My best friend’s mother died recently, and our mutual friends have been asking me what things they should and shouldn’t do to help her and her family through this difficult time. When someone outside of our own family dies, we all want to do the right thing, but as I recently realized, many people still have questions on things like:

  • What am I supposed to say to the grieving family at the funeral home?
  • Should I send flowers or make a donation?
  • Do I have to wear black to the funeral?

In all my fifteen years of teaching etiquette and protocol, I have never written an article on “funeral etiquette”, but this is the occasion when respect and etiquette are truly so important. Below are some quick tips to help answer some questions you may have when someone outside of your own family passes away.

 

ACKNOWLEDGING THE DEATH:

Whether you are offering condolences by calling, sending a card or flowers, or visiting, the important thing is to make a gesture that lets the family know you’re thinking of them and share their sorrow. (Although this appears to be changing slowly in today’s culture, such forms of communication as texts, emails, and tweets are still too informal for expressing sympathy or offering condolences.)

When hearing the news DO:

  • Be a good listener. Let friends and family talk about their loved one and their death. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t pressure them. Focus on the survivor’s needs.
  • Refer to the deceased by name, and acknowledge his or her life.
  • Offer to help the person/family in any way (the more specific the better), and if they want help, follow through.
  • Send flowers with a note (see suggestions for notes below) or offer a donation to a charity or an appropriate research organization. You usually can find this information in the obituary of the deceased.

Don’ts…

  • Ask the family of the deceased to help YOU in any way, shape, or form. The grieving family should not have to:
    • Console you
    • Give you detailed information on what happened
    • Help you with travel plans
  • Don’t take control of the situation. The grieving family needs control to help them work through grief.
  • Don’t bring up other people’s experiences. Let the bereaved focus on their loss.
  • Don’t pressure the family to clean out the deceased’s belongings. They need to do this in their own time.
  • Don’t expect things to be “back to normal” in a certain timeframe

 

MAKING CONDOLENCE CALLS:

If you can’t visit in person, a telephone call expressing sympathy and offering condolences for the family is appropriate.

  • Don’t be surprised if the phone is answered by someone who is taking messages, or your call goes to voicemail. It may be too much of a burden for the family to answer each call individually. Your message of sympathy will still be valued and appreciated.
  • Keep your call brief. Remember, the family is likely receiving a large number of calls during a time of bereavement. Keep the focus on the bereaved. This is not the time to talk about yourself or to relate your own recent experience with losing a loved one or a dearly loved pet.
  • Be a good listener. The bereaved may want to vent or cry or grieve. Let them talk about their loved one and the death. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t pressure them.
  • Focus on the survivor’s needs. Don’t ask questions about the circumstances or probe for details about the death.

 

SENDING SYMPAHTY CARDS:

A pre-printed sympathy card is the default choice for most people, and it’s an acceptable way to go. Consider, however, writing a personal note in the card.

  • Don’t be afraid to use the name of the deceased, to recall a fond memory, or to share a warm anecdote about how the person affected your life. Those remembrances will be treasured by the family and often are kept for years.
  • If you can’t attend the service, be sure to express your regrets in the card.
  • A special kind of acknowledgment for a Catholic family is a Mass condolence card—a greeting card that lets the family know a Mass will be said in memory of their loved one.
  • Those who are bereaved may have an especially difficult time during holidays such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or the deceased’s birthday or wedding anniversary. You can help by sending cards to acknowledge those special occasions or the anniversary of the death.

 

HOW TO HELP DURING THIS TIME

Overall, each family grieves differently, but for close friends and relatives you should offer to help in a specific way. It’s an overwhelming and surreal time, and it’s hard to stay focused on the details. Offering to help in a general way is nice but usually ends up not helping much. Here are some suggestions on specifics:

  • offer to send notes on details of the services to mutual friends and field their questions. It helps to have point of contact that is not the bereaved, usually the spouse or an adult child. 
  • offer to (or just handle) the pick up at the airport and housing of out of town guests
  • bring healthy food to the house right away after the passing, as family will often gather at the house or that of the closest in town relative
  • offer to handle small tasks (with the funeral home or not, depending) like have thank you cards printed, buy a nice guestbook, bring program to family for approval and input, pick up printed materials, etc.
  • offer to take notes of all gifts, flowers, donations and foods received for thank you notes 
  • offer to get addresses of all who should receive a thank you note
  • if there is a reception afterward, offer to organize deliveries, follow up on deliveries, stay in the kitchen and supervise, or supervise the caterer and bartenders, etc.
  • organize a weekly or daily food delivery to the family after the funeral
  • depending on how close you are to the bereaved, listen for opportunities after the funeral to help, like taking the flowers to a local hospital, packing up boxes, organizing donations, etc.

 

FUNERAL SERVICE ATTIRE:

Because the nature of funerals and memorial services varies so widely today, attire isn’t limited to just black or dark gray. The exception may be when you’re a pallbearer or honorary pallbearer, in which case a dark suit is the usual attire unless the family requests something else. Remember, though, that it is a serious occasion and your attire should reflect that, especially if you are participating in the service. At the very least it should be clean, neat, and pressed as for any other important occasion.

 

BEFORE THE SERVICE:

When attending a service, be on time and enter the house of worship or location where the funeral will be held as quietly as possible. If there are no ushers, remember that the seats closer to the front should be taken by very close friends, with acquaintances seating themselves in the middle or towards the rear.

If you arrive late, enter a row from a side aisle, not the center aisle. If a processional has begun, wait outside instead of trying to squeeze past those who are a part of the cortege and are waiting to walk down the aisle.

Please turn OFF your phone and DO NOT use it during the service!

 

DURING THE SERVICE:

It’s simple: Sit quietly, and don’t get up during the service. The exception is when you have a cough that won’t stop or you have to quiet a crying or unruly child; in both cases, quickly go to the vestibule or lobby. If a eulogy or tribute to the deceased is sprinkled with humor, it’s fine to laugh, though not raucously.

Processionals

At some funerals, the coffin is brought in as part of a processional. The officiant and the choir (if any) lead the funeral procession. Directly after come the honorary pallbearers, two by two, preceding the coffin, brought by assistants from the funeral home or the pallbearers carry the coffin. Unless they have chosen to be seated beforehand, the family comes next, chief mourner(s) first, walking with whomever he or she chooses. Close friends may follow, completing the procession. The family and pallbearers occupy the front rows, with friends filling vacant places on either side. The service begins when everyone is seated.

At memorial services and at a funeral where the coffin or urn is already present, there is no processional. In these cases, the service starts after the family and officiant enter, usually from a front side or door.

Recessionals

A recessional ends the service, whether a processional took place or not. As a rule, the officiant leads the honorary pallbearers, followed by the coffin (carried or guided by the pallbearers), and then the members of the immediate family. At a memorial service the officiant leads the family out through the same door they entered. The immediate family leaves first, followed by the other relatives.

It’s common practice for one or more of the relatives to stop at the back of the church or outside to briefly thank those who have attended the service, with perhaps a special word to close friends.

 

OFFERING CONDOLENCES IN PERSON:

It is appropriate and kind to let the family know how much you will miss the deceased, how dear she was, how they made the world a better place, or what an inspiration he was.

Use your own words to convey messages like these:

“I/We are thinking of you. I/we wish there were words to comfort you” “I/We are shocked and saddened by your loss. We care and love you deeply.” He/She was such a fine person.” “What you’re going through must be very difficult.” “It’s too bad he/she died. I will always remember him/her.” “He/she lived a full life and was an inspiration to me and many others.”

What NOT to say…

It is inappropriate to make statements that imply that the death was for the best or that show disrespect for the deceased. It is also inappropriate to probe for details of the circumstances of the death or the person’s final moments. Be careful about making spiritual or religious references unless you know those sentiments will be well received.

Avoid clichés like …

“It’s probably a blessing.” “I know just how you feel.” “He’s at peace now.” “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” “At least he/she is no longer suffering.” “It was her time.”

Don’t tell them what to do …

“You have to be strong now for your family (or business).” “Stay busy to take your mind off things.” “You’ll get over it in time and find somebody else.” “You’re young and can have more children.”

 

AFTER THE FUNERAL:

Bringing Food for the Bereaved

In many cultures, it is customary to bring food to the home of the deceased, since there probably will be many relatives arriving who need to be fed, and the family may have neither time nor energy to cook meals. Often the family’s church will organize the bringing of meals, or you can call ahead to see what is needed and when, so the family isn’t overwhelmed. Be sure to either use a disposable container or label your dish with your name and phone number if you need it back.

Follow Up

  • Keep in touch with the bereaved. Be there for them when they are ready.
  • Remember birthdays and anniversaries of the death.
  • Offer to clean, cook or do other chores.
  • If appropriate, find out about support groups for bereaved parents and have the leader call the grieving parent to talk.
  • Send cards frequently — even six months after the death.
  • Praise the bereaved for even small accomplishments.

I hope these tips on funeral etiquette were helpful.

If you have any etiquette questions please feel free to email me at [email protected] and please check out my website for information, videos, and etiquette tips – Finesseworldwide.com.