The do’s and dont’s of funeral etiquette

Attending a funeral may bring mixed emotions and uncertainty, especially if you are not in the direct family circle of the person who has died. Here are a few ideas to help you navigate your way through the minefield of emotions and hopefully answer any questions you may have on what is, or isn’t deemed appropriate behaviour, given the solemn occasion.

What to wear to a funeral

Not knowing what to wear to a funeral can be the first hurdle you face, especially if you haven’t attended many. 

The format for the funeral may vary and when considering what to wear, it is a good idea to think about where you will be – is the funeral indoors, or is there a graveside component? Will you go directly to the funeral reception or wake afterwards?

The family may provide guidance in the funeral notice or information, asking for people to wear the deceased’s favourite colour, or a broader instruction like ‘wear bright colours’ or casual dress. Black is no longer the norm at most funerals, although if in doubt, opting for a modest outfit in simple or dark colours may be your best bet. Also, take your lead from the venue. If the funeral is a beach affair, wearing a full black suit may not be the most practical option. For men, a nice dress shirt and well pressed pants in black or navy is also appropriate, although many still wear suits including the jacket if the funeral is held in a church.

Generally, for the men, this is not the time for thongs and stubbies. Make sure your clothes are clean, presentable and appropriate for the tone of the funeral set by the venue and often also by the age of the deceased. Funerals for older people tend to be more on the formal side.

The rules are simple for girls and women – a modest dress or pair of pants and blouse, in dark or demure colours – clean and well pressed, is generally appropriate. Try to avoid wearing anything flashy, glittery or garish, unless requested by the family and cover up. A funeral isn’t the place to be drawing attention to yourself or winning fasion awards.

If you are part of the immediate family of the deceased, be sure to wear something comfortable and shoes you can stand around in. You may not be thinking of what you look like at the time, but comfort is key as there may be hours of greeting mourners both at the funeral and the wake which may follow.

Ladies should opt for a waterproof mascara, remembering that tears will often flow and it’s a good idea to keep some tissues handy. Even if you are only attending to support the family, you may be surprised by the wave of emotions the eulogy and music may bring.

What to say at a funeral

Very few of us ever feel comfortable or confident when paying respects to someone who is experiencing profound loss, so rest assured, it’s quite natural to feel uncomfortable. But the important thing is so show support. Saying something simple like ‘I’m so sorry’ with a reassuring hug, may be all that you need to do. If you feel compelled to say more, just make sure your words are heartfelt and expect that they may bring more tears. That’s ok – it’s all part of the grieving process. Where possible, try to avoid platitudes like “he’s in a better place” as they may sound hollow and insincere.

There will be plenty of time after the funeral to check on the family and offer help and assistance, so maybe the funeral isn’t the time to bombard them with offers of childcare, cooking or assistance – it is likely the day will be a blur to family anyway, and your offers may be forgotten. However, if you notice the close family members are caught in a procession of acknowledgment after the service, you could offer them some water or ask if they need anything – sunscreen, something to eat – they may just want to sit down for a minute and gather their thoughts.

Remembering the occasion 

Taking the order of service home should be enough to remember the occasion. Taking selfies and photos during the service is not appropriate and even at the wake, if you’d like to take photos with family or friends, be sure to slip away somewhere and take the photos discretely. While they don’t have to be stuffy or formal, funerals are still generally a sad and solemn occasion and while you may not be at the centre of proceedings, you should always respect the feelings of those who are.

Viewing the deceased

Viewing the deceased can be a way to gain closure and acceptance if the death was sudden or unexpected. Generally, if the family has decided to make the body available for viewing, this might be done privately at the funeral home, for close family only, or mourners at the funeral may be invited to view the deceased before the service.

Whether or not you wish to do so, is entirely a personal decision which depends on how close you were to the deceased person, how long ago you saw them and if you feel the need to say goodbye to them face to face. If you choose not to view, but have been invited personally by the family to do so, it is perfectly ok to thank them for the gesture but politely decline. If you do decide to view the body, be aware that the person will be recognisable but will probably not look like they did when they were alive.

Where should I sit at the funeral

Social distancing rules may limit numbers at a funeral. You may be asked by the family to attend a remote screening of the funeral at an alternative venue or, if seating is limited at the church, chapel or venue, you may offer to watch from outside, allowing the close family and friends to have priority seating indoors.

If there is enough seating indoors for all of the people in attendance, and you are not a close friend or relative of the deceased, it is best you choose a seat towards the back of the venue, reserving seats at the front for the direct family and inner-circle friends.

If you find yourself overcome with emotion and sobbing loudly, or if you have an unfortunate coughing fit during the funeral service, it’s perfectly fine to excuse yourself and quietly step outside to console yourself before returning to your seat.

Cultural considerations at a funeral

Different cultures approach death and funerals in different ways. Some have preferences for dress, or timing of the funeral, while others may require the presentation of gifts to the deceased or take an extended time as the funeral ceremony unfolds. If you suspect there may be cultural considerations, but are in doubt of what is expected of mourners, it is always best to check – either with the family, or the funeral home. 

Children at the funeral?

If possible, it’s probably best to have babies and young children minded so they do not attend the funeral. It is perfectly acceptable for older children to attend a funeral, especially if they are close family or friends of the deceased. Children may grieve differently to adults and they may experience heightened anxiety around death, so it’s important to offer them plenty of support and never force them to view a deceased or participate when they are otherwise uncomfortable. You might like to take a book or activity for them to do during the service or wake if it is to be a long service or function. Above all, don’t let children be disruptive or interrupt proceedings.

Attending the funeral reception

If the family is having a funeral reception, or wake, mourners will generally be invited to join together for drinks and nibblies at a venue after the funeral. This is an inclusive time where mourners can share (appropriate) stories of the deceased and comfort each other in a less formal setting.

If you cannot attend the funeral, it is acceptable to attend the wake, but be sure to let the family know in advance that you would like to pay your respects in this way and maybe bring a thoughtful gift or flowers to the next of kin to show you are thinking of them. Likewise, it is totally acceptable to attend the funeral service but not the reception. If you have to miss the function, try to say a quick goodbye to the family after the service and let them know you are unable to join them afterwards.

Attending a funeral is about commemorating the life of the deceased and showing respect for the family and close friends. Everyone grieves differently, so it’s a time to be kind to yourself and others when emotions are running high and extended family gather. It’s not the time to air old grievances, so check your behaviour is in the spirit of the occasion, you will get the most out of the day.

The team from McCartney Family Funerals have experience and expertise in funeral planning and are happy to guide you on any aspect of the process that you may feel unsure of. They can take the stress out of planning a funeral service or reception right across south-east Queensland and can be contacted on 1300 916 102 or via the website

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