The Funeral is a ceremony of proven worth and value for those who mourn. It provides an opportunity for the survivors and other who share in the loss to express their love, respect, grief, and appreciation for a life that has been lived. It permits facing openly and realistically the crisis the death presents. Through the funeral the bereaved take that first step toward emotional adjustment to their loss. This information has been prepared as a convenient reference for modern funeral practices and customs.
The Funeral Service
The service is usually held either at a place of worship, at the funeral home or at the graveside with the deceased present and varies in ritual according to the religious denomination or personal choice of the family. The presence of friends at this time is an acknowledgement of friendship and support.
This service is by invitation only and may be held at a place of worship, a funeral home, or at a family home. Usually selected family members and a few close friends attend the funeral service. Often public visitation is held, condolences are sent, and the body is viewed. Reasons vary but often include the following:
- The decedent was an infant or very aged, and therefore has few surviving family members or friends.
- The decedent may be a crime victim or a convicted criminal who was serving a prison sentence. In this case, the service is made private either to avoid unwanted media coverage or to avoid unwanted intrusion.
- The family does not feel able to endure a traditional service (due to emotional shock) or simply wants a quiet, simple funeral with only the most important people of the decedent’s life in attendance.
- The family and/or the decedent, as more frequently preplanned, prefer simplicity and lower cost to that of traditional arrangements. The choice of cremation as an option to casketed burial is increasing and often includes disposition of the cremains at a time privately convenient to the descendant’s family members.
- The decedent is of a distinct celebrity status, and holding public ceremony would result in too many guests who are not acquainted with the decedent to participate.In some cases, the family may schedule a public memorial service at a later time.
A Memorial Service is a service without the body present and can vary in ceremony and procedures according to the community and religious affiliations. Some families prefer public visitations followed by a private or a graveside service with a Memorial Service to be held later at the Church or the Funeral Home. Or, this may take place after an earth burial, donation of the body to an institution such as a school, cremation (sometimes the cremations are present), entombment, or burial at sea. Typically these services take place at the funeral home and may include prayers, poems, or songs to remember the deceased. Pictures of the deceased are usually placed at the altar where the body would normally be to pay respects by.
Friends, relatives, church members, or business associates may be asked to serve as pallbearers. The Funeral Director can secure pallbearers if requested to do so by the family.
When the deceased has been active in political, business, church, or civic circles, it may be appropriate for the family to request close associates of the deceased to serve as honorary pallbearers. They do not actively carry the casket.
A member of the family, the clergy, a close personal friend, or a business associate of the deceased may give a eulogy. The eulogy is not to be lengthy, but should offer praise and commendation and reflect the life of the person who has died.
As with other aspects of modern day society, funeral dress codes have relaxed somewhat. Black dress is no longer required. Instead, subdued or darker hues should be selected. Wearing colorful clothing is no longer considered inappropriate for relatives and friends. Persons attending a funeral should be dressed in good taste so as to show dignity and respect for the family and the occasion.
Funeral Procession / Cortege
When the funeral ceremony and the burial are both held within the local area, friends and relatives might accompany the family to the cemetery. The Procession is formed at the funeral home or place of worship. The funeral director can advise you of the traffic regulations and procedures to follow while driving in a funeral procession.
The time of death is a very confusing time for family members. No matter what your means of expressing your sympathy, it is important to clearly identify yourself to the family.
Sending a Floral Tribute is a very appropriate way of expressing sympathy to the family of the deceased. Flowers express a feeling of life and beauty and offer much comfort to the family. A floral tribute can either be sent to the funeral home prior to the funeral or to the residence at any time. If sent to the residence, usually a planter or a small vase of flowers indicating a person’s continued sympathy for the family is suggested. The florist places an identification card on the floral tribute. The cards are removed from the standing floral pieces (which will be taken to the cemetery to be placed on the grave) to be given to the family. Any plants, vases, or baskets will be given to the family with the cards still on them. The cards will let the family know where to send the acknowledgements for the tributes that have been sent.
In some cases flowers may also be sent to Protestant Churches. (Flowers are generally NOT sent to Jewish Synagogues, Catholic Churches, Episcopal Churches, or Lutheran Churches.) Most Florists know what is appropriate to send in the funeral context.
Mass Cards can be sent either by Catholic or Non-Catholic friends. The offering of prayers is a valued expression of sympathy to a Catholic family. A card indicating that a Mass for the deceased has been arranged may be obtained through any Catholic Parish. In most areas, it is possible to obtain Mass Cards at the funeral home. The Mass offering Card or Envelope is given to the family as an indication of understanding, faith, and compassion. Make sure that your name and address are legible, and that your postal code is included. This will make it easier for the family to acknowledge your gift.
A Memorial Contribution, to a specific cause or charity, can be appreciated just the same as flowers. A large number of Memorial funds are available, however the family may have expressed a preference. Memorial donations provide financial support for various projects. If recognized as a charitable institution, some gifts may be deductible for tax purposes. Your funeral director is familiar with them and can explain each option, as well as furnish the donor with “In Memoriam” cards, which are given to the family.
Gifts in memory of the deceased are often made, particularly when the family has requested gifts or donations in lieu of flowers. The family is notified of the gifts through personal notes either from the donor or through the donee, if the donee is a charity or other organization.
Sending a card of sympathy, even if you are only an acquaintance, is appropriate. It means so much to the family members to know they are in good thoughts. The card should be in good taste and in keeping with your relationship to the family of the deceased.
A personal note of sympathy is very meaningful. Express yourself honestly, openly, and sincerely. An expression such as “I’m sorry to learn of your personal loss” is welcomed by the family and can be kept with other messages.
Speaking to a family member gives you an opportunity to offer your sympathy and condolences, and to make them feel that you really care. If they wish to discuss their recent loss, don’t hesitate to talk to the person about the deceased. Be a good listener. Sending a telegram expressing your sympathy is also appropriate.
Your presence at the visitation demonstrates that although someone has died, friends still remain. Your presence is an eloquent statement that you care. Visitation provides a time and place for friends to offer their sympathy and condolences. Rather than awkwardly approaching the subject at the office, supermarket, or social activities. The obituary / death notice will designate the hours of visitation when the family will be present and will also designate the times when special services, such as lodge services or prayer services may be held.
Persons may call at the funeral home at any time during suggested hours of the day or evening to pay respects, even though the family is not present. Friends and relative are requested to sign the guest register book. A person’s full name should be listed when signing the register book (Example: Mrs. John Doe). If the person is a business associate, it is proper to list their affiliation, as the family may not be familiar with their relationship to the deceased.
Friends should use their own judgment on how long they should remain at the funeral home or place of visitation. If they feel their presence is needed, they should offer to stay. The length of your visit at the wake is a matter of discretion. After visiting with the family and viewing the deceased, you can visit with others in attendance.
When the funeral service is over, the survivors often feel very alone in dealing with their feelings. It is important that they know you are still there. Keep in touch.
General Funeral Etiquette
Even though common sense and good discretion are always the best guides to proper funeral etiquette, a few principles still apply.
It is a common gesture for friends of the bereaving family to visit the family’s home to offer sympathy and assistance (this is sometimes referred to as a condolence visit). With the bereaving family having to ensure that all of the arrangements are looked after, a close friend or two may come in very helpful with food preparation or even childcare. The visit can take place any time within the first few weeks of death, and may be followed with one or more additional visits, depending on the circumstances and your relationship with the family.
In addition to expressing sympathy, it is appropriate, if desired, to relate to family members, your fond memories of the deceased. In some cases, family members may simply want you to be a good listener to their expressions of grief or memories of the deceased. In most circumstances, it is not appropriate to inquire as to the cause of death.
If you attend a wake, you should approach the family and express your sympathy. As with the condolence visit, it is appropriate to relate your memories of the deceased. If you were only acquainted with the deceased (and not the family) you should introduce yourself.
It is customary to show your respects by viewing the deceased if the body is present and the casket is open. You may wish to say a silent prayer for, or meditate about, the deceased at this time. In some cases the family may escort you to the casket.