Perhaps more than other rituals associated with death, burials are somber and solemn occasions regardless of culture or faith. How could they not be when they represent a final farewell? Although traditions can vary, a few threads are constants for a graveside service.
Burials tend to have smaller groups of attendees than funerals or memorial services. Therefore, a graveside service tends to be the most intimate (and often the most emotional) ceremony associated with death. In fact, some burials are private family-only affairs. Obituaries or funeral service programs will alert you if that’s the case. It is always acceptable to attend a funeral and not the burial.
What to Expect at a Graveside Service
The graveside service is usually a religious or otherwise scripted ceremony led by a minister or other official. Compared to a funeral service or memorial service, a burial is relatively brief and can be as short as 30 minutes. Because there are no remains, a memorial service does not follow a burial.
After the funeral, cars with headlights on generally lineup after the service and proceed to the cemetery. A police car and hearse lead the convoy, which drives through traffic lights directly to the burial site. If the cemetery is located next to the house of worship, mourners simply walk behind the family to the burial spot. A burial includes both in-ground and also above-ground placements of remains in mausoleums, crypts or columbarium niches. A graveside service is held for either burial of a casket or interment of cremated remains. Often, clergy will speak at the start of the service. Next, the casket is lowered into the ground. Or, alternatively, the placement of an urn with ashes into its final resting place.
In the Jewish faith, the funeral service is often held graveside before the burial. After prayers, family and close friends often place dirt on the coffin before it is buried. This is a final act of honoring the dead.
Where to Sit
Be prepared to stand. If anyone does sit, it’s family only. If someone in your party requires a chair, either bring a folding chair yourself or ask the funeral home in advance if they can provide an extra. Be mindful of the weather. Take a coat or umbrella if the forecast calls for it.
What to Wear
Black is no longer required but it is standard practice to dress up (usually in somber colors and styles) as a sign of respect. Wear practical shoes if you know you will be walking in grass at a graveside service or standing for a period of time.
What to Say at a Graveside Service
It can be difficult to slip away after a graveside service without speaking to anyone. This is especially true if the group attending is small. Often an informal receiving line will form to file past family members. Some mourners will greet the officiant and thank him or her with comments about the funeral or burial service. Regardless of their culture, families will often invite attendees back to the house. Sometimes this is for food and drink, sometimes not. There’s no need to RSVP. Just show up, or don’t.
In the Jewish faith, receiving friends at the house is called “sitting Shiva”. This is the start of a mourning period that helps the bereaved deal with their loss. Shiva officially begins following burial and can last for up to seven days. When you pay a Shiva call, it is appropriate to bring food (but not flowers).
Because burials can vary for different cultures and faiths (and even finances). I always suggest you do a little research if you plan to attend a burial for someone from a background you aren’t familiar with.
Cultural and religious traditions aside, grief is part of the human condition. We will all experience it at some point. When comforting the bereaved, it’s best to avoid lines like “Time heals all wounds” and “I feel your pain.” Instead, share a from-the-heart anecdote about what the deceased meant to you and why he or she mattered. It will help the family – and you – in the journey through grief.