Funeral Etiquette

There are many customs that are tradition today for many types of funerals.  Many of those discussed apply to the family of the deceased.  A few apply to those wishing to express sympathy.

Visitation and/or viewing

If a traditional funeral service is planned, it is common practice to set up visitation hours.  A formal visitation provides a time and place for friends and relatives to offer their expressions of sorrow and sympathy as well as to provide the closure they need.

A visitation does not have to include a religious ceremony.  If the decedent and/or family does not have a strong religious affiliation, consider using the services of a Certified Funeral Celebrant.

It is customary for at least one member of the family to be present during these visitation hours.  You may want more than one family member present since seeing old friends and talking about death is a difficult emotional time.

Usually a member of the family serves as a greeter and acknowledges the presence of the visitors.  When greeting each visitor, the family member can say a simple “Thank you for coming.  It means a lot to our family to have friends like you.”  If the visitor sent flowers, you will want to thank them.

If there is an open casket during visitation hours, some visitors may approach the casket and spend a few moments in silent prayer.  It is not necessary for a family member to accompany the caller.
The mortuary or a family member should stand by the guest register book and make sure visitors sign it.


Funeral service

Usually the first few rows are reserved for family and very close friends.

Prior to the funeral service

The funeral director can advise when the family should arrive at the mortuary or religious institution before the start of the service.  It is not unusual for the funeral director to send a car for the family, but there is no reason the family should not provide its own transportation if they prefer.

If the service is to be conducted in a funeral establishment, the family will be taken directly from the car to the family room.  Here, they can have a degree of privacy, time to compose themselves, talk briefly with their spiritual counselor and settle any last minute details.

During the service

Today’s funeral services are usually brief, lasting not much more than 20 – 30 minutes.  The relative brevity of the service places less emotional strain on the family, compared with the lengthy services so common several decades ago.


At the cemetery

The graveside service is normally brief.  Once the commitment ritual has been completed and the casket lowered to ground level, it is customary for the family to leave the grave site.  After the family has departed, the casket is usually placed in a vault or other outside receptacle, interred and the flowers placed on the grave.

After the service

For several days after the service, the family is entitled to rest and take time to attend to the innumerable details that require their attention.  Some families will appreciate having friends telephone or stop by to visit.  In some religions this is expected.  Others will prefer complete rest and quiet.  Families in this second category are entitled to a consideration.  Phone calls may be terminated after a minute or so with a hasty, “Oh, there’s the doorbell again.  I must run!  thanks so much for calling.”


Thank you notes

Your funeral director will provide you with formal, generalized thank you  cards which are worded to acknowledge almost any type of floral offering, gift, charitable contribution or personal service.  The family may choose to use these cards or to send personal notes of thanks.  Whichever type is sent, the notes should be brief, sincere, personal and specific.  Following are examples of various situations for which you may want to send an acknowledgment:

Clergy – It is appropriate to send a short, personal note to clergy to thank them for their spiritual consolation and assistance.  Honorariums and other offerings being sent to a religious institution or memorial fund will require a separate acknowledgment.

Close friends, relative and neighbors – It is not always necessary to send formal acknowledgments to your close friends, relative and neighbors.  People who have sent flowers or food or who have helped you or your family members in some special way, however, would appreciate a short note of thanks.  It can be written on your engraved acknowledgments or on an informal note card.

Pallbearers – A note written on the inside of your engraved acknowledgments or informal note cards should be sent to each pallbearer in appreciation for his or her time and effort.

Call from friends – In most cases, a family member will have met friends at the visitation or will have personally answered calls.  In such cases, a written acknowledgment in not necessary.  If you have callers (either by phone or in person) who have not been spoken to, a note of appreciation can be sent.

Cars and services – You can thank friends and neighbors who have volunteered their cars, cooking or other services by sending them a brief note that mentions their courtesy and your gratefulness.

Condolence cards – It is appropriate to send an acknowlegment in response to a condolence greeting card.  A brief note should be written on your acknowlegment if a personal note was included on the card.

Flowers – For many religions, friends and relatives will traditionally send flowers at the time of death as a way of expressing their sympathy.  All floral tributes should be carefully recorded as they are received.  You may also receive flowers from a specific group or groups of people.  In such cases, you can send a card to the leader, making reference to others in the group.  If individuals are mentioned on the floral card, you can send an acknowledgment to each person in the group.

Telegrams – An acknowledgment with a few words written on the inside is sufficient response for any telegrams you might receive.

Memorial donations – A card should be sent to people who make a contribution to a charitable or philanthropic organization in memory of the deceased.

Letters of condolence – A personal letter of condolence deserves a personal reply.  A brief thank you can be written on your acknowledgments or informal note cards.

Mass or spiritual bouquet – When a Mass or other memorial is offered, it is proper to write a brief note on the inside of the acknowledgment or note card.



After the loss of a loved one, friends and relatives will want to respond by expressing their sympathy.  Flowers, condolence cards, meals and other acts of kindness are all ways of letting you know that your grief is shared and understood.  If you would prefer that they not send flowers or would like them to donate money to a charitable organization, make sure you convey that information in the funeral announcement.


Sending Sympathy Flowers

The flowers serve two purposes.

1) They represent those who can’t actually be at the funeral or memorial service and want the family to know they’re being thought of.

2) They signal the passage of time from when the decased person actually died up to the time of his or her burial.  Sometimes, as much as a week or more can pass before the cemetery service takes place.  Since cut flowers usually die within a week or so, they may have perished by the date of the service, symbolizing the fragility of life and passage of time.  Some people don’t like to send cut flowers for this reason; however, that is why they are appropriate.

There are many choices for funeral flowers.  The traditional arrangement is usually large, may be mounted on an easel or molded into the shape of a cross, heart, wreath or other appropriate symbol and tends to be expensive.  White lilies and roses are two of the most common flowers used in them.  People often send a traditional floral arrangement if they want it to stand out and be noticed.

A table arrangement is quite popular because it is less expensive and it is appropriate for the family of the deceased to take it home to enjoy later.  Keep in mind that, because it usually contains cut flowers, it will still be quite perishable.

Finally, a plant or dish garden can be sent.  It will last a long time after the funeral and is not as expensive as the other two options.  This choice may be a good one.  However, if the person died suddenly, it may serve as too much of a reminder of the loss.  Think about this before you decide on what to send.

There’s something else to consider when thinking about sending flowers to a funeral.  Some religious groups, such as Hindus and Jews, do not consider flowers appropriate.  If the person whose memory you are honoring by sending something belonged to a group that doesn’t includeflowers in their tradition, think about sending a fruit basket or other food to the family.

If no service is held, you can always sned a floral gift to the family’s home.  In fact, it is appropriate etiquette to send funeral flowers up to a month after the death.  The flowers, along with a note telling the family you’re thinking about them, may be of particular comfort.

Whatever you decide to send and whenever you decide to send it, think about customizing the arrangement to fit the personality of the deceased.  For example, use colors that were of significance or include an item that reflects a hobby of the person who died, such as golf ball, a cooking spoon or a small gardening tool.

It is easy to find the right arrangement or floral gift that fits your price range and is appropriate for the situation.