Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.
Slave or King, rich or poor, good or evil, death eventually comes for us all. There’s no getting around it. Our families die. Our friends die. Our heroes die. We die. It’s not something we like to think about but it’s an inevitability. We will all face death. We will all lose those we love. Despite the inevitability of them, we rarely discuss funerals.
Funerals are a part of every culture, although they may vary extensively. Death is an irrevocable change so we all must come to terms with it when it happens. A funeral may be chance to commiserate a loss or celebrate a life.
Every culture, sub-culture, and religion has funerary customs, such as the black veils of Latin America, the twenty-one gun salute of military funerals, and the Jewish use of stones. Before attending a funeral you’ll want to familiarise yourself with those customs. A distant family member is usually the best place to start. They’ll likely be familiar with the customs but won’t be too busy or distraught to help you. You can also feel free to incorporate customs from your own culture so long as they don’t conflict in any way with the family’s. You’re also exempt from any customs that run contrary to your own beliefs and are under no obligation to sacrifice your own needs.
From this point on I’ll be writing from a purely North American Christian perspective. If anything conflicts with your own customs, then your customs are right.
How to Dress
Funerals are part of why you should have multiple suits. Funerals are best kept an informal affair, but custom certainly trumps that. Typically a man should wear a black suit, preferably with a white shirt and black tie. Pocket squares are completely acceptable but be sure to leave all the cheery colours and flamboyant patterns at home. Also, be sure to remove your hat in the church and at the gravesite.
Ladies should wear simple black outfits. Again, leave the cheery colours and flamboyant patterns at home. A funeral is also an excellent place to break out a hat with a veil. There’s no need for ladies to ever remove their hats.
It’s only appropriate to wear uniforms at military, police, or firefighter funerals, and even then only if you are or once were a part of such an organisation. There’s no need to remove uniform headdress at the gravesite but it should still be taken off in the church.
Like many events, funerals have a traditional itinerary. They usually start with a viewing the night before. This is a casual service that’s open to the public but usually attended only by those who were particularly close to the deceased or their family. A second family viewing is often held immediately before the service. The former is typically at a funeral home and the latter is usually at the church.
The main component of a funeral is the service. The service usually takes place at the deceased’s church or at the gravesite. If the main service is at a church then there’s usually a second shorter service at the grave. The deceased’s religious views are usually very appparent at the service and there can even be a full church service. Regardless of the church, conduct yourself appropriately for a visitor there. When the gravesite is some distance from the church, mourners travel to the grave in a ceremonial procession.
Funerals will commonly end with a simple meal. To many, it’s the beginning of life without the deceased. It’s a good time to catch up with friends and family, and give your condolences to the family. It’s also the time when a funeral ceases to be somber.
The typical funeral procession is led by the hearse and includes all the mourners driving at slow speeds. The vehicles generally have their hazard lights turned on so other motorists know that they’re part of a funeral procession. It used to be the norm to turn on the headlights but, with the prevalence of daytime running lights, this is no longer effective.
In some western cultures it’s common for funerals to celebrate the deceased’s life more than mourn their passing. This usually takes the form of a party. In those cases, the etiquette of a similar party held for some other purpose applies.
If you can’t attend a funeral or don’t get a chance to speak with the family, then you may want to send them a sympathy note. Actually writing the note has plenty of its own etiquette but it should always be hand written and sent or delivered within a few days of the funeral. If you deliver it in person, don’t expect an invitation to come in. Grieving people often feel asocial and you need to respect that.
Few people deserve to be forgotten. The good should be venerated forever and the evil should remain a cautionary tale. Consider attending an All Saints Day service and possibly visiting the grave periodically.