Funeral Etiquette

Funeral Etiquette: What to Wear & How to Behave

The telephone rings early in the morning. It is your sister informing you that great Aunt Hortense has died. You like Aunt Hortense. She mixed you your first martini when you were sixteen and told you stories of dancing to dawn to the sounds of the Big Band orchestras.After you put down the receiver you wonder why do I do now? What do I say? And yes, what do I wear? A few generations ago these questions would not have to be asked. People conformed to established rituals surrounding death and grief without questioning them. There were things to do and one simply got on with doing them. The Victorians, for example, rarely if ever talked about sex in polite company, even within the circle of those of their same gender. However, they talked about death incessantly and developed rigid customs concerning mourning. If one’s spouse or parent died, one wore black for a full year and then for six months, “half mourning” which meant gray for men and mauve for women. These traditions carried on well into the twentieth century and for some cultures remain in place today. Presently, there are few carved in stone rituals and people have questions about the etiquette  surrounding death.

Dark suits are obligatory for funerals

Dark suits are obligatory for funerals

Letter of Condolence

The very first thing that one must do when a death occurs is acknowledge it. If you learn of the death of someone whom you knew or if you discover that a relative or close friend of a co-worker or friend has died, you first sit down at your desk, take out paper and an envelope and write a letter of condolence. This is important especially if you are not planning to attend a funeral service or if there is no funeral service. Even if you attend a service, a letter is a nice, but not obligatory, thing to do. I said you write a letter of condolence. You do not send an email or post a “thinking of your family and you” entry on a funeral home’s web site. Death requires more from you. A handwritten letter is where one begins. It need not be long or witty but a sincere message with a personal touch is best. If you did not know the person that well you can simply say something along the lines of, “I was deeply sorry to learn of the death of your aunt. Please accept my heartfelt sympathy. Your family and you are in my thoughts and prayers.” Just make sure to be genuine. If you are not religious, drop the prayers. These letters will serve as tangible reminders for the grieving that people care for them or cared for the person they are mourning.

Windsor Castle Mourning Stationary with black border

Windsor Castle Mourning Stationary with black border

Flowers

You may want to acknowledge the death of someone in a more tangible manner than just a letter. In years gone by one sent flowers to the funeral home or a mourner’s house. The purpose of the flowers was quite practical. It offset the odor of death and the not-too-perfected embalming process. However, these days many people regard an overabundance of flowers as an excessive waste of money. Instead in the death notice or at the funeral home the names of one or two favorite charities of the deceased are noted in case one would prefer to make a memorial donation rather than send a spray of flowers. The choice is up to you if you want to make a charitable donation or not and it is up to you ultimately to which charity you would like to donate. The charity will inform the deceased family of the donation or the funeral home will prepare a list of donors names and addresses. The amount of the gift is never mentioned.

Thatcher funeral

Thatcher funeral

Funeral or Memorial Service?

People ask what is the difference between a “funeral” and a “memorial service.” The answer is really lies in whether the deceased is there in body or just in memory. If there is a coffin and a burial following, it is a funeral service. If burial has taken place or the body cremated (with or without an urn present), then it is a memorial service. On occasion, the family may opt for a private funeral service and burial and a public memorial service at a later time. Death notices in newspapers or online at funeral homes will indicate to you what type of service you are attending and where the service will be held.

Funeral Service at the Arlington Cemetery

Funeral Service at the Arlington Cemetery

The traditional funeral service is slowly becoming extinct. It is often replaced with a “celebration of a person’s life.” This is all part and parcel of our death denying culture. As Ecclesiastes (it’s in the Bible) says, “there is a time to dance and a time to mourn.” A memorial service is not a time to dance. There may be smiles and slight laughs at a funeral as we remember the uniqueness of the person we are gathered to remember, but a Dean Martin-style roast at funeral is not.

If you do attend a “celebration” at a country club where liquor is served, go easy on it. This is a time for a dignified response to a person’s life even if he or she was the life of the party. You dress and behave in exactly the same way you would at a traditional funeral. You express your sympathy to the family, you listen to the stories told about your late friend or relative, and then you depart.

We cannot be assured any longer that the deceased was involved in any organized religion. If a minister is asked to officiate at the service, he or she is in charge and will ask (or should ask) the deceased loved ones for remembrances of the one who has died. Certain rites of the Church or other religious faith will be observed. It is quite alright to ask before the service of the funeral director or officiating clergy what to do or expect during the service. Most people are quite open to discussing their religious traditions. Normally, however, all one has to do is to show up, express one’s sympathy to the family, sit down, and observe. Your cell phone ringer is off and the device is stowed during the service.

Orthodox Jewish funeral service

Orthodox Jewish funeral service

If you are attending a Jewish funeral service, it usually takes place in a Synagogue or funeral home one day after the death, but never happens on the Saturday Sabbath.   Men are required to wear a head covering known as a kippa or yarmulke.  If you do not own one, one will be provided for you as you enter the sanctuary. Married women are asked to wear headscarves at an Orthodox service. Gentlemen are encouraged to wear dark suits and ties.   The service is usually about the same duration as a Christian funeral. If you are able you will be asked to travel to the graveside for the burial. The casket is lowered and, if you desire, you may join others in the act shoveling soil on the casket.  Do not feel obliged to do so.  Following the internment, most people will adjourn to a family member’s home and begin a seven day observation called shiva.  If you missed the funeral service, you may visit the family during this time.  Never send flowers to a Jewish funeral.  Usually one makes a donation to charity or plants a tree in Israel through the Jewish National Fund.

Like Jews, Muslims do not delay in having a funeral service.  The funeral service will take place in the Mosque.  You will be required to remove your shoes and deposit them in the appropriate location.  Therefore make sure your socks are impeccably clean.  Women must wear scarves on their heads. Suits are always dark.  Most Muslim men will not be wearing neckties, but if you want to wear a tie, you may.  Muslims never embalm and burial occurs within twenty-four hours of death.  A service often occurs after burial.

If you attend a Buddhist funeral, you should wear conservative attire.  You will notice that the mourners are wearing white, the traditional mourning color.  Do not wear red which is the color for joy and happiness.  It is mandatory that you remove your shoes at a Buddhist funeral as at a Muslim one.

Islamic funeral

Muslim funeral

Traditions

At many funerals today, a close family member or friend is asked to deliver a eulogy. A eulogy is a heart-felt tribute to the one we are there to remember. It is not an opportunity to get one last word in about the deceased. It is not a comedy act. It also is not all about the speaker. It is about the way the person who died and the way she or he impacted upon people’s lives. If you are delivering a eulogy, this is your chance to speak about someone in a very dignified manner.

Funeral back in the day

Funeral back in the day

What to Wear to a Funeral

We all have many suits in our closet. Well, maybe not. However, we should have one dark suit on hand for occasions such as a funeral. A black suit is your number one choice but a navy suit, or a charcoal gray suit  and if you don’t have anything else, even a midnight-blue pin stripe are all acceptable. In the heat of summer, I think it is also correct to wear, unless one is an immediate family member of the deceased, a tan summer suit. Your shoes should be black whether they be wing tips or captoes. Opt for solid white shirts with French cuffs because it suits the formality of the event. One’s tie should be conservative. Solid black ties are quite appropriate for someone who has lost an immediate family member. If you are just attending a service, gray or blue stripped tie will work well. You never show up to a funeral home or Church service wearing jeans, a golf shirt, a baseball cap, or sneakers. Even if the men sitting next to you are thusly attired, you know that you know better and are more respectful than they are. (Besides dear Aunt Hortense liked a man in a suit).

Funerals are one of the reasons why every man must own one good dark colored suit. You will be able to wear it on other occasions as well. With the right tie, it is perfect for weddings or job interviews. For very formal funerals, formal morning dress may be required. If you don’t own a morning coat, a stroller suit with a black vest would also be appropriate.

Thank you Notes

If you are in the position of having lost someone, you know how difficult those first few weeks are. Nevertheless, the words and actions of people who have expressed their sympathy to you must be acknowledged. As exhausted as you may be in the weeks that follow a funeral, you need to be spending your time writing letters of thanks to those who wrote you personal letters, sent flowers, or made memorial donations. This is one of the final kind things you can do for your loved one, acknowledging your gratitude to people who knew him or her and responded with a memorial. It is also about telling people that you appreciate their kindness during this trying time. The task of writing thank you letters can be divided up among family members who can write a personal note. In case you don’t know who will be writing, a simple, “on behalf of Hortense’s family, I thank you for your kind donation to St. Philip’s Church” or whatever charity will do.

If you received a letter of condolence, one simply writes something like, “Thank you for your words of sympathy. I gathered strength and encouragement from them.” Pre-printed sympathy cards to which a person just affixes his signature need not be answered, but a personal letter does.

FDR with Mourning Band

FDR with Mourning Band

Gone are the days when a man would wear a black arm band for a six months after losing a parent, spouse or sibling. (Those arm bands though did serve a purpose. They said to the world, “be gentle; this man is grieving”. However, in the months that follow a loss, one should never be in a hurry “to get back to normal”. The past normal no longer exists. A new normal without a loved one will be found.

 

Military Funeral

Military Funeral

There is an etiquette surrounding death and grief. To those who say that we do not need to do these things ‘nowadays’, the reply should be has death stopped happening and do we no longer mourn? The traditional rites, choice of clothing, and condolences are ways of showing respect to the person who died and to remind us that he or she had a life worth remembering. They also are our ways of offering support to those who miss them the most. Of course, mourning and grief are very personal matters. In any case, Aunt Hortense would approve.
Insert Picture of Funeral Cortege.

Do you know more about funeral etiquette in other cultures? Please let us know in the comments.

23 replies
  1. Carl Sahlin
    Carl Sahlin says:

    Raphael,

    Very well written and VERY much needed. I especially wish THE WORLD would read your spot -on comment regarding eulogies, they are not a chance to prove how clever you are!

  2. Pan
    Pan says:

    Thank you for sharing such an educative article.

    I would like to share something about the traditional Chinese funeral etiquette.
    In China, traditionally, people wear all white clothes for funeral. And, depending on the relation with the dead, there are five levels for funeral dress:

    In the highest one, like sons for parents or grandparents or fathers for first sons or wives for husbands, people should wear unhemmed clothes made of the roughest fabric (usually hemp fabric);

    In the second one, like sons for mothers or mothers for first sons or husbands for wives, people should wear hemmed clothes made of the fabric finer than in the the highest one;

    In the third one, like men for married sisters or aunts or cousins on fathers’ side or women for brothers or grandparents-in-law, people should wear clothes finer than the second one;

    In the fourth one, like for granduncles or grandaunts or for grandparents on mothers’ side, people should wear clothes finer than the third one;

    In the fifth one, like for cousins or uncles on mother’s side or husbands for parents-in-law, people should wear clothes finer than the fourth one.

    As we can see, These rules suggested an inequality between men and women, and were very complex and too complex to describe thoroughly.

    Fortunately (maybe), the rules are today simplified.
    You can see some photos by searching “披麻戴孝” in Google.

  3. Joseph sparks
    Joseph sparks says:

    Striped trousers and black jacket, white shirt Black tie & coffin, funeral barer.
    striped trousers and black jacket, white shirt patterned tie & tray,Butler
    Striped trousers and black jacket, white shirt tie with insignia & case freemason.
    Hope this clears up the confusion. LOL.

  4. Dave C
    Dave C says:

    What about a Wake? I’ve never been to one but stories usually indicate it’s the complete opposite of a somber memorial service.

  5. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    The same dark suit requirement is also appropriate for wakes, especially evening wakes. (In my experience, perhaps because the work environment is what it is today, mostly people attend wakes rather than funerals these days, except, of course, when very close relatives or close friends are connected to the decedent.) There should be formality and respect, and a dark suit suggests that better than anything else. But if , for instance, the decedent was a member of a high school team or a member of a police force, firefighters’ brigade or nursing staff at the time of passing, it is quite appropriate for team mates or co-workers to wear their uniforms to indicate a sense of kinship and a recognition of the decedent’s life, values, spirit and commitment.

    When you attend a wake or funeral, do not be concerned about what you must or mustn’t say; often, a respectful smile and a warm hug or stroke of the arm or firm clutching of hands says much more than any trite words could possibly convey. The physical support translates into what the other person needs.

    However, thanks, also, for your comments on hand-written notes. They are essential matters of etiquette, whether you are a close relative/friend of the decedent thanking others on behalf of the decedent or whether you are an acquaintance of someone who is experiencing the loss and the attendant emotions. You can and should keep notes simple; the gesture is what matters most; you express love, concern, appreciation, respect and so much more. A gentle general reference to the “transition” is also appropriate, as it acknowledges the recipient’s ongoing needs as much as the decedent’s passing, and it implies understanding.

  6. Gernot_Freiherr_von_Donnerbalken
    Gernot_Freiherr_von_Donnerbalken says:

    At first, I’d like to express my thanks to the author of this article. Even if much of what is said in it should be self-evident, it can not be repeated enough. On the funerals I’ve been to I’ve seen many an attendant whom the reading of an article such as this would have served well, including by the way people of my grandparents’ generation.
    The tips concerning funerals of other religions as Christianity were very insightful and interesting. Especially I’d like like to thank you, dear Pan, for your insights into chinese funeral culture, of which I was so far not aware at all.
    Greetings to all readers

  7. Graham Randell
    Graham Randell says:

    Thank you for your very sensitive and informative account of funeral etiquette. I really enjoy reading your Gentlemen’s Gazette. May I respectfully let you know that the caption under the letter is incorrect and also ‘stationary’ is staionery when referring to books pens and papers. Best wishes Graham

  8. Jay Dowle
    Jay Dowle says:

    I had believed that it was OK to wear a tan or light coloured suit to a summer funeral as long as you wore a black armband with it. However I have a black linen suit which I have only ever worn three times – all of them funerals.

  9. Frank Morganti III
    Frank Morganti III says:

    I’ve attended many funerals and visitations over the years, I always keep the suit dark and conservative. And the shoes black and plain (simple line cap toe or little to no brogue).

    The closer I was to the person the darker I go with my suit. Meaning dark gray to black.

    Sometimes a solid navy suit or navy blazer with gray slacks if I’m only attending the visitation.

    Years ago, I attended a visitation late in the day for a friend of my grandmother’s and so I turned my daily ensemble into a nice looking day to night piece.

    Gray suit, black cap toe shoes, white shirt and pocket square, with a dark blue tie with small red dots on it.

    If you’re doing a visitation and funeral on different days, (which is usually the case) wear a dark gray or navy for the visitation and keep the black for the funeral.

    Less is more when it comes jewelry, a simple dress watch and a set of cuff links are all you’ll need. Oh yes, if you’re married don’t forget your wedding ring. :)

  10. leonard roger gresham jr
    leonard roger gresham jr says:

    Greetings Gents of concern! thank you for sharing such a timely subject. I shall refer friends and clients to this site as the information is quite helpful without the embarrassment of them not knowing but wanting to know!

  11. Geo. Winters
    Geo. Winters says:

    For the modern fashion victim who probably has a closet full of black suits, yes, I suppose a black suit is fine for a funeral. The problem is that he is likely to be mistaken for one of the staff of the funeral home. Solid charcoal gray is better.

    If the only suit you have is a navy blue pinstripe, then yes, that is what you should wear. However, pinstripes say “business,” and there should be nothing businesslike about a funeral. Solid charcoal gray is better.

    White shirt? Absolutely. French cuffs? Yes, but black silk knots instead of cufflinks are the way to go.

    Black necktie? Absolutely.

    Black shoes? Absolutely. Wingtips are better than nothing, but some sort of plain toe or cap toe shoe is a better choice.

    Funerals are events which, sooner or later, we all must attend. Now is the time to prepare for the inevitable, so now is the time to get your solid charcoal gray suit, white straight-collar shirt, black tie, and plain black shoes (if you don’t have them already). These are classics that can be worn in with other clothes in other situations, but are necessary for certain events (change the black tie to navy and you can attend any wedding, appear at any court, or apply for any serious job).

  12. Geo. Winters
    Geo. Winters says:

    Please leave the attacks on Protestants at the door. In any case, calling a funeral a “life celebration” is hardly limited to Protestants; if anything, such misguided attempts to deflect the reality of death seem more prominent among non-believers.

  13. Evan S.
    Evan S. says:

    I would like to add a few words about attending a Sacred Fire funeral rite, as variations of the following are practiced by various Native American traditions. The following are basic guidelines, but should be kept in mind if you ever attend an event of this type.

    Before going to the fire circle, ask someone already in attendance if it is appropriate to enter at that time. Close family and friends may sometimes wish to be alone for hours at a time.

    Do not wear formal attire. A linen shirt tucked into black jeans is generally the upper limit of formality.

    When entering the circle, place a pinch of tobacco or whatever offering is provided into the fire.

    If water is provided, cleanse yourself.

    Always circle clockwise.

    Never attempt to tend the fire in any way. Trained tenders will be caring for the fire.

    When leaving the fire circle, always offer a pinch of tobacco or the alternate offering to the fire.

    The only interaction permissible with the fire is the offering. Additional offerings may be given, provided they are accompanied by a prayer, generally nonverbal.

    Always offer your seat to someone who was closer to the departed.

    -Evan

  14. Austin
    Austin says:

    I recently attended a funeral for a substitute teacher that had taught at my high school. He had been a Colonel in the Marine Corps, and, either by intuition by the pastor or by the family’s request, one of the music teachers and I were requested to play taps before the closure of the service. I was to wear my marching band uniform, to signify connection to the school (I am a student). In response to the honor, I made sure my shoes were devoid of dirt, donned a brand new pair of white gloves, and polished my trumpet to a shine for the occasion. That would be the exception to the above, if you have a uniform, military or other which bears connection to the deceased’s life, within reason, of course. Just make sure you have all i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

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