With their mixture of grief and celebration, funerals can be a little confusing, especially if you’ve never been to one. What do you wear to a funeral - is black required? What do you say to the family? What are the right – and wrong – things to do in a house of worship that is unfamiliar to you? Where do you sit? And what happens if you cry?
Funerals are not one-size-fits-all. If the grieving family is of a different cultural or religious tradition than yours, I recommend you do some specific research ahead of time so that you don’t unknowingly offend. For example, in the Jewish and Islamic faiths, it’s not appropriate to send flowers; and you wouldn’t wear black to a Buddhist funeral.
Specifics aside, there are some generalities to expect at most funeral services.
Funerals Today: What to Wear
Black is no longer required, but you will want to dress up (usually in somber colors and styles) as a sign of respect. Sometimes, a family will have fun with this, and alert mourners ahead of time. For example, I knew a woman who died of breast cancer who wanted mourners to dress in pink. On a bleak winter day, it was a joy to look out at that sea of pink.
Funerals Today: Where to Sit
Funerals are typically held in a house of worship or a funeral home. Family generally sits in reserved seating in front. Mourners are welcome to sit anywhere (turn off the cellphone). Unless an obituary says otherwise, a funeral is a public event. In the absence of an obituary, find the funeral home and call to ask for service information - the responsibility to find out the details lies with the mourners, not the family.
Funerals Today: What to Expect
A funeral director or clergy member guides mourners through the service, which often includes religious readings, a eulogy and remembrances from close family. Service bulletins or programs, common at many funerals, also give a play by play of the service – even alerting mourners to such basics as when to stand and when to sit. If you don’t share the same religious faith, try to follow the clergy’s directions out of respect for the family. It’s not about the religion; it’s about the survivors and their loss. Tears are expected. How could they not be when the focus of a funeral is to both celebrate a life and help the bereaved cope with a death?
A funeral is different from a memorial service in that a body is present - either a casket or urn with cremains. Sometimes, the casket is open and mourners are given the opportunity at the end of the service to view the body for one last goodbye. Don’t worry! Paying respects to the open coffin is not a command performance. Feel free to discreetly slip out after the service.
In a house of worship, family typically walks out first at the conclusion of a service. At a funeral home, family leaves last. In some cases, burial takes place following the funeral. (More on that in a separate blog post.) Frequently, there’s a receiving line and reception after the funeral – providing a wonderful opportunity to add a softer, social thread to what is often a rigid or ritualistic event.
Funerals Today: What to Say
Here’s where you can make a meaningful gesture to the family. First, sign the guest book so that the survivors know you cared enough about them to attend. Also, have a couple of short anecdotes prepared about the deceased that you can share with the family in the receiving line or at the reception. Practice ahead of time if that makes you feel more relaxed. Refer to the deceased by name. And speak from the heart.
Sharing a personal memory is so much more meaningful than throwaway phrases like “Be strong,” or “I know how you feel,” or “I’m so sorry.” What you can do by sharing that personal story is connect – really connect – with the widow, widower, son, daughter in a way that helps them heal.