Grave Considerations: A 10 Step Guide to Funeral and Memorial Service Etiquette

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Everybody dreads the news of a close friend’s death. Grief sets in … and then panic.

Do you send flowers? A card? What do you wear to the funeral?

Memorial service etiquette is fraught with anxiety. If there is ever a social situation where you don’t want to do, say, or wear the wrong thing, it’s a funeral.

However, it’s easy to manage even the most awkward of funerals if you follow this simple ten-step guide.

10 Steps to Perfect Memorial Service Etiquette

If you’ve never experienced bereavement before, follow these ten steps to ideal memorial etiquette.

1. Offer Condolences — Then Step Back

When you first hear of a loved one’s death, the first thing you should do is contact their closest relatives to offer your condolences.

Parents, siblings, or spouses will all appreciate the kind words you offer about the deceased.

Once you’ve spoken to them, however, take a step back. The family will need a period of time to adjust to their bereavement and will appreciate you giving them space during such a difficult time.

2. Offer Assistance with Arrangements

Grief does funny things to people. Some become super-efficient, focusing on making arrangements to distract themselves from sudden loss.

Others feel like even getting out of bed is impossible.

Offer help to the family if they need assistance making funeral arrangements. It could be helping to order flowers, caterers, or even designing the order of service program. 

Even if your offer is politely refused, the family will appreciate your compassion.

3. Confirm Your Attendance

When you receive details of the memorial service, RSVP as soon as possible. Confirm if you will or won’t be attending, and then stick to your answer.

The family will be trying to work out catering and seating details for the service, so make sure you don’t waste their money, or be the awkward guest who turns up unannounced.

4. Study the Invite for Plus-One Details

Close friends will all receive invites to the memorial service. If you and your partner were friends of the deceased, it’s likely you’ll both be named on the invitation.

Some memorial services are quiet and small, while others welcome the biggest crowd possible. Find out whether a plus-one would be appropriate before assuming you can bring someone.

If you have a spouse or partner who didn’t know the deceased, but you would like them to attend with you, check the invite details. If it is only your name on it, and the family doesn’t know your significant other, then they need to stay at home.

5. Decide on Your Outfit

Black is a traditional color for funerals — but double-check the memorial details, as some wish to celebrate with plenty of bright colors instead.

Any funeral outfit should be respectful and appropriate for a religious setting if that’s where the memorial is being held. Traditional outfits include dark-colored suits and dress shoes for men, and tailored skirts or dresses for women. 

Find an outfit you feel comfortable in, too. Nobody wants to be fidgeting in the church because their belt is too tight or their shoes caused blisters.

Make sure your suit is dry-cleaned in good time, and your dress is pressed to perfection. Add small accessories such as cufflinks or earrings to add some elegance to any outfit, too. 

Have your outfit ready, including all accessories, laid out the night before or first thing in the morning. There’s nothing worse than rushing around or being late to a funeral because you can’t find your other shoe.

6. Arrive Early at the Service

This is not the time to be fashionably late. Arrive well ahead of the service time — half an hour early is a good target.

You want to arrive before the family and the casket. Nobody wants to be the latecomer to a funeral, creeping in at the back of the service halfway through.

If the unthinkable happens and you are late, slide in down the side aisles. Don’t make a scene creeping down the middle aisle like nobody can see you. 

7. Sit in an Appropriate Seat

The first two rows of a memorial service will be reserved for close family and relatives. 

However, sitting right at the back with lots of empty rows in front of you looks like you don’t want to be there to pay your respects. Find a seat as close to the middle as possible. 

8. Don’t Feel Obliged to Pray

If you don’t share the family’s religious beliefs, don’t feel pressured into joining in with a prayer or hymn.

Your presence is enough to pay your respects, and the family will understand that many people at the memorial won’t share the same faith.

You should, however, observe any clear customs that would otherwise cause offense. For example, some religious buildings may require you to cover your head or shoulders, or remove your shoes.

9. Speak to Close Relatives

If you know the deceased’s parents, siblings, spouse, or children are present, seek them out to offer a short message of condolence in person.

They will be overwhelmed at the enormity of the day, so you won’t be expected to keep a conversation flowing for hours. Simply offer your condolences, a kind word about your friend, or a memory you think they would like you to share.

10. Send Flowers or Gifts

Condolence flowers or gifts are an ideal way to show your sympathy to the family — these can be sent before or after the funeral. Sending something afterward, however, allows you to include a note about the memorial itself.

Some families prefer charitable donations in place of flowers or gifts, so check the memorial service program for directions if you’re not sure what to do.

Look After Your Own Wellbeing, Too

Grief, funerals, and understanding memorial service etiquette can all take their toll on you, too.

Even if the funeral you’re attending is for a distant relative you hardly knew, it can still have an effect on your mental wellbeing.

During difficult times, it’s important to look after yourself as much as support those around you. You’ll be of no use to a grieving family if you’re struggling to cope yourself.

Our guide to navigating your wellbeing through hard times will help you to put your own feelings first.