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San Marcos Chapel & Vista Chapel

Questions About Funeral Etiquette

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How we act and what we say before, during, and after
funerals can help ease the family’s grief or add to it.

What do you say to someone who has just lost a loved one and how do you support them?   Whether you call, send a card or flowers, or visit, the important thing is to make a gesture that lets the family know you are thinking of them and share their sorrow.  

While times are changing, and proper funeral etiquette is evolving, texts, emails, and tweets are still too informal for expressing sympathy.  It is still much better to reach out using traditional communication methods such as a telephone call or a handwritten note.  Whether you express your sympathy via a visit, call or card, your choice of words is important.  Let the family know how much you will miss the deceased, how dear s/he was, how s/he made the world a better place, or what an inspiration s/he was to you.


What should I say?

  • Sharing a fond memory of the person who passed will help the grieving family focus on happier times.
  • Keep it short and simple.  “My thoughts are with you all.” is a safe example.
  • Be a good listener.  Let friends and family talk about their loved one.  If they don’t want to talk about things yet, don’t pressure them.
  • There’s comfort in a simple smile, a hug, or a hand on a shoulder.
  • Be sure to sign the guest register and add a 2-3 word note on how you knew the deceased if you are not close with the immediate family.  The family will appreciate knowing your connection to their loved one.

What shouldn’t I say?

  • Avoid platitudes that can be perceived as insensitive, like, “He’s in a better place.” or “Time will lessen your pain.”
  • Don’t say, “I know how you feel.”  Everyone is different, so you don’t “know” how they feel.
  • Don’t take away control of the situation.  The family needs to retain control to help them work through their grief.
  • Don’t bring up other people’s experiences.  Let the bereaved focus on their own loss.
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Is it still necessary to wear black?

A funeral is not a time to make a bold fashion statement.  While black is the traditional color of mourning and a safe option, it is not the only color you may choose to wear.  Grey, blue, and eggplant are other choices.  Just remember to be subtle and tasteful. 

When attending a life celebration or outdoor service, attire doesn’t have to be quite as formal.  Just remember not to go overly casual…no shorts, flip flops, and t-shirts UNLESS the family has specifically requested a certain attire, such as Hawaiian, wearing the deceased’s favorite color, etc.


Is it appropriate to attend if I am not of the same religious belief?

YesFuneral services are not about your personal belief; it is a time when friends and family come together to celebrate a loved one’s life.   The funeral service can be held at a church, temple, mosque, funeral home, graveside, or even the residence. 

If the service is held in a church, mosque, or temple not of your religion, just follow what the family is doing if you wish to participate.  You may also ask the funeral director what appropriate participation would be for someone of a different faith.

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What are the biggest funeral “no-no’s”? 

  • Turn OFF your cell phone completely when attending a funeral service.  Even a vibrating phone can be an unwelcome disturbance during a solemn moment.
  • As tempting as it may be, don’t take photos of long-lost relatives or friends.  It may be a happy occasion to reconnect, even under difficult circumstances, but don’t let the bereaved seeing you behaving as if you’re at a party, rather than a funeral. 



Are flowers always appropriate?

Although flowers bring comfort to many, different religions and cultures have different funeral customs.  If unsure, check with the funeral chapel handling the service.  Many florists are well versed in all aspects of funeral etiquette and may be able to guide you in selecting the right arrangement.

  • It is acceptable to give flowers in the following faiths:  Baha'i, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian, Mormon, and Eastern Orthodox.  For Mormons, flowers arranged in the shape of a crucifix or a cross are not acceptable. White flowers are preferred if the religion is Eastern Orthodox.
  • Check with the family if the deceased is Islamic or Hindu because there are varying practices within the religions of giving flowers.
  • In the Jewish faith, it is a practice to send food packages to the house and to the family of the deceased rather than sending flowers to the funeral home.  While it is becoming more acceptable by some members of the faith to send flowers to the family at home, it is still frowned upon by Orthodox Jews.

Flowers can be a great comfort; however, many families request memorial donations be made in lieu of flowers and you should respect their wishes. If so, the family will usually name a charity of their choosing; remember to provide the family’s name and address to the charity so they can send proper notification.  It is also acceptable to mention your donation in a sympathy note without mentioning the amount.

  • Wreaths and sprays should only be sent to the funeral home and never to the deceased person’s home.
  • Placing flowers on the casket is a privilege and tradition reserved for the family of the loved one.
  • If sending flowers to the family home, go with an arrangement that comes with a self-contained water vessel. Many times, live plants are a good option for the family’s home.
  • If you are unsure about what color flowers to send, stick with pastels, as they are a soft, safe option, or ask the funeral home because they may know the family’s preferences.


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Other comfort options…

The pre-printed sympathy card is the default choice for most people and is still an acceptable way to go.  When writing a personal note inside, don’t be afraid to use the deceased’s name, to recall a fond memory, or to mention an anecdote about how the person affected your life. Those remembrances will be treasured by the family and often kept for years. 

Sending notes throughout the year, especially around holidays, anniversaries of special events, birthdays, etc. will help support the family.  

Food is another comfort option.  Grief causes both physical and emotional exhaustion and cooking may seem like an overwhelming chore, whether for just one or for an entire family.  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 comfort.  


Is it appropriate for children to attend a funeral?

There are no hard and fast rules that dictate whether children should or should not attend a funeral.  Very young children may not understand what is happening and little ones may become confused and upset when they see people crying.  Only you, the parent, will be able to judge just how much your child can take in and understand without being confused and afraid. 

Children suffer grief just as adults do.  Don’t try to keep them from knowing what is happening.  They need to understand what is happening so they, too, can work through their grief and find closure.  Saying goodbye is important.  The best thing to do is to talk with your child, ask how they are feeling, and answer their questions about what a funeral is and what will happen there. 

If your child was close to the deceased, it is fine for the child to attend if s/he feels comfortable doing so.  Don’t be afraid to ask your child questions and to encourage your child to talk openly.   Remember to use simple and easy to understand terms when talking to your child about death and funerals.

Children need to know that the funeral is a time of sadness because someone has died, a time to honor the person who died, a time to say a final goodbye, a time to help comfort and support each other, and a time to affirm that life goes on.  And saying goodbye helps us all acknowledge that the person we loved is gone and cannot come back.  

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Our Resource "More Links" page offers 
links to helping children cope with grief

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