Also known as social graces, the rules of etiquette ease us through challenging social situations. Most of us know how to behave in common circumstances but unless you've been to a lot of funerals, you may not know the rules of proper behavior in this often uncomfortable social situation.
The Basics of Funeral Etiquette
Emily Post once said, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others." Much of what we know today about etiquette comes from this woman, who published her first book of etiquette in 1922. When you use those words as your guide, the rules of funeral etiquette become easier to understand.
We find it interesting that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as the 32nd president of the United States, summed up etiquette in six words: “Be sincere, be brief, be seated."
What to Wear
Tradition has always required a certain level of formality in dressing for a funeral. However, today's end-of-life services are so varied – ranging from the traditional funeral to the often more relaxed celebration-of-life – that it's challenging to know exactly what's expected of you.
The advisors on the Emily Post website tell readers that "attire isn't limited to just black or dark gray. Remember, though, that it is a serious occasion and your attire should reflect that, especially if you are participating in the service. At the very least it should be clean, neat, and pressed as for any other important occasion."
What to Say
If we choose to follow Roosevelt's advice to be brief, knowing what to say becomes a bit easier. After all, no one expects you to say more than a few words and bereaved family members are often unable to give you their full attention anyway. So, keep it short and make it sincere.
"I'm so very sorry for your loss" may work very well. If you have time to add to those seven words, you might want to share a personal story about a time you shared with the deceased. But, watch closely for signs that your audience needs to move on to receive condolences from other funeral guests.
When speaking to other funeral guests, speak quietly. This is not a time to discuss business or share stories about your recent vacation. Instead, focus on sharing and listening to stories of times spent with the deceased.
What to Do
If you're unsure about what actions to take when being led by a pastor or celebrant, simply follow along. If you're not comfortable, don't draw attention to your unwillingness to participate. Be discrete and respectful of others.
Always leave your cell phone in the car or at the very least, turn it to vibrate mode or turn it off.
How to Handle the Visitation
A visitation, or viewing, is a time prior to the funeral where guests are invited to view the casketed body of the deceased. While it is customary to show your respects to the deceased by stepping up to the casket in the company of a family member or on your own, you may not feel comfortable doing so. That's perfectly alright; no one wants you to be unnerved by the experience, so focus your attention instead on providing comfort to the bereaved family.
After the Funeral
If the deceased is to be buried following the service, the funeral officiant will announce the location of the interment. If the cemetery is not located on the grounds of the funeral home, there will be a processional of cars formed to escort the hearse to the cemetery. Unless they have chosen to have a private burial, those in attendance are welcome to join in the procession however, don't feel obligated to do so. You may simply leave the funeral at that time.
The Funeral Reception
Many families today hold a post-funeral gathering where food and refreshments are served. While this is a time to share memories, laughter, and even tears, your behavior at a funeral reception needs to remain respectful. The family of the deceased is still very emotionally vulnerable, so think twice (or even three times) before you share a memory or comment on another's story. Some helpful suggestions would include:
Allow the family to be served first.
Assist them with seating or other dining-related tasks.
Offer assistance after the reception is over.
Follow-up with Kindness
If you've not already done so, this is a good time to send the family a sympathy note or card. About a week after the funeral, pick up the phone to check in with them to see if there's anything they need.
"Good manners," wrote Emily Post, "reflect something from inside – an innate sense of consideration for others and respect for self." We think that just about sums it up; no matter the situation – wedding, baptism, dinner party or cocktails with friends – her observations about good manners (when followed) will serve us all well.
Despite the years between her book's publication in 1922, and our lives in the 21st century, Emily Post's book continues to be invaluable to generations of people. If you have other questions about etiquette, all you need to do is visit the website dedicated to keeping her message alive: EmilyPost.com.