Funeral Etiquette

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This article will guide you on proper funeral etiquette. It will also give you helpful advice on how you can be of comfort to the bereaved.

When a friend or acquaintance dies, your first reaction may be to help, but you may be unsure of what to say or do. It is natural to feel this way. While you may feel hesitant about intruding on the family during their grief, it is important to visit them. It lets the family know that while their loved one is gone, they are not alone; that while suffering a great loss, they are still connected to the living, and that life goes on.

When should I visit?

Upon learning of a death, intimate friends of the family should visit the home to offer sympathy and ask if they can help.

What should I say?

Using your own words, express your sympathy. Kind words about the person who has died are always appropriate. If the family wants to talk, they usually simply need to express their feelings; they aren’t necessarily looking for a response from you. The kindest response is usually a warm hug . Don’t be afraid to talk about the deceased or share stories when the time is appropriate. Families will enjoy hearing these stories and knowing that their loved one was important to you.

Expressions of Sympathy

While there is no substitute for a personal visit if you are able to do so, there are many other ways to express your sympathy.

Food for the family

The most welcome gift at this time is food. Also, there may be several visitors or out-of-town guests in the house who need to be fed. During the days immediately following the death, substantial dishes that require little preparation other than reheating are appropriate. It is also important to remember grieving families a week or two after services have been held. This might be a great time to bring a home cooked meal and share it with the family.

Phone Calls

If you live out-of-town you should telephone as soon as possible to offer your sympathy. Keep the call brief, since others will probably be trying to call as well.


Flowers can be sent either to the location of the services (such as the church) or to the residence. If the family asks that that donations be made in lieu of flowers, you should honor that request.

Memorial Gifts

A memorial gift is always appropriate, especially when the family has requested such a gift in lieu of flowers. Usually the family will designate a specific organization or charity. Remember to provide the family’s name and address to the charity so they can send proper notification. It is acceptable to mention your gift in a sympathy note without mentioning the amount of the gift.


Sympathy cards are a good way to express your condolences to grieving families. Knowing that others care, especially during this difficult time, truly helps in the healing process.


E-mail is appropriate from those who are not intimate with the family such as a business associate or a former neighbor. The family will appreciate your message of concern.

Mass Cards

If the deceased was Catholic, some people will send a mass card instead or in addition to flowers. Catholics and non- Catholics may arrange for a mass to be said for the deceased. It is also appropriate to arrange a mass on the anniversary of the death.

The Visitation

A formal visitation provides a time and place for friends to offer their expressions of sorrow and sympathy. When you arrive, go to the family, and express your sympathy with an embrace or by offering your hands. Don’t feel as though you must avoid talking about the person who has died. Talking can help the grieving process begin. If you were an acquaintance of the deceased but not well-known to the family, immediately introduce yourself. Do not feel uncomfortable if you or the family member becomes emotional or begins to cry. Allowing the family to grieve is a natural healing process. However, if you find yourself becoming extremely upset, it would be kinder to excuse yourself so as not to increase the strain on the family.

Always sign your name in the register book. If you were a business associate of the deceased, it is appropriate to note your company affiliation because the family may not otherwise know you.

Some families choose to have an open casket at the visitation. Viewing the deceased is not mandatory. However, if offered by the family, it is customary to show your respects by viewing the deceased, and if you desire, spending a few moments in silent prayer.

Your simple presence will mean a lot to the family. You do not need to stay for the entire visitation.

The Funeral Service

Enter the service quietly and be seated. The first few rows are usually reserved for family members; however, people should sit close behind them to give comfort and support. The ceremony is usually conducted by a member of the clergy, but others may offer thoughts or eulogies. If there is going to be a formal funeral processional to the cemetery and you plan to attend, you will want to leave promptly at the conclusion of the service and wait in your car to follow the procession to the cemetery.

Immediately After the Service

Immediately after the service, the family sometimes invites the attendees to join them for a reception. This event gives everyone a chance to talk and provides some time to relax and refresh. Sometimes friends or church members will prepare food ahead of time for this gathering, and relieve the family of this task. If you would like to help the family in some way, planning and preparing for a reception would be a very kind gesture.


After the difficult and busy days surrounding the death, the family is faced with the challenge of resuming their everyday lives. Often the days, weeks, and months following the services are the hardest. It is a good idea to call or send a card at this time so the family knows you still care and remember them.

What do I say when I see the family in public?

When you see a member of the family who has experienced a loss out in public, you should respond based on your previous contact with the family. For example, if you attended the visitation or funeral, merely greet them warmly and ask how they are doing. If this is your first meeting with them since the death, your first reaction might be to express your sympathy. However, it is probably better not to bring up the death as this might evoke emotions which might be painful for your friend to deal with in a public place. Perhaps it would be better just to say you understand that this is a difficult time for them. You might even ask when it would be a good time to visit or go to lunch or dinner.

What can I do to help later?

In the days and months following a significant loss, the family will continue to need your support. Try to write or call on a regular basis. Continue to include them in your social plans – they will let you know when they are ready to participate. It is also nice to remember the family on special occasions during the first year following the death. Don’t worry about bringing up the pain and emotion of the loss, they are well aware of that. By remembering such occasions as wedding anniversaries and birthdays, you are not remembering the death, but reaffirming that a life was lived.