As the etiquette expert for SA Living, Channel 4 WOAI, we routinely cover topics that the viewers request. I enjoy hearing from you, and I always try and compile your questions into a timely etiquette segment. Recently, I have received several questions concerning the proper response, appropriate behavior, and clarification of funeral faux pas during a time when no one really knows what to do.
An inevitable part of life is handling death, either a family member, neighbor, coworker or close friend. Knowing how to respond during this difficult time makes it easier on you and everyone involved. The following are your funeral etiquette questions and my answers:
- I just had a family member pass away, and I didn’t go to my cousin’s house because I didn’t know what to say. This isn’t the first time I’ve been at a loss for words during a funeral, and I don’t want to come across as uncaring. Is there something specific that I should have said to make it easier? As long as you are speaking from the heart, reaching out for a hug or holding their hand in silence, the grieving person will understand and appreciate your sign of support. There is not an official script for what to say to someone that has lost a loved one, but something simple and heartfelt, “I’m so very sorry for your loss”, coupled with direct eye contact and a sincere tone of voice is often enough.
- When someone dies should I go to the house or wait until a family member invites me? If you are a close family member or very good friend, by all means, pay your respects by stopping by the house. You could be of great help to the family by offering to make calls giving details of the death and services, organizing meals, documenting who has sent flowers or food, and driving the children to their sports or dance lessons.
- Should an ex-spouse attend the funeral? Consider whether there are children involved, even grown children, and how they will benefit from your support. If there is a new spouse, how will that scenario play out? You may want to attend, but sit further back. In the best case scenario, the answer is yes; attending the funeral of an ex-spouse is a reverent and respectful gesture. Unless, of course, it would cause a major disruption.
- Do I have to go to the Rosary if I am not Catholic? Similar to attending a wedding or Bat Mitzvah, even when you aren’t Protestant or Jewish, it’s always a thoughtful sign of support to attend the religious service of a close friend or family member. If there are circumstances that prohibit you from attending both ceremonies, try and attend the funeral.
- What should I say in a condolence note? Don’t over think. Select a card that expresses your feelings, mention how the deceased influenced your life and then follow with, “Sincerely”, “Fondly”, “Love”, or “With Deepest Sympathy”. You may also say, “My thoughts are with you and your family during this difficult time.”
- If the family is having a private service, should I drop by and sign the guest book to show my respect? No, the registry is only for those in attendance.
- Should I send flowers, a donation or a Mass card? The answer depends on the particular family. Flowers are acceptable at most Christian ceremonies, but it would be in poor taste to send flowers to a Jewish family as a sign of sympathy. Some churches discourage excessive numbers of flower arrangements at the altar, or the family may prefer a donation to a worthy cause be made in lieu of flowers. The obituary often states the family members’ wishes in regard to a donation. With the exception of specific family requests, and a Jewish funeral, you may consider all three, sending flowers, making a donation, and sending a Mass card, plus bringing a meal to the family home. (There are many more rituals with other religions – do your research.)
- Is it better to send flowers to the funeral home or to the house? There are two schools of thought, the first is that sending flowers to the home will ensure the bereaved will see and enjoy the flowers personally. (A plant is always a nice gift because it will last much longer and be enjoyed for months or years to come.) The second option is sending the flowers to the funeral service to show respect for the deceased. Either gesture will be noticed and appreciated.
- Is there an etiquette to the funeral procession? Rule number one is don’t be offended if you were not asked to be included in the family car. I have received several emails where a family member felt left out because they weren’t asked to ride in the funeral car. There are only so many seats, and multiple cars may not be an option. Arrive in a clean vehicle, follow the procession closely, and turn on your headlights.
- Can I wear red to a funeral? Wearing red was once thought to be extremely disrespectful because the color is bold, stands out, can be distracting and takes away attention from the deceased. I would strongly recommend you choose your wardrobe with the utmost respect for the family member and select a color, and an outfit that shows deference to the departed. You can still be fashionable without screaming, “I’m here!”