The do’s and don’ts of funeral etiquette

Turning Points 5 min read

Sometimes in life, there are no words. Knowing what to say or do after someone dies can be tricky to navigate emotionally, especially if you’re also grieving yourself.

Funerals in particular can be confusing. You don’t want to wear the wrong thing or sit in the wrong spot, offending family members who are already in pain.

If you feel uncomfortable at funerals, you’re not alone. Many people are unsure about funeral etiquette or how to share their condolences with those who are grieving. These common do’s and don’ts can help you express your sympathy to family and friends during a tough time.

What is funeral etiquette?

Funeral etiquette may vary based on personal preferences, religious or other social practices, but the basic idea is to support the family and participate meaningfully in communal grieving for the deceased.

The main rule to remember: Be respectful and understanding. Grief can make people say and do things they normally wouldn’t otherwise. Give yourself grace, and extend the same to others. You don’t have to be an eloquent speechwriter to provide comfort—a kind word or even just your presence can mean a lot to someone who’s grieving.

Because of the pandemic, funerals look quite different right now. Many people are scared or confused about attending one, at the same time that more families are dealing with the loss of a loved one because of COVID-19.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s no need to delay a funeral or memorial service because of COVID-19, as long as you follow proper safety precautions. This includes:

  • Social distancing and mask wearing
  • Avoiding sharing communal materials, like prayer books or programs
  • Reducing the number of people who are singing or chanting to reduce the spread of the virus through the air
  • Reconsidering traditional customs, like touching the deceased’s body

Some families are choosing to delay funerals or hold virtual services as a precautionary measure, which can make grieving harder. Seeing others and hugging them can be a powerful source of comfort that many families simply don’t have right now. Consider other ways you can still reach out and show your support, like sharing comforting words or memories via video calls, texts, or letters.

If you’re attending an in-person service, here are some other things to keep in mind:

  • Be prompt. The purpose of a funeral is to celebrate the deceased person’s life, but it’s also a time you may see many people you normally don’t get to see. You may want to arrive early to talk with other mourners. If you’re participating in the service, get there at least 30 minutes early to go over the schedule with the officiant or coordinator.
  • Choose your outfit wisely. Black clothing is the traditional choice, but it’s not always required. Conservative, dressy clothing in neutral colors is also appropriate. Your outfit choices may also depend partly on any observed religious traditions or customs, too.
  • Follow any other religious customs. Religious funerals vary widely, but typically take place at a house of worship and are led by a religious leader. If you’re attending a religious funeral and you’re not sure what to expect, you may want to do a little research ahead of time to feel more prepared and comfortable. Don’t stress, however: There will be people at the service to guide you.
  • Take a seat. Don’t overthink seating arrangements. The first few rows are reserved for the grieving family, but you can typically sit anywhere other than that. If you notice a friend or family member having a hard time, it can be helpful to move to them and offer your support if you can do so without interrupting the ceremony.
  • Consider whether to bring kids. This will depend a lot on the individual child and how close they were to the person who died. Young children and those who didn’t know the person well may be better off at home, but if your child is interested in attending and you think it will help provide them with closure, you can bring them. Prep them ahead of time so they understand what grief looks like, and that it’s OK to feel those feelings.

Should I send flowers to a funeral?

Flowers are common at funerals to celebrate life and provide an uplifting presence for family and friends. Avoid anything too lighthearted, like arrangements with balloons or stuffed animals. Also, keep in mind any religious customs. Typically, white flowers are favored by many families.

If you’re sending flowers to a funeral home, flowers placed on the casket are typically from the immediate family. Freestanding arrangements are usually a safe choice. Some families may prefer a donation made to a favorite charity, which is often indicated in the obituary.

It’s still appropriate to send flowers during the pandemic and can even be a way to express comfort if you can’t be there in person. In fact, the demand for funeral flowers has surged during the pandemic.

What should I say when someone dies?

Of all the times when we struggle to find the right words, death is near the top of the list for many people. First of all, say something—don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you silent. It’s immensely comforting for those who are grieving to hear from others in their time of loss.

If you don’t know where to begin, try something simple, such as, “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “I’m here for you.” You can also share a fond memory of the person who died. It’s best to avoid using harsh words like “death” or “died,” or sentiments like “they’re in a better place” or “this happened for a reason.”

If you’re wondering how to reach out to someone, any private method of communication is OK, including text or email—although there’s no replacement for a handwritten card. You can also use social media, but use this with caution. Condolences posted on someone’s public feed can seem showy or inauthentic. It may also mean people hear about the news on social media rather than directly from the bereaved, which is the last thing you want.

At the funeral itself, it can be uncomfortable to approach someone in mourning. If you’re not a close friend or family member, express your condolences politely and then move on so others can speak to them. After the funeral, keep following up. Grief doesn’t follow a timetable, so people may feel months later that others have moved on while they’re still experiencing intense sadness. Check in regularly and let them know you’re there to support them.

Heartfelt communication matters

The death of a loved one is an emotional rollercoaster, and knowing how to comfort a bereaved person can leave you feeling uncomfortable and unsure. Knowing basic funeral etiquette can help you focus on processing your own emotions and truly supporting those around you during the grieving process and funeral service.

When it comes to financial support during the grieving process, final expense insurance can provide financial peace of mind in the wake of a death. Progressive Life by eFinancial is committed to helping protect families at every step of the way, and offers affordable final expense options that make sense for families’ needs and budgets.

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