While the etiquette of visitations and funerals is not simple, it can help you navigate through your grief, or it can let you help someone close to you who has lost a family member and needs to lean on your strength for support through this sad time.
By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor
Death. It makes us cringe. It makes us cry. It makes us cower.
No one wants to think about it. So why should we read a post about the etiquette of visitations and funerals, especially if no one we know just died?
Because people too often pass suddenly.
When my first husband died of cancer, I was 27 years old. He was 31.
His death wasn’t quick. It was a long road that stretched out for four and a half years. However, in the Widowed Young Group I attended following his death, I found out I was an anomaly among the young. Two ladies, each in their late 20’s, had discovered they were pregnant before their husbands’ diagnoses. Within months, both their husbands had died of cancer. One man passed away three months before the birth of their only child. One passed away in the same hospital his wife was laboring in just two minutes before the birth of their only child.
We were a group of 45 men and women, just one of several groups of young widows and widowers in Orlando. None of us thought this could happen to us. None of us thought death would knock on the door for our loved one for another 50 years or more.
And whether it’s in order for us to be prepared for the unexpected loss of a friend or loved one or to know what to do to best help a friend suffering a loss, the best time to learn all we need to know about visitations and funerals is when we don’t need the information at all.
It takes the sting out of it because they’re simply facts on paper that don’t relate to our current life.
The worst time to be Googling for this information is when you need it. The sadness is exponential. I know because I did it. (My first husband died before I began studying to work in the etiquette field.)
The Purpose of Visitations and Funerals
Death is most often observed by visitations and funerals. They’re our appointed time to wish those who have passed bon voyage into eternity. We show up for the purpose of celebrating them. But these are the saddest celebrations of all, because those you most want to be there, those whose lives you’re celebrating, aren’t able to sing along to their favorite songs played in their honor. They miss out on hearing their praises from their loved ones. And they can’t laugh along at the stories of their silly mishaps, or join everyone in a toast to their memory.
The weight of that fact causes our momentary joy at the thought of the deceased to be punctuated with tears.
But visitations and funerals are how we who remain pay our respects, say our public goodbyes, and let the family see that they’re not grieving alone. Our being there says to family and loved ones that those they’ve lost are not forgotten, and they won’t be. It’s our unwritten, unspoken contract to keep them alive in our memories.
The General Etiquette of Visitations and Funerals
Is it OK to attend viewings, visitations, or funerals of those whom you didn’t know well? Yes. Unless the viewing or funeral is private, the family is open to receiving anyone who would like to pay their respects. If attending the visitation, briefly explain to the family member(s) you speak to how you knew the person. They’ll be honored you visited.
Do you have to send flowers? They’re expensive, and if you can’t afford them, it’s fine to attend without sending flowers. However, you should send a card within four weeks of the funeral.
If you do send flowers, where do you send them, and what name do you have the florist write on the outside of the envelope and as the greeting on the card? The outside of the little envelope that comes in the flowers is addressed to the name of the deceased as follows: “To the Funeral of Mrs. Jane Smith.”
For the card inside, it depends. Usually, it’s written as, “Dear Kevin and Family.” The name of the person listed (“Kevin”) would be the next of kin, which is usually the spouse.
If it’s for a child’s funeral, write, “Dear Sue, Kevin and Kevin, Jr.” (The parent(s) and sibling(s) with the siblings listed by age, oldest to youngest.) If you don’t know the siblings’ names or ages, don’t worry, since it’s a formality, not a necessity. Your beautiful flowers will be welcomed. Just list “and family.” However, often a quick look on social media, a phone call to the funeral home, or finding the obituary on-line or in the newspaper will provide you with the information.
The family is asking for donations to be made to a charity instead of flowers, but I’d rather give flowers. Is that OK? It is good to honor the person in the way their family has chosen. So it’s best to give to the charity. There will be flowers at the funeral provided by family members. A nice gesture would be to send flowers several weeks after the funeral to the home of the person(s) you’re closest to along with a condolence card and/or letter. It will cheer them up and let them know you haven’t forgotten that they’re still grieving.
Do you send the flowers to the place of the visitation, to the funeral home, or to the location of the funeral? It depends on when the flowers are delivered. If they’re delivered in time for the visitation, then have them sent there. If not, have them sent to the funeral home, where staff will make sure they end up at the location of the funeral. If sent directly to the church where the funeral is taking place, there might be no one there to receive the flowers. Many smaller churches don’t have a regular schedule of staff on site.
What should you wear? Gone are the days when all black is required in the etiquette of visitations and funerals. But if you have black, wear it, unless the family has made special arrangements asking everyone to wear a particular color or style of clothing in honor of the deceased (Hawaiian shirts because that’s all he ever wore; Robin’s Egg Blue because it was her favorite color).
If not black in color, your clothing should be darker in color and toned down in the way of prints and accessories.
You should look good, but to keep the focus on the deceased and the family, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself by being so fashionable that you look like you’re ready to pose for the cover of Vogue.
This is the time to polish your shoes, file your nails, and put on your best suit or dress that’s not party related. No denim. No athletic wear (from head to toe), no sequins or the like.
Dress like you were going on an interview for a job with a six-figure salary at a traditionally minded company: banking, law, investment and such.
But that’s not me, Maralee. I’m not comfortable in clothes like that. Plus, the deceased never dressed up. No one will care. Why should I dress up? Because (and I know you already know this, but it fits here, so I’ll include it) this isn’t about you.
It’s about paying your LAST respects to the deceased and honoring the family.
Your clothes speak for you from across the room for all to “hear” before you even have a chance to say a word. Let everyone know you didn’t run out the door at the last minute to attend. You look your best because you put time, thought and effort into getting dressed to participate.
This isn’t an ordinary day. Don’t dress in an ordinary way.
I’m going to the visitation and funeral. When do I sign the guest book? You sign it at both places. There will be different pages at both. Sign only the names of the persons actually in attendance. Sign your first and last names because other family members who might not know you will be looking at the book: “Mr. and Mrs. Kent (Maralee) McKee, Marc, and Corbett.” Or, more informally, “Kent, Maralee, Marc and Corbett McKee.” Both are correct. If the next of kin are more formal, go with the more formal one. If they’re casual, that’s your best choice because it’s the one that will seem the most natural to them.
I’m not a family member; I’m crying a lot, and it’s not even time for the visitation. What should I do if I start crying hard during the visitation or funeral? You’re there to support the family. If your grief becomes severe, that’s not helping them. Retreat to a quiet spot, maybe even your car, until you’ve regained composure. If it’s just too hard on you, don’t beat yourself up. Head on home, or call Uber or a cab if you’re alone and your grief will distract you from safely driving.
Cry and pray, and remember the joy the person brought to your life. Did you know that it’s impossible to cry and genuinely smile at the same time? It is! Think about all the things the person did that made you laugh, and soon you’ll be smiling. It might not last long, but it will be a welcome relief from your intense grief and also the perfect chance to fall asleep and get some much-needed rest.
May I bring my children, or should I get a sitter? Nursing infants can be brought. Leave the room at the first hint of the baby getting fussy, and sit in or near the back on an aisle so you can go with as little disturbance as possible. Toddlers and children should be left with a sitter because seeing an open casket can be upsetting. This etiquette applies for when a friend passes away, not a relative of the child. Special consideration is given to what’s best for the child. Usually, but not always, the child attends the funeral of a parent or sibling. It’s best to contact a child psychologist for a recommendation.
Leave your cell phone in your car. Truly, that’s the best place for it during both the visitation and the funeral. You won’t want to be seen even glancing at it during the visitation or funeral. Someone has just died. What’s more important than that?
I was at the visitation of a dear mentor of mine when a lady I recognized as a friend of the deceased sat down on a pew, took out her phone, dialed up a friend who couldn’t be there, and live-chatted through the next 15 minutes. “She looks great, although she would never have worn that shade of lipstick. And, boy is she thin. She must not have eaten in weeks. Poor thing. Her dress? It’s OK; I think it’s a little formal, more of a party gown than a dress to be buried in. I would have chosen something simpler. What? No, she didn’t pick it out before she died. Her daughter did. She bought it in North Carolina where she lives and brought it with her. The funeral? No, I can’t go tomorrow. I have to work. We’re short several people. If the company wasn’t so cheap, they’d hire who we need, and I wouldn’t have to be there so much. Her husband? He seems to be handling it OK. He’s shaking a lot of people’s hands right now. There’s a big turnout here. I couldn’t find a parking spot at first. You know she was a social thing. She knew everyone. Oh my goodness, you won’t believe who just walked in here, and she’s looking every bit of her age. We haven’t seen her in years. I’ll have to go in a minute to talk to her, but guess who it is? Guess….”
That’s not the full or exact conversation, but it is by no means an exaggeration. I’ll admit it, during her chatter, I was not thinking thoughts about her aligned with my Christian faith.
THEN, a few rows up and to my right, a cell phone rang. A man stopped speaking in mid-sentence to the husband of the deceased, took his phone out of his pocket, looked at the number and said, “I have to take this.” He turned his back and had a cheery conversation about playing golf the next day. His golf game must have been more important than the family funeral of his co-worker of twenty-plus years because they were at the same time and he chose to play golf instead of attending the funeral the following day.
For more about the etiquette of funerals, the people of FuneralServices.com were kind to send me the guide they share with their clients. Their advice is spot-on, and I was excited to add it here when I received it a few months after initially writing this post.
The Etiquette of Visitations
The casket is open, and I don’t want to see the deceased. Do I have to approach the coffin? Not at all. At some point, family members will move away from the casket. You can chat with them at that time.
A family member has asked me to go with him to the front of the room to see the deceased. Should I try? If you can muster up the courage, you should try. However, share with the family member your concern graciously: “I apologize, but I don’t want to break down and draw attention to us, and I’m afraid I will. I’d prefer to stand here.” That should end his request. If he persists, give it a try. Walk away at any moment, saying, “It’s too much. I’m so sorry.”
May I take photos of the coffin regardless of whether it’s open or closed, and of the flowers and things? No. Nope. No way. In some cultures and some areas of the country, especially in the early-to-mid Twentieth Century, it was common for photos to be taken of the deceased in the coffin. That’s no longer the case. Don’t burden the family by asking them. Don’t sneak a photo(s).
If the next of kin of the deceased does ask for a photo to be taken, it should only be taken before or after the visitation when no guests are present. The photos must NEVER be shared on social media even privately, because they’re too easy for someone else to share publicly.
Are conversations about the deceased OK? And are conversations about other things OK, too? What if we share stories that bring back fond memories, and we laugh? That’s fine! You’ll want to speak quietly and not make a scene out of the laughter, but a visitation is a time when people who often haven’t seen each other in a long time are together again. There will be lots of hugs and laughter sprinkled among the tears. Just make sure you don’t argue politics, bring up old disappointments, or share negative stories of the deceased. And yes, you can talk about things other than the deceased. It’s a very good time for visitors to get caught up on the latest news about each other’s families.
I know I have to speak to the family, but I don’t know what to say. I’m nervous for fear of saying the wrong thing. Your fear is universal! Please don’t feel like you’re the only one who is trying hard to come up with the “right” words. There is no one-size-fits-all, but here are some guidelines:
~ The longer the waiting line is, the shorter the time you speak to them should be.
~ If they’re crying, a hug and “I’m so, so sorry for your loss. I miss him already, and I’ll always remember him.” are perfect.
~ Don’t inquire about the last moments of life, details/cause of the death, or mention suicide. Those are all personal details, none of which should concern anyone outside the immediate family.
~ These are commonly heard phrases that people who are grieving aren’t helped by hearing: “They’re in a better place.” “At least they’re not suffering.” “I can’t believe she would be so selfish to kill herself and leave you.” “Was he saved?” “You took care of him for so long, and now you can finally rest.” “I know how you feel.”
~Any of us who have ever lost someone know that the place we want our loved one to be is with us. Heaven is beautiful, but for us at this time, Heaven could have waited to call our loved one home. The fact that the deceased now does not suffer doesn’t help, because we know they’d suffer if it meant they could stay with us. We might be tired, but right now we’d give up ever sleeping again to have the person back.
~Asking about salvation is useless now, so don’t mention it.
~Anyone who committed suicide died a tragic death, just as all deaths are tragic except when people die peacefully in their sleep at 90-plus years old. Don’t mention the suicide or anything about it.
~Everyone grieves differently. We’ve all felt grief, but no one can know how someone else feels even if they’ve both lost a young child, a spouse, or a sibling. Now is their time, so don’t mention today that you’ve experienced a similar loss; you can do so in future conversations when it probably will be very helpful.
~ In general, if time allows, you want to say: how sorry you are for their loss; how much you’ll miss the person, mentioning a particular thing that you’ll miss about him or her; how you’re praying for the person/family (but only if you are); and share a good memory you have of the person. If you didn’t know the person that well or there is a line waiting to speak to the family, pick just one or two of these things to mention. You can write the rest in a letter that you send to the relative you’re closest with as part of your condolence card. The words you write will mean so much more to the person than those written by the professional greeting-card writer, even if yours are not as poetic.
The Etiquette of Funerals and Burials
I feel close to the deceased; may I ask to attend or just show up at the funeral if it’s private? Only relatives and those specially invited to participate in the private funeral may attend. It’s lovely that you want to be there, but the next of kin decide how the person will be laid to rest. If they prefer the funeral and/or burial to be private, you’re showing your respect to the deceased by honoring the wishes of the family. It’s better not to ask to attend. The family is grieving, so to tell you no only adds something else uncomfortable to their already-full days of sadness.
I’ve been asked to give a eulogy; what should I do? Write carefully. Edit. Edit. Edit. And practice. Practice. Practice. It’s an honor and a solemn responsibility. The average time allowed in a funeral for each eulogy is ten minutes or less. Try to share the essence of who the person was. It’s OK to touch on a few foibles of the person, who, after all, was human. Mostly, stick to the positive. Touch on how you’re a better person because of knowing the deceased. Tell a story of the two of you that makes others laugh. In fact, laughter is a must to make it through this hard day. As long as it doesn’t show the person in a bad light, the story is excellent. I love this article by Tom Chiarella writing for Esquire about how to give a great eulogy. Follow his advice and you’ll comfort the family and pay homage to the deceased.
Should I attend the burial and/or the reception, too? It depends. Some people have public funerals and then private burials. The burial is by far the most emotional part of the funeral process. In general, fewer people attend. It’s usually just relatives and those closest to the deceased. If it’s open to the public, you’ll have to use your sixth sense (your social sense). Many times, the funeral director will step to the microphone immediately after the funeral and announce the family’s wishes for the burial and/or reception. (The reception can be held before or after the burial.) If the burial comes after the reception, even fewer people will be in attendance outside of family members. If either or both are open to everyone, you may attend if you like.
How do I say my goodbye to the family on the day of the funeral? Often, you don’t. That’s why signing the guest book is so important. If you do have the opportunity to say goodbye, do so quickly (the family members are so tired at this point), telling them what a beautiful service it was and that you will be calling on them, or whatever will be your next point of contact, if any, in the coming weeks. If you say you’ll contact them, make sure you do! (This post helps with what food to bring now and in the days to come.)
What Can I Do To Help My Friend After the Funeral?
Grief sets in hard like dry cement when people stop calling, texting, sending cards and letters, bringing food, coming over for talks, or to listen to the friend cry, to watch a movie together, or whatever it might be.
For a lot of guests, the funeral marks the beginning of the end of their grief. For the loved ones of the deceased, the funeral marks, at most, the end of their shock and the beginning of their pain.
We tend to feel that the grieving are fragile, and, in one sense, they are. There’s also a strength there that isn’t in other people. They have to have it. It’s what enables them to get out of bed, to brush their teeth, to comb their hair, to eat, to load the dishwasher. Don’t be afraid to be around them. They need you. They need you now more than ever.
That’s the one thing I noticed the most when my husband died; people would turn the other way when they saw me coming. It wasn’t my imagination. My best friends would say, “Did you see that?” I understood. People thought they had to have words to help me. But they didn’t need words, because unless they knew the words to raise the dead, there were no words that could make it better — no words except: “I love you. You know I was thinking about Chuck this morning, and I remembered the time that he and I….”
You might cry when talking about the deceased. That’s OK; the grieving are used to crying, so you don’t need to hide it from them. It’s nice for them to know that you miss the person, too. If the one you love isn’t forgotten, that person isn’t truly gone. That’s all anyone who has lost someone can continue to hope for their loved one — that others will remember, too.
In a several weeks, I’ll write a post about how you can best help friends and loved ones in the weeks and months after the funeral. If you or someone you know is ill now, whether it’s an ailment they’ll soon be over, or it’s dire, this post shares how to help yourself, your friends, or loved one who is ill.
In the meantime, thank you to all my subscribers for being part of the Manners Mentor family! Thank you for joining with me by reading these posts and sharing the Manners Mentor Movement of the power of shaping our individual corners of the world for the better with one gracious, kind interaction at a time. A million of us, being authentically kind and sincere in our interactions, will add up to a changed culture.
Blessings, and if you’re here because you’ve recently lost someone, please accept my sincerest condolences,