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Traditional Funeral Etiquette

Funerals can bring up many difficult emotions. Immediate family and friends of the person who died may struggle to cope and just try to somehow get through the day. The last thing anyone wants is to upset or offend the bereaved or any of the guests at a funeral. This guide to traditional funeral etiquette will help you be confident about the choices you are making regarding dress code, flowers, gifts, what to say and what not to say and give general tips that help you steer clear of making a blunder.

What to bring to a funeral

Preparation is everything. Knowing what to bring will prevent you from getting yourself into an uncomfortable or awkward situation. These are some must-haves for every funeral:

  • Plenty of tissues – for yourself and to offer to someone who might have forgotten to bring their own
  • An umbrella and/or sunglasses – depending on the weather forecast, time of day and location
  • A memory or story of the person who died to share with the family or other mourners and commemorate the impact the deceased had on your life
  • A sympathy card
  • Flowers (it’s best to have funeral flower arrangements sent ahead of the service, though – see below for more information)
  • Photos of the deceased (if you are a guest and would like to gift them to the family) or a guestbook (if you are the organiser)
  • A dish or cake for the wake if there’s no catering (check with the family beforehand)
Couple standing together by a gravestone

What to wear to a funeral (and not wear)

When going to a funeral you should dress in smart and sombre attire. The most appropriate colour to wear is still black but modern funeral etiquette also allows for other subdued colours. Sometimes, the family may request a certain colour or accessories that had meaning for the deceased. If this is the case, you want to honour their wishes.

A general rule of thumb is, though, to avoid fashion statements, alluring or provocative clothes. Neither do you want to show off with brands or expensive jewellery. It’s best to keep your funeral outfit tasteful and subtle if not specifically requested otherwise. If part of the funeral is happening outdoors, for example in a cemetery, you want to wear appropriate footwear.

Be punctual: arrive at the funeral on time

You do not want to be late for a funeral. Therefore, allow yourself plenty of time to travel to the location where the service or celebration of life is taking place. Take into account that it may take you a while to find a parking spot or your way around the building where the funeral is being held. You want to arrive about 15 minutes early.

There are no specific rules in British funeral etiquette about arriving too early. It is not considered rude or inappropriate if you happen to be on location 30 minutes before the service starts. You can informally express your condolences to the family, quietly greet other guests you might know or already settle into your seat.

Many of the bereaved will feel distressed or upset and the last thing they need is a disruption from someone who is late. If you happen to be late despite the most sincere efforts to make it on time, see if you can slip in the back quietly or consider if it would be more appropriate to wait outside and join the funeral at a later point – either during the procession to the cemetery if there’s a burial or the wake.

What to say and not say at a funeral

Some things are beyond the reach of words. Grief is one of them. Anybody who has ever lost someone they loved dearly will emphasise with the intense pain. You show your support by showing up for those who suffer the most from the death you are mourning at the funeral. Your physical presence, the fact that you took the time and you came to be with the bereaved during these most difficult hours will comfort them.

There is no need to overthink things or try to reinvent the wheel. A sincere “I am so sorry for your loss.”, “My thoughts are with you and your family.” or “My condolences to you and the entire family.” says all that needs saying. If you want to, you can share a fond memory of the person who died. Make sure, it’s an appropriate one, though. Sometimes, a hug, a smile and/or a kind, sincere gaze into someone’s eyes can convey more than any words ever could. It lets them know “I am here. I see you. I witness your grief. I am not shying away from your pain.”

Things you don’t want to say at a funeral are “S/he is in a better place.” or similar platitudes like “Time will heal all wounds.” or “I know exactly how you feel.” It is not the place and time to pry about the circumstances of someone’s death either.

Funeral etiquette when speaking with immediate family

The immediate family traditionally chooses to line up before the funeral service or after the burial to receive condolences. If you don’t know one or several of the family members, introduce yourself with your name and briefly mention your relationship with the deceased (e.g. “My name is John Smith. I was [insert name of the person who died]’s pal at the fishing club.”) and they will most likely respond in kind. If you know the immediate family or some members of it well, a hug may be appropriate. Otherwise, expressing your condolences is usually accompanied by a firm handshake. You can share a brief memory or anecdote of the deceased. Be aware that all the other mourners want to pay their respects as well, so let your interaction with the family be heartfelt but short.

Etiquette for funeral flowers & donations

Funeral flowers are still an appropriate way to pay your respects and comfort the bereaved – unless the family asks for donations instead. Our “Guide to Sending Funeral Flowers” explains in depth the different types of arrangements, what flowers to choose for the tribute and answers the most common questions. If you opt for flowers, do not bring them to the funeral. Instead, have them sent to the funeral director ahead of time – it’ll give them time to arrange them around the casket. If you rather comfort the family with sympathy flowers, have them sent directly to their home before or after the funeral. A word of caution: If you happen to attend a Jewish funeral, you should know that flowers are not appropriate. It is custom, though, to bring a food basket or Shiva dish to the family home of the person who died.

If the family asks for donations to a charity or cause that was important to the deceased, you should give at least as much as you would have spent on flowers. Some families might collect donations at the funeral, for example as part of the service. If this might be the case, be prepared and have some cash on you.

This being said, funeral etiquette in the UK is first and foremost about how you show up to pay your respects and how you continue to support the family in the weeks and months that follow. If you have no or very little money to donate, only give what you can. Attending the funeral, as well as thoughtful words and gestures or acts of service afterwards, are equally if not more valuable.

Other helpful tips on funeral etiquette

Can/should I bring my child(ren) to the funeral?

The short answer is “yes”. If your child/ren want to attend and you prepared them for what’s going to happen, you should take them to the funeral. Death is a part of life. Especially if your child/ren had a relationship with the person who died, it can help them greatly to be part of the collective grieving and maybe – depending on their age – even play an active role during the service. Most importantly, though, for it to be beneficial it needs to be the child’s choice. To help them make an informed choice, you should explain death and the funeral itself and why it is being held to them in age-appropriate words. You might find our blog posts “Explaining death to children” and “Taking your child to a funeral” helpful which go deep into these topics and provide useful tips. If you want to bring your toddler or baby to the funeral, make sure you sit at the end of an aisle or near the exit, so you can leave if they become disruptive. You can also always check with the organiser of the funeral or the funeral director if (young) children are welcome.

Where to sit at a funeral?

There is no particular seating order at a funeral apart from the closer your tie to the person who died was, the closer you sit to the casket or front of the venue – depending on what type of funeral it is. While the first rows are reserved for family or very close friends, you shouldn’t just choose to sit as far back as you can if you don’t belong to either category. If a venue offers more seating than there will be guests the family doesn’t want rows of empty chairs or benches between them and the rest of the congregation. Therefore, when you go to find yourself a seat, fill up those behind the rows reserved for close family members.

What if I am invited to join a procession?

Traditional funerals include a procession where the coffin or casket gets transported from the funeral or family home to wherever the service is being held. The coffin/casket will travel in a hearse, followed by one or several limousine(s) with the immediate family. If you have been invited to join a procession, you will usually get to follow in your own car. The funeral director will organise the order in which the cars join the procession beforehand.

Once you have reached the venue, pallbearers will carry the coffin/casket inside with immediate family walking behind. Other guests follow and quietly take their seats.

Do not use your phone!

Using your phone is one of the big “no-no”s of funeral etiquette in the UK and around the world. This goes for calls as well as photos or social media posts. Put your phone on airplane mode or turn it off completely if you can and leave it in your pocket or purse during the service as well as the burial. Even taking photos or selfies at the wake afterwards might be considered inappropriate by some, so just don’t. If you have to have your phone on silent in case of an emergency and it goes off during the service or burial, do not take the call. Walk away as quietly as you can when there’s a natural break, so you are not causing any disruption and return the call once you have made sure you’re far enough away from the funeral that no one can hear you talking. Respect people’s privacy – especially during these most vulnerable hours – and refrain from posting on social media.

Funeral etiquette: If in doubt, just ask

Depending on how traditional the funeral is that you are attending, etiquette can vary. If you have any doubts about the family’s wishes or what’s appropriate, it’s best to just ask whoever is organising the funeral instead of guessing or making assumptions. If the family of the deceased voices specific wishes or requests, these trump whatever is otherwise considered proper funeral etiquette in the UK.

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