Funerals: The Most Somber of Somber Occasions

Cemetery

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. 

Funerary Customs

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 black suit, preferably with a white shirt and black tie. Pocket 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 wear 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. 

Itinerary

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’ 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’ religious views are usually very appparent at the service and 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 share give your condolences to the family. It’s also the time when a funeral ceases to be somber. 

Procession

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. 

Wakes

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 some other purpose applies. 

Sympathy Notes

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. 

Future Remembrance

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. 

Being the Outsider in Church


Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.

With all the talk you hear these days about banning prayer it becomes clear that the same people that preach religious tolerance don’t know how to live it. The only way anyone can consider the presence of Christian prayer to be forcing Christianity on them is if they don’t know the etiquette of being a non-christian witness to Christian practice. I’m going to share with you the things you need to know to respectfully attend a church service in a denomination you don’t agree with. 

Participation Is Not Conversion

Christianity is primarily internal. The external behaviours are meaningless without the internal belief. So, when you participate without believing you’re literally just going through the motions. Having attended a Christian church service doesn’t make you Christian. 

Participation Is Optional

There is no Christian ritual (for lack of a better term) that’s mandatory for all members of the congregation at every service. If something’s happening that you’re really not comfortable participating in, don’t. 

Don’t Draw Attention to Yourself as an Outsider

Modern Christian churches are generally very welcoming but you’re still the outsider. When you draw attention to yourself you just disrupt the service and are essentially insulting everything the people around you stand for. After the service you’ll be welcomed with open arms because you’re an outsider, unless you’re at a mega church then nobody will even realise that you aren’t there every week.

Keep an Open Mind

There’s a good chance that you’ve been indoctrinated against the people in that congregation but it’s probably all lies. Nobody will expect you to automatically agree with them but they will expect you to extend them the same courtesy. In that vein, a church service isn’t the place to argue for your beliefs or against theirs, but it is an excellent place to learn. Even outside theology, many churches have rich and fascinating histories and traditions, especially the liturgical denominations like Lutherans and Catholics. Just don’t expect anyone to give you much of an answer to big theological questions off the top of their heads. 

Don’t Take Communion

There are many different beliefs about communion. Some Christians may be deeply offended by outsiders taking communion. For that reason, if you aren’t sure if you should be taking communion in their church or don’t think they should in yours, then don’t. If you don’t know what I mean by “taking communion” then you also shouldn’t. 

Keep Quiet or Follow Along

The best thing to do is to participate in the service by following along with what everyone else is doing and otherwise you should only be heard by those sitting next to you. If you choose not to pray with everyone else then keep silent during the prayers. It doesn’t matter if you simply wait for the prayers to end, or meditate or pray based on your own convictions, so long as nobody else can tell. 

Dress Appropriately

A church service is a social gathering and thus has a dress code. Churchgoers are usually more tolerant of sartorial differences but it’s still best to dress for the occasion. It used to be that everyone wore informal attire to church for a typical service. Unfortunately, that expectation has slackened to the point that now people often dress down for church. There are very few churches where a suit would be inappropriate, and is arguably the most appropriate but many churches now are excessively casual. No matter what kind of church you’re going to you should never fall below a smart casual outfit, with a collared shirt and a nice sweater or blazer, for a Sunday morning service. If you don’t know how formal a church is then ask the pastor or your host in advance.


This was just a general etiquette guide. It would be adequate in any church but more specific guidance may be helpful. In the future I’ll write about the etiquette for visiting a Lutheran church but if you want to write an article for visitors to other churches, contact me and I may just publish it.