Acquiring funeral service etiquette means knowing how to behave, what to wear, and, most importantly, what to say to the close friends and family of the bereaved at what can be an incredibly difficult occasion.
Your words of comfort and your attendance will be appreciated and your good manners in these hard situations will not go unnoticed.
Most religions and cultures have a memorial of some kind when someone passes away, each with different rules. I am writing about Christian funeral etiquette.
The purpose of a funeral is to allow closure and grieving to take place, it also provides some comfort to those left behind so that they may go on with their lives.
It is standard funeral service etiquette for a notice to be placed in a local newspaper where the deceased lived and also in towns where they have previously resided. This notice is normally hand delivered to the editorial office and it usually includes the following information:
Information on the funeral or memorial service and whether it is private or for the public
Name and Address of the deceased
Date and Place where they died
City of birth and date of birth
Cause of Death
Name of Spouse
Education and any military or major awards
Company where the person worked and their title
Name of survivors and their relationship to the deceased
Where to send donations
During the period between the death and the funeral it is good funeral etiquette to send a sympathy card and/or flowers to the funeral home.
It is customary funeral service etiquette for visitors to make a courtesy call at the funeral home prior to the service, whereby the casket is present with the funeral flowers. The casket can be open or closed; although I believe open caskets are rare nowadays.
This is an old tradition that enabled the family to socialise before the funeral and be sure that the deceased was truly dead! Whilst that is not necessary nowadays, the custom does still exist. From my own, very limited, and Anglican experience it is usually just family that are invited to this visitation.
A funeral can be a small private family gathering or it can be a public occasion attended by family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.
If the service is a private affair then funeral service etiquette states that those who are invited to attend are normally done so via telephone.
Those who are unable to attend the funeral may send messages of condolence and flowers to the funeral home, family’s home or place of worship. Donations can be made to the house of worship or to a charity
The service is normally held in a church, chapel or other place of worship and good funeral etiquette means that as a guest you should greet the mourners and briefly offer condolences. The family will be grateful of your presence but may be too overwhelmed with grief to be able to greet you personally.
Following the service a burial or cremation normally follows. Often this is a private affair for close friends and family, although not always.
At a burial some consider it a sign of respect and good funeral service etiquette to place a shovel of earth into the grave after the coffin has been placed. This is normally initiated by a family member, followed by others and you, if you were close to the deceased.
The burial or cremation is usually followed by a Wake, or in other words, a gathering which enables support to be shown to the family and to celebrate the life of the deceased.
It normally consists of the priest or minister, family, pallbearers, close social and business friends and anyone who has travelled from another town.
Usually food and drink are provided, and traditionally this was a symbol of the continuation of life, coupled with more light hearted conversation recalling fond memories of the deceased. Light humour and laughter is perfectly acceptable funeral etiquette at the Wake, although you should refrain from getting totally sloshed and avoid raucous laughter!
Joking aside, sometimes the combination of grief, relief at the service being over and alcohol can result in a cocktail of emotions so just be aware of any intense feelings which may result in a display of unstoppable tears or laughter.
Most of us would probably rather avoid having to talk to the bereaved but it is essential funeral service etiquette to offer our condolences to someone who has just loss someone close to them.
Knowing what to say is very hard and it should be done with genuine affection and from the heart. Despite their grief they will most likely also feel for you as they too would find it a difficult conversation.
If you are at a loss for words then it is best to keep it simple:
Express your sadness at hearing the news.
Say how much the deceased will be missed by colleagues/friends.
The sadness you feel for the person who has been left behind.
What a wonderful person the deceased was (unless of course, they weren’t, if it is not sincere then don’t say it).
It is also appropriate to share anecdotes and warm stories with the family. Quite often they will not have known what he/she was like to work with and it can be really appreciated and a welcome support.
Following the funeral it is kind and thoughtful to call on the bereaved if you live close by on a daily basis. Bringing some home cooked food for everyone to share is a nice touch, but look for signs that your attentiveness is no longer required, the bereaved may just wish to grieve by themselves.
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