Etiquette on Going to Funerals & Wakes

by Eric Herboso
Good behavior shows respect for the deceased and her family.

Good behavior shows respect for the deceased and her family.

Knowing proper etiquette for a funeral can be the difference between being a blessing or a burden to your friends and family. In addition to offering words of solace and a willingness to do any favors asked for the wake or funeral, those attending should try to anticipate the needs of the mourners.

The Decision to Attend

Sometimes there's inevitably confusion over who should attend a wake or funeral. If a co-worker's parent or an estranged relative dies, it's best to think of how your presence will make the mourners feel. As James Olson, the spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, told "The Chicago Tribune," if it would comfort you to see your co-worker at your own parent's funeral, show the same courtesy to him. If you are worried about your presence creating drama or stress at the funeral, ask before making plans to attend. Going to the wake can be a less formal event and also allow you to express your condolences to the family.

Dressing Up

It used to be expected that everyone would wear black to a funeral, and dressing in black is still appropriate. However, it's also okay to wear conservative, dark clothes in other colors as well. Men should wear a suit and tie. Not all funerals require a strict dress code, but shorts and T-shirts are never appropriate. Ultimately defer to any special requests that the mourners or the deceased had. If you are not specifically asked to dress a certain way, it's best to go with traditional dark, muted colors and conservative styles. Dressing up shows your respect for the deceased person and the mourners.

Comforting Words at a Wake

Since the loss of a loved one can be one of the most emotionally painful things people experience, it's easy to get tongue-tied when it comes to speaking with grief-stricken friends at a wake. It's tempting to simply ask, "Is there anything I can do?" However, someone in mourning may not even be able to put her finger on what would help. Instead, think about things from her perspective. Offer something helpful for her situation, such as taking care of her children for an afternoon so she can rest, delivering meals for a week so that's one less worry she has, or treating her to a movie to get her mind off things.

Attending the Wake

The wake is usually held at the funeral home a day or two before the funeral or memorial service. The body of the deceased is usually in view in an open casket, and it's customary, although not mandatory, to pay your final respects at the coffin. Upon arrival, go to the family members, greet them, and express your sincere sympathy. Depending on your closeness to them, extend your hands or embrace them. Share words of comfort, but be mindful not to take up too much of their time because they will need to greet many people and will likely be emotionally exhausted.

Expected Behavior at the Funeral

Cell phones should be turned off or preferably left in the car when attending a wake or a funeral. A guest book is typically set out at a funeral, and each attendee should sign he name and a few words to express condolences. The next step is to approach the mourners and express your sympathy for their loss. If you knew the deceased person, try to share a touching story about her life or how you will remember her. Keep your words simple and specific. Never ask questions about the illness or cause of death.

Financial Giving

If the family has asked for donations to a favorite charity of their loved one in lieu of flowers, feel free to ask when you should present the donation. Some do so at the wake, while others mail a check separately. Some families will designate someone to take the donations at the funeral, so communicate clearly to avoid making a faux pas that may hurt the feelings of someone who's grieving. If the family is experiencing a financial burden, it's all right to offer assistance even if none has been solicited, but be sure to do discreetly and only when it's a one-on-one discussion with a very close friend.

About the Author

Eric Herboso is a nonprofit social media expert with articles appearing in national print magazines and throughout the blogosphere since 2003. He regularly gives talks and seminars at national nonprofit conventions, helping charities optimize their effectiveness through social media. He is currently working on a graduate degree in applied ethics from Stanford.

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