Proper Etiquette for Funerals: Messages of Sympathy and Gifts

Learn the Best Ways to Show Respect at a Funeral, Beginning with a Condolence Card

Attending funeral

Funerals call for tact and sensitivity. It's especially important to be on one's best behavior and not act in a manner upsetting to the bereaved. 

People assume you know how to observe funeral etiquette and know what is acceptable, but that is not always the case so here are the basics of funeral etiquette:

  1. Upon receiving the sad news, it's best to offer condolences and messages of sympathy. Do call or pay a visit to the bereaved to let them know they're in your thoughts. Even a brief visit is a comfort.
  2. If paying a personal visit to the home of the bereaved, it's proper to bring sympathy gifts, such as a reheatable casserole or other dish. Chances are, cooking is the last thing on the grieving family's mind.
  3. Condolence messages can include offers to help the family. If you can, offer childcare assistance, cooking, cleaning or shopping help to the bereaved.
  4. Be a good listener. The bereaved might want to talk about their dearly departed. If this is the case, be there.
  5. Offer pleasant memories of your own. Don't be afraid to talk about the deceased especially if you have some amusing and touching anecdotes.
  6. Avoid negativity. If there was animosity between you and the deceased, keep it to yourself. A family in mourning wants to remember their loved one in a fond manner.
  7. It's always good etiquette to let the bereaved know you're thinking of them by sending flowers for funerals, a personal condolence message, or a mass condolences card to the funeral home. If these are discouraged, make a charitable donation in the deceased's name or send a sympathy basket of fruit or other edible to the home of his family. Flowers can also be sent directly at home to the family of the deceased.
  8. Attire etiquette has changed through the years. Though it isn't necessary to dress in black, do show respect when picking out your attire. Save brightly colored or provocative styles for club-hopping. Wear conservative suits or dress-clothes in dark, respectful tone. Try to avoid "happy" patterns such as florals.
  9. If a wake is being held, it's proper to first offer sympathy condolences to the family of the deceased before mingling with mourners.
  10. Also upon entering the funeral home, it's proper visitation and funeral etiquette to pay your respect to the deceased by approaching the casket and offering a prayer or quiet reflection.
  11. Those who were closest to the deceased are asked to be a pall bearer and carry the casket. To do so is considered a great honor.
  12. The funeral procession and recession are dependent upon religion. If you're not sure of the proper procedure, check with the funeral home attendant or clergy person.
  13. Before entering the house of worship, turn off cell phones, pagers, electronic games and other noise-making or distracting items.
  14. Listen respectfully to those who are speaking.
  15. If you'll be speaking, be respectful of the deceased and his family. Humorous anecdotes or fine but be sure they're appropriate to the occasion. Try to reflect a fond memory and avoid being mean-spirited. Do your best to remember the positive qualities of the deceased and avoid focusing on his negative attributes.
  16. Never bring up embarrassing stories. While you may find them amusing, the deceased's family might find it in poor taste.
  17. Avoid staring at the bereaved. Allow loved ones to grieve with dignity.
  18. Let bygones be bygones, at least during the funeral. This is not the place to air dirty laundry or partake in family feuds. It's probably best to remember the adage, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." If you've been estranged from the deceased or other relatives, your family will appreciate that you came to pay your respects. There's no need to say anything that might sully the occasion.
  19. Allow family and close friends to sit in the front few rows. Business acquaintances and those who weren't very close to the deceased should sit in the rear.
  20. Do not eat, drink or chew gum during the funeral service.
  21. Do not converse with those around you.
  22. If you have to cough for a long period of time, you'll have to leave the place of worship.
  23. Any disruptive children should be removed immediately.
  24. When driving in a procession, you're expected to drive in a slow, respectful manner with your headlights on. Many funeral home attendants now have stickers to place on cars advising other drivers you're part of the procession.
  25. After the burial, all in attendance are invited to a reception. The reception could be held in the home of a family member or loved one, or in a restaurant.
  26. It's a good idea to leave young children at home. Wakes and funerals are solemn occasions and young children can't always be expected to behave or be properly attentive.
  27. The bereaved should acknowledge gifts and acts of kindness with a thank you note. This can be done within a couple of months of the funeral, but thank you notes should always be sent.

It can be difficult to know what to do or say at a funeral. The most important things are showing support to the family who is suffering a loss and doing so with proper condolences etiquette. If you act in a respectful manner and offer some words and gestures of comfort, you'll do just fine.


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