Funeral etiquette is not as strict as it used to be. Funerals were once guided by rigid codes of conduct, but nowadays there is a less clear-cut definition of what a funeral should be. The tone of proceedings is decided by the kind of funeral the family opts for. The less conventional the funeral, the more likely it is that traditions will become irrelevant to that service, or only observed partially.

This can create an etiquette minefield, however some principles apply to all funerals, regardless of the kind of service:

  • Arrive on time
  • Go to the toilet before the service begins
  • Turn your phone off, or set it to completely silent, not just on vibrate. The vibrate setting can still be audible at quiet moments. Keep your phone away throughout the service.
  • Stay for the whole service, unless you need to remove a noisy child or have a persistent cough.
  • Comply with the family’s instructions
  • During the service, don’t chat to the people around you – you can always catch up with people at the funeral reception.
  • Don’t eat or drink anything
  • Keep funeral dress clean, smart and in accordance with the family’s wishes. (Read more on what to wear for a funeral here)

Sometimes there will be the chance for mourners to go to the front of the ceremony and share their thoughts and memories. If you decide to contribute, general funeral etiquette is to be concise and respectful. Avoid any long-winded stories and be careful not to make any offensive remarks.

If the family has created an online obituary for their loved one, this can be a good indication of what the funeral service will be like. Families often use such pages to spread the word about where to send flowers, what to wear, and other key advice for guests.


Can I cry at a funeral?

Funerals are intended to be an opportunity for those bereaved to express how they feel, without judgement. However, if you are becoming overwrought and begin sobbing loudly, to a point where it is disruptive to other people and the service, it could be a good time to get some air for a moment and return when you feel a little calmer. Remove yourself from the situation, take a deep breath, and then return when you’re ready.


Should I attend?

Any family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances of the deceased are welcome at the funeral, unless a private service is being held. In this instance, the family will invite people directly and you will need to approach them if you wish to attend. As a rule, if you’re considering attending a funeral, you should probably go. The only instance where it’s best to avoid the funeral service is when you know your presence will be especially distressing.

You should go to your ex-husband’s or ex-wife’s funeral. They were someone you loved and an important part of that person’s life. It’s an opportunity to say goodbye, gain some closure and heal some old wounds. Some people attend an ex-partner’s funeral as a show of support to a child from that marriage or relationship. As children get older, there are fewer and fewer instances where your children truly need you; this is one of them.


What should I do if I can’t attend the funeral?

Let the family know. A letter is the most personal way to express your condolences and let them know you will not be attending. If the funeral is in the next couple of days it’s best to call as a letter may not arrive in time. Don’t speak for too long as they will be wrapped up in funeral preparations and will be receiving many phone calls at this time. Email should be used as a last resort – it’s not the most direct way to get in touch and it may seem like attending the funeral was an afterthought.


Where should I sit?

Generally, family sits at the very front, close friends will sit in the middle and co-workers and acquaintances should sit at the back. You should arrive in good time and take your seat before the chief mourners. The chief mourners are the closest family members, and sometimes form part of the procession in one or more limousines.


Should I bring children to a funeral?

If a child has lost a close family member their attendance at the funeral service should be encouraged. It’s unlikely that a child will fully grasp the significance of the funeral, but it teaches children the valuable lesson that death is a natural part of life.  

Consider the child’s age and maturity level. Some young children get restless or noisy when asked to sit still for long periods of time and babies and toddlers can be disruptive. You will need to be prepared to take the child outside if necessary, or else find a babysitter to look after the child. Alternatively, you could ask a friend or grandparent to be on hand to take the child outside when necessary.


Should I clap at a funeral?

Clapping at funerals is common in some cultures and on certain occasions, for example at some military funerals clapping is customary and is also a tradition in Italy. At a modern-day funeral, the emphasis is often on celebration and appreciation and applause can feel natural.

However, more often than not a dignified silence is regarded as the most appropriate response. Funeral etiquette dictates you shouldn’t applaud unless prompted to do so by the person holding the service or following the lead of the grieving family.

If you’re organising a less traditional funeral service, your funeral director can advise on how this might affect the etiquette.


What should I bring to a funeral?

It’s appropriate to bring flowers with you to a funeral, such as a bouquet or plant, but you might prefer to make a charitable donation or a card or letter expressing your condolences. Funeral flowers will certainly never go amiss. You can find out more about choosing funeral flowers here.


Is it acceptable to take photos at a funeral?

Photography at a funeral is a longstanding taboo, and some would say taking photos is out of line and does not conform to standards of funeral etiquette. The question arises, why record such a solemn occasion, where people will be in varying states of sorrow and distress? Many consider taking photos to be tasteless and inappropriate, and these concerns are quite validated in the age of smartphones and selfies.

Nevertheless, there is a place for photos at some funerals. For those grieving, the day itself can go by in a blur. Details may be missed. Floral arrangements created in that person’s memory, everyone who turned out to say their final goodbyes, a friend wearing the deceased’s favourite colour in their honour – it can be easy to overlook these moments. Moments that, at a later date, can provide comfort and remind us how loved that person was. We photograph all other significant moments in life: christenings, engagements, weddings. To have the funeral recorded in photographs may help you come to terms with what’s happened.

If you do decide that photography is right for the funeral you are arranging, it’s best done in an inconspicuous manner. An experienced funeral photographer is hard to find but will know how to take photos unobtrusively, and just as importantly, know what to photograph. It’s best to leave funeral photography to a professional.

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