Etiquette for dealing with the
death of a friend or family
When a friend or acquaintance dies, your
first reaction may be to help. But you may
not be sure of what to say or do. It is
natural to feel this way. This topic page
has been designed to help guide you on
the proper etiquette. It will also give you
helpful advice on how you can be of comfort to the bereaved.
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 will go on.
The Visitation or the Wake
It's quite common for a visitation (sometimes called a wake) to be held during the
day or two days prior to a funeral.A formal visitation provides a time and place for
mourners to offer their expressions of sorrow and sympathy, and a chance to say
goodbye to their loved one, while gathering together for support.. This practice is
most common among the Protestant and Catholic faiths.
Most people appreciate the chance to attend a visitation. It can provide a sense of
closure or acceptance to those who have lost someone. A visitation can be either
public or private, so if you're organizing one you'll have to be clear about your
expectations for family, friends and acquaintances.
The details surrounding the visitation should be published in the obituary. You'll want
to contact close family members personally to pass on the information regarding
when and where the visitation will be held.
If the visitation is going to be a private affair for close family members only, then you
should provide this information in the obituary as well. This will prevent people from
contacting the funeral home to try and find out the details.
Should I bring my children?
Viewing the body is also an issue that should be approached with caution when
children are present. Some will be frightened by the sight and won't be able to
understand what's happening. On the other hand, others will feel comfortable with
the process, so you shouldn't automatically assume that you'll need to keep kids
away from the viewing.
What should I do when I enter the Funeral Home?
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.
Do I need to view the body?
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. Sometimes the casket will be open and
people can actually touch or speak directly to the body.
Do I sign the guest book?
Always sign your name in the register book. You should provide your full name and
address, so the family is able to contact you or send thanks if they wish. If you were
a business associate of the deceased, it is appropriate to note your company
affiliation if the family may not otherwise know you.
How long should I stay at a visitation?
It is only necessary to stay for a short time; fifteen minutes or so gives you enough
time to express your sympathy. Your simple presence will mean a lot to the family.
You do not need to stay for the entire visitation, but try not to leave during any
prayers that might be offered.
What should I say to the bereaved?
Using your own words, express your sympathy. A kind word about the person who
has died is 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 and to simply say, "I understand". While you
don't want to offer only clichés, there are some commonly used expressions that you
can rely on if you don't know what to say. You want to keep your remarks simple,
direct and honest.
Some other things you might say are: “I'm so sorry”, “My sympathy to you and your
family”, or “I'm here if you need to talk”. However you can also personalize your
sympathy towards survivors. Expressions of personalized sympathy are the best way
to give your wishes. Address the qualities of the deceased so that you and the
bereaved might share a memory, or at least recognize the love you each had for the
decedent. Personal comments are more reassuring to the bereaved than general
You should also remember that sympathy is not only words of support, but also
actions. Offers to help with things that include dates and times will likely be
welcomed. In the end, everyone deals differently with the loss of a loved one and
you have to be considerate of the feelings of the bereaved when you're preparing to
How Should I dress?
Etiquette dictates the bereaved and other attendees at a funeral wear semi-formal
clothing, such as a suit and tie for men or a dress for women, in a darker color
(usually, gray, dark blue or black). Women who are grieving the death of their
husband or a close boyfriend sometimes wear a veil to conceal the face, although the
veil is not common now.
Clothing choices are changing somewhat as personalized funerals become more
common. You can select from all kinds of different clothing options for a non-
traditional memorial. One of the most common is the memorial t-shirt - mourners will
wear a t-shirt bearing a picture of the deceased and perhaps a brief message. Or even
a cause the deceased was highly invested in, with either time or equity.
While the personalization of a funeral may change the way you'd typically dress for
such an occasion, there are still some common rules for funeral attire in general.
Anyone attending a funeral should be properly dressed in a manner that conveys
respect for the deceased and the bereaved.
During warm weather funerals, you want to dress appropriately for the event but at
the same time you may be dealing with extreme heat. If a summer type dress is
selected, make sure that your shoulders are covered (this shows respect, especially in
a religious house). A dark skirt and neutral colored blouse & skirt would work as well.
The shoes you choose to wear to the funeral should be coordinated to your clothing,
and they should also be comfortable. There's a good chance that you'll be spending a
significant amount of time either standing or walking, especially if you're attending a
graveside memorial after the funeral. Extremely high heels are never recommended.
Comfort is key.
What should the children wear?
Children should be dressed in a similar fashion to adults, but the rules for kids aren't
usually as rigid. Little boys should be in suits and little girls can wear dresses. The
colors should be dark or neutral.
Additional 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.
Where should I send flowers?
Flowers can be a great comfort to the family and may be sent to the funeral home or
to the residence. Some people prefer to send flowers to the residence afterwards. If
the family asks that donations should be made in lieu of flowers, you should honor
Should I send or make food for the family?
The most welcome gift at this time is food. Also, there may be several visitors 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.
Are phone calls appropriate?
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.
Are E-mails appropriate?
In the information age 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.
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
Should I send a Memorial Gift?
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.
(see: Keepsakes, Mementos & Memorial Gifts)
Should I write a sympathy letter?
Here are some basic things to keep in mind when you're writing a sympathy letter as
a memorial gift:
Don't try to avoid mentioning the deceased's name or addressing the situation. You're
offering sympathy and support, not trying to cheer someone up. You know the
bereaved will be going through a difficult time, so avoiding the topic will appear
Mention your own memories.
If you knew the deceased, take this time to share some of your positive memories
with the bereaved. The great thing about a letter is that it can be kept for later. After
all the chaos of the funeral has calmed down, the bereaved will be faced with the
ongoing challenge of adjusting to a loss. Your words just may help them through
their loneliness by reminding them that they have support.
Offer encouragement and condolences.
Acknowledge the fact that this is a difficult time - avoiding this can make the
bereaved feel like their feelings are being minimized. Make sure your statements are
appropriate to the person you're addressing. If the person is not especially religious,
then comments of a spiritual nature may ring hollow or even be offensive.
Remember that everyone has a different reaction to death, so you have to pick your
Offer specific assistance.
The time surrounding a death can be busy and chaotic. If you're able to offer
assistance, make your suggestions specific. The bereaved are more apt to take
advantage of the offer to baby-sit, or clean house on a Tuesday than they are to
reply to a vague suggestion that “you're there if they need help.”
What Not to Say
Most people don't have to deal with death on a regular basis, so they might
mistakenly say something to the bereaved that comes across as offensive. If you're
writing a letter as a memorial gift here are some tips on what to avoid:
Avoid clichés and platitudes. You may truly believe that everything happens for a
reason or that the deceased is in a better place now, but that doesn't help those left
behind to deal with their grief. Particularly when the death has occurred recently,
suggesting that death is inevitable or even positive can be incredibly hurtful.
Don't offer advice.
You're writing with sympathy and condolences, not trying to tell someone what to do
or how to mourn. Everyone experiences death differently; the way you deal with
things might not be the best way for someone else. If you've recently experienced
something similar, avoid comparing the situation to what the bereaved is going
In this busy and stressful time, the bereaved will have a difficult time working
through a long letter. Make the letter personal and offer empathy, but try to keep it
under a page. Remember this is a memorial gift and you don't want to turn it into a
The Funeral or Memorial Service
Funeral services differ depending upon the religious and personal beliefs of the
family. Funeral services can be held at a church, temple, funeral home, or even the
residence. Most folks will choose the funeral home, because of its centralized
When should I get there?
Get to the church or funeral home at least 15 to 20 minutes prior to when you're
expecting the service to start. If you happen to arrive late, you should quietly enter
the service and take a place in the back row. Make sure to draw as little attention to
yourself as possible.
What should I do when I get there?
Be conservative. Your dress and your behavior should address the solemnity of the
event. Whether the service is held at the funeral home or at church, enter 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,
anecdotes or eulogies. At the conclusion of the service, you will want to leave
Should I participate in the ceremony?
While the funeral will be headed by a clergy or main speaker, there may be times
when participation is requested. If songs are being sung, join in. If prayers are being
said, rise with the procession. If you're not religious you don't have to pray, but you
should stand to recognize the tradition. If there's an invitation to speak and you feel
you have something relevant to say, then offer to speak. The bereaved will be
comforted by the fact that so many people also cared for the decedent.
What should I do if I am in the funeral procession?
At the conclusion of the service, you will want to leave promptly, and wait in your
car if you plan to follow the procession to the cemetery. Remember to turn your
headlights on so you can be identified as being a part of the procession. Also
remember to turn you headlights off once you arrive at the cemetery.
The conclusion of the Burial or Service
Immediately after the funeral, the family sometimes invites the attendees to join them
for food or a reception at their home or designated place. This gives everyone a
chance to talk and provides some time to relax and refresh. Sometimes friends or
church members will take it upon themselves to prepare food ahead of time for this
gathering, and relieve the family of this task.
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After the rituals are complete
In the Weeks and Months Following a Death, how you'll interact with the bereaved
in the time after the funeral will first depend on whether or not you attended the
ceremony. If you were a part of the funeral process, then the next time you
encounter the bereaved you can simply greet them and inquire as to how things are
going for them.
If you're close to the bereaved you'll want to take it upon yourself to maintain
contact in the time following the death. The bereaved may not feel the energy or
desire to contact someone if they need to talk, so you can take that burden off them.
Call or write regularly and continue to include them in your social plans. They may
not accept any invitations at first, but be consistent and they'll join you when they're
What do I say when I see the family in public?
What you say depends on if you've already had contact with them. 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 nicer 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
What can I do to help later?
In the days and months to come, 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.
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|Funeral Etiquette Questions|
Common Funeral Etiquette Questions
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. You may prefer to visit the family at the funeral
home. This setting may be more comfortable for you and the family, as they are
prepared for visitors.
Which of the rituals should I attend?
Most funerals have three events, The Visitation or Wake, The Funeral or
Memorial Service, and the Burial. Generally speaking, the number of people who
are considered obliged to attend each of these three rituals by etiquette decreases at
• Distant relatives and acquaintances may be called upon to attend the visitation.
• The decedent's closer relatives and local friends attend the funeral or memorial
service, and subsequent burial (if it is held immediately after the memorial service).
• If the burial is on a day other than the funeral, only the descendant's closest
relatives and friends attend the burial service (although if the burial service
immediately follows the funeral, all attendees of the memorial service are asked to
|Memorial or Funeral Services|
|When the Services & Rituals are Over|
people to have
open and frank
We all have to
do it, so why
not talk about
it? You can't
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