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Unspoken Funeral Etiquette Rules Every Guest Should Follow
What you say and do can upset the bereaved even further.
BY JILL GLEESON PUBLISHED: JUN 13, 2017
Death has been called the last taboo: the one subject more than any other that people don't want to think about, much less talk about. But to paraphrase Ben Franklin, death, along with taxes, is the only certain thing in life. Funerals happen, and how we act and what we say before, during, and after them can help ease the suffering of the bereaved—or add to it. Here, etiquette experts answer the most common questions about funeral etiquette:
I get tongue-tied around people in mourning. What should I say?
"Sharing a fond memory" of the person who passed will help the grieving focus on happier times, says etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. Keep it short and simple: "As human beings we tend to want to say as much as we can, and the more we talk the more we get ourselves into trouble," says Elaine Swann, lifestyle and etiquette expert, and author of Let Crazy Be Crazy. "My condolences to you and the entire family" or "My thoughts are with you all" are safe bets.
What shouldn't I say?
Avoid platitudes that can perceived as insensitive, like "He's in a better place," and "The pain will lessen in time." Don't ask how the person died, or tell the bereaved you know how they feel. There's also "no use questioning the medical care, or what could have been done differently," advises Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert, author of the newly published book, Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. "I think there's power in just a smile, a hug, a pause."
Is it still necessary to wear black?
"While black is the traditional color of mourning and a safe option, it's not the only color you may choose," says Gottsman. "Grey, blue, and eggplant are other choices." Just remember, she adds, "A funeral is not the time to make a bold fashion statement...be subtle and tasteful." When attending life celebrations, which tend to be less formal and are often held outdoors, attire doesn't have to be quite as conservative, but Whitmore cautions against overly casual wear like shorts, flip-flops, and T-shirts.
I want to give something to the family. Any ideas?
Sympathy cards and food are good ideas. "Often there are out-of-town family and friends that come in for the funeral and a meal that is easy to reheat is always a plus," Gottsman suggests. You can send flowers to the funeral home, but Whitmore likes to have them delivered directly to the family, "because they may have some sort of gathering at their house and that way the flowers are there before everyone arrives."
You can also find ideas at The Sympathy Store
I want to take my children to the funeral to meet extended family. Is this okay?
Yes, says Swann, with a caveat. "If you have very small children, when you arrive ask if there is a space that you can take your little one just in case they get a little bit fussy. Or you might want to sit closer to an exit, so you can step out quickly with your child if need be. Just be mindful of how any noise your children are making is affecting other individuals."
I'm going to be seeing family I haven't seen in ages. What about pictures?
"As tempting as it may be, don't take photos of long-lost relatives or friends you haven't seen for a while," Gottsman details. "It may be a happy occasion to reconnect, even under difficult circumstances, but don't let the bereaved see you behaving as if you are at a graduation party, rather than a funeral. And going up to the coffin and snapping a picture is not appropriate." Likewise, skip the social media posts.
I'd like to assist the family in some way. Any advice?
Chances are they're overwhelmed, so you can simply ask what they need. Or, says Swann, "You can be more tangible and specific. So, as opposed to saying, 'I'm here if you need me,' say 'Hey, I'm here if you need me to take flowers to the gravesite, or take someone to the airport.' I think that's a little more thoughtful. And make sure you actually can do it. Don't just make empty promises."
What are the biggest funeral "no-no"s?
Never, ever answer your cell. "I experienced that a couple months ago," Gottsman recalls. "Someone's phone went off and they answered it—and talked! It's beyond comprehension." Also, says Swann, "Pay attention to the directions the ushers give you." You don't want to have to move because you're sitting in seats reserved for immediate family members. If you're asked to speak, "Be careful with telling jokes and long-winded stories that may not be appropriate," Swann adds.
What about after the funeral?
Your friend or family member will probably need you more than ever. "A few weeks after the funeral, when life goes back to normal, reality sets in...make sure to check in and stay connected," Gottsman stresses. "Ask them to lunch or out to a movie. Remember that significant holidays and special dates can be hard to bear alone."
At the Cemetery
- Watch over children to ensure their safety.
- Follow our cemetery guidelines.
- Respect cemetery visiting hours.
- Follow the marked roadways.
- Be respectful by keeping quiet around visitors who wish to reflect.
- Stay longer than you want to. It’s all about what you’re comfortable doing, don’t feel that you need to linger if you’ve celebrated your loved one in a way that feels right to you.
- Be afraid to laugh and share happy memories and stories. Laughter and telling happy stories can be the best medicine on the road to healing.
- Feel that you need to look at the deceased. If this is something you’re not comfortable doing, there is no need to do so. A service is about your comfort level and your desire to celebrate the person in a way most meaningful to you.
- Let your children be too loud and disturb others. As always, respect others and practice awareness.
- Leave your cell phone ringer on. No one needs that additional noise when they’re trying to reflect.
- Be afraid to make a mistake or do something wrong. You are doing something right just by coming and caring.
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