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.
Common Funeral Etiquette Questions, Answers, and
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 each step:
• Distant relatives and acquaintances may be called upon to attend the
• The decedent's closer relatives and local friends attend the funeral or
memorial service, and subsequent burial (if it is held immediately after the
• 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 attend).
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
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 expressions.
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 offer sympathy.
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.
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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 that request.
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
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 death.
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 insincere.
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 words carefully.
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
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 through.
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 burden.
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
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 promptly.
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
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 ready.
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 dinner.
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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