Attending funerals or memorial services can be uncomfortable. Knowing what to do and say at funerals can ease that discomfort. Generally, the more difficult the situation, the more the family will appreciate your presence and support. Some services are very formal and some are very casual. Use your best judgement and err on the conservative side. Also many visitation services begin very sombre and evolve into a social gathering. Observe the atmosphere and act appropriately.
Usually, there is a guest book you can sign before greeting the family. You should provide your full name and address so the family is able to contact you or send thanks if they wish. If there is a body present, it is often customary to acknowledge the deceased by going up and saying a silent prayer before greeting the family. After spending a few personal moments with the family it is customary to then step back and visit with others in attendance. Again, take cues from what others are doing.
What to Wear to the Funeral
Dark suits and ties for men and dresses or suits for women are always appropriate. Black is not mandatory or expected, but clothing should remain respectful and not garish. The idea is to show respect and focus the attention on the family in mourning.
Punctuality & Consideration
You should try to be prompt in both arriving to and leaving from the services. Leave enough time to get there. Punctuality both shows respect for the family and helps everything to run smoothly. If you need to take a bathroom break, please time it appropriately so you do not delay a service or inconvenience a funeral procession. When leaving in a funeral procession, exit the building quickly and quietly and wait in your car for the family to say their last goodbyes and come out.
Be polite. It can create an atmosphere of disorder if crowds of people are talking during a service or as the procession is trying to leave. It is also disrespectful to the family to talk during the services. If public participation in the service is called for, it is polite to participate. Be attentive to the needs of the family by being respectful of their event.
Expressing Condolences at a Funeral or Wake
If you don't know what to say, start with these thoughts:
At an appropriate time you should approach the family and express your sincere sympathy. It is appropriate to relate your memories of the deceased. It is nice to mention a (brief) anecdote about the person to share a personal connection that the family may not be aware of or that might remind them of a happier time. The memory may be humorous, but avoid anything that could be embarrassing to the family or disrespectful to the deceased. Also, be considerate to others who wish to speak with the family. To avoid appearing nosy, it is usually best not inquire as to the cause of death unless it is first mentioned by the family.
Offering Emotional Support Beyond the Services
Whether or not there are public services, close friends of the bereaving family may want to visit the family's home to offer sympathy and assistance. It can also be of help to assist the family with babysitting or by preparing a meal. Often the bereaved family is overwhelmed with funeral arrangements in addition to the strong emotions surrounding a death.
It is also helpful for close friends to check in with the family a week or two after the services to make sure that the family is not having a difficult time. In some instances, being a good listener may be the best thing you can do for a grieving family member. Do what you can to comfort and assist the survivors.
Flowers & Gifts
You can send flowers to the funeral home prior to the funeral or to the family residence at any time. In some cases flowers may also be sent to Protestant churches. (Flowers generally are not sent to Jewish synagogues and Catholic churches.) The funeral director can inform you about what is appropriate to send and where.
Gifts in memory of the deceased are often made, particularly when the family has requested gifts in lieu of flowers. If the donation is made to a charity, the donor provides the family's name and address to the charity at the time the gift is made and the charity notifies the family of the donor's contribution. Condolence gifts may be in the form of flowers, donations to charity, mass cards, or food and fruit baskets sent to the family home.
Even if you don't make a gift, a note or card to the deceased's family expressing your thoughts of the deceased is a welcome gesture, especially if you weren't able to attend the funeral.