person ahead of you (that clearly hasn’t read this blog), then silence is okay too. Don’t feel the need to fill the void with your voice. You may feel uncomfortable, but it pales in comparison to how they’re feeling. Suck it up and bite your tongue.
4. Quick introductions.
If you feel like you need to explain your relationship to the deceased, then know what you’re going to say. “I worked with your father” or “we went to grade school together” suffices. You don’t need to explain to every single person in the line — maybe just the kids or his or her spouse. Let your intuition guide you. Remember. Brevity is godliness in this situation.
5. Hug judiciously.
Save the hugs for the people you know really well in the line. The family is likely having to stand for several visitations and the funeral. They’re exhausted. They’re hugging a lot of people. It’s not a one for all and all for one. Shaking hands works. Save the hugs for the person you came to support and shake hands with the rest.
6. Bring Kleenex.
Obvious, right? Don’t ask to grab a tissue from the box behind the family. Seriously, bum one from a person in line. Do not be that person and bug the family. Come prepared.
7. Keep your voice down.
This one comes with a caveat. The celebration of life is a different story. It can feel more like a party than a death. Go ahead and laugh and guffaw away. Take your cues from the family. Oftentimes funerals are more somber events.
Read the vibe and act accordingly.
It’s a time that we reconnect with people we haven’t seen in a long while. It can feel to the guests more like a reunion than a funeral. Just because you get to catch up with people you haven’t seen in years doesn’t give you permission to laugh too loudly or speak above the din. Indoor voices. Be aware and considerate.
8. Don’t worry about what you’re wearing.
What matters is showing up. You’ll never know the profound impact your presence, just a quick passing through a visitation line, may have on the person you came to show your love and support. They don’t care that you came from work in your construction boots or in flip flops on your way back from the cottage. Doesn’t matter. It’s not at all about you (as in what you’re wearing or how you look). It’s entirely about you at the same time. You cared enough and took the time out of your busy life to show up. It’s a big deal. Way bigger than wearing floral instead of black. The people that matter don’t care and the people that care don’t matter!
9. Write a story down and leave it in the card box.
If you were close to the deceased, take the time to share a story, but not while you’re in line; rather take the time to write it down, preferably by hand on a piece of paper. Old school. Seal it in an envelope and place it in the card box. This is a treasure to the family. They will read it and cherish it and you’ll give them a piece of their father/mother/sister/brother they didn’t know or hadn’t remembered or experienced. Write it at home and bring it with you. You don’t have to write a novel. It can be a brief.
Whenever the spirit moves you or a couple of weeks after the funeral dust settles, call the person you’re close to. I know you don’t know what to say. So what? Call anyway. Check in with them. Invite yourself over. Insert yourself into their day. No excuses. It can be a quick coffee or a walk or drop off a meal or a book you think they’ll enjoy. A token visit showing them you’re thinking of them.
11. Send flowers, but not right away.
I know everyone sends flowers for the funeral, but the family is inundated with so many bouquets that it’s almost overwhelming. The flowers become a thing they have to deal with. They get through the funeral and they feel relief, but then all the flowers die at the same time. They don’t slowly die off, one by one. That could almost go unnoticed. Rather all at once, about a week after the funeral, all the flowers die and maybe not everyone feels this way, but I found it super depressing. It’s a reminder that their loved one is gone.
So send flowers a few weeks later or exactly one month from the day of the death. Just have them delivered. This is a magical way to surprise them and brighten their mood. This was done for me and I can tell you, it meant sooo much more than an arrangement arriving with all of the others when I was in a headspace to barely notice. This one was cherished.
12. Give yourself a break.
If you ignore all of my advice and don’t do anything — if you don’t go to the funeral, if you don’t call, if you avoid them because you don’t know how to deal with death, give yourself a break. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t apologize. Don’t make excuses, but acknowledge that it’s hard for you and at this moment, in the place you find yourself in life, this is how you’re dealing with it. It’s okay. You’re human and loss is a human experience. You’re an original. Your experience is exactly that. Yours. No one else’s.
So that’s it. These aren’t hard and fast rules. They’re merely suggestions. You may do all of these, you may not do any. Fine by me. Having been down this loss road and having attended so many funerals lately, I thought I’d share a few ideas that I think may make your next funeral appearance a bit easier. Hopefully, it’ll help you navigate acknowledging someone’s loss with just a touch more grace. I wish you peace.