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Ladyguide: How to Attend a Funeral

Everybody dies, and at some point in your life, you will be called upon to attend a funeral, and often the funeral will belong to a faith tradition with which you are not familiar. So before you go crazy remembering whether you should send flowers or take communion, read on for tips on how to attend a funeral.

Ask: If you aren’t sure what to do, you can always call the funeral home handling the burial for advice. You can also call the church/synogue/temple/mosque where the service is taking place to ask if there are any customs you need to consider before attending.

Differences in Faith: Perhaps the biggest difference you will notice is the length of time between the death and burial. Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim faiths call for burial soon after death, often within 24 ““ 48 hours. Christian burials often happen later. My grandmother, a Catholic, was buried 5 days after her passing. When a funeral and burial happen quickly, there is usually a second memorial service several days after the funeral so that if you cannot get into town or clear your schedule to attend the funeral, you can make time for the second service.

What to Say: If you knew the deceased well, offer up something you will miss. If you only knew them in passing, “I’m so sorry for your loss” and a hug is just fine.

Open Caskets: Open caskets are difficult. I have found that anyone I’ve viewed looks both like themselves and completely different. If you are involved in planning the funeral, warn any friends what to expect because an open casket can be a shock.

The Visitation/Shiva/Memorial Service: Most faiths have some sort of event separate from the funeral. In Christianity, this is called a visitation or wake, in Judaism it is Shiva, and other faiths refer to it simply as a memorial service. Often these are all-day events when you stop by when convenient to you, offer your condolences, and sign a guest book. In Christianity, the visitation usually takes place before the funeral while in faiths with an earlier burial, this event takes place after the funeral service. Often people attend either one or the other, though you may consider attending both the funeral and wake if you are particularly close with the family.

Flowers: Do not send flowers for a Jewish funeral. If you want to do something, ask the family where donations might be made (this information also usually appears in the obituary). For other faiths, flowers are appreciated, but know that the family will have about a dozen bouquets to deal with, so a donation might be a more manageable option.

Support: Food is a great way to show support for a close friend who has lost someone dear to them. Casseroles, soup, and mac ‘n’ cheese are great options. You can also offer to do something they likely don’t have the time for, like cleaning up around the house or running an errand. Never ask, “What can I do?” Instead, come up with something and do it – people in mourning have so much to think about as it is.

The Service: If you have decided to attend the funeral, you may end up attending a service in another faith for the first time. Be comforted by the fact that the family is most likely happy to have your support and will not be concerned with whether you sit or stand at the right time. The best thing you can do is to follow along and be respectful. That said, there are some funny things worth knowing.

Yarmulkes: If you are male and attending a Jewish funeral at a synagogue, you will have to wear a yarmulke even if you are not Jewish. The synagogue will likely have extras for you to borrow.

Communion: If you are not Christian, you do not have to take communion. Indeed, Catholics frown upon non-Catholics taking communion regardless of your denomination. If you are not taking communion, simply sit respectfully in the pew. If you are religious, this is a great time to offer a silent prayer.

Burial: Unless you are immediate family, it is not expected that you attend the burial.

Muslim funerals: If a lady and attending a Muslim funeral, be sure to cover your head with a scarf and dress conservatively. As with other faiths, there is generally some sort of memorial that you may attend if you cannot make it to the funeral.

Buddhist funerals: You will be asked to remove your shoes before entering the temple. There is generally a memorial several days following the funeral, which you may attend in lieu of the funeral service proper.

Hindu funerals: Hindu funerals generally take place where the body will be cremated. The ceremony usually involves an open casket. You may attend the service and leave before the cremation. If you don’t feel comfortable attending the ceremony, it is customary to visit the family after the funeral. Remember that white, not black, is the color of mourning in Hindu culture.

Dress: Funerals are not the time to dress in crazy colors. Your interview suit will do nicely for most ceremonies. If you are attending a ceremony at a congregation that is particularly conservative, opt for a long skirt and long sleeves and avoid any decolletage.

If You’re Not a Believer: If you happen to be atheist or disagree strongly with the faith tradition involved, leave your doubts at the door. Funerals are for the benefit of the family and now is the time to respect everything that makes them feel better. Sing the hymns, say amen where appropriate, and bow your head during prayer.

What are your tips for attending a funeral? My experience is mainly Catholic, so I appreciate any suggestions you have to offer!

See our other Ladyguides on the subject:

How to Plan a Funeral

End of Life Planning

By [E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

47 replies on “Ladyguide: How to Attend a Funeral”

So this is probably kind of morbid and awful, but my husband and I had a three-year span of time where we lost (collectively) six (seven?) grandparents. That’s not the morbid part. This is: by the third one, I had put together a garment bag for him that had: grey dress pants, black button-down shirt, grey blazer, tie, belt, dress socks, and black dress shoes. Zipped it up and hung it in the closet. After it got worn, everything got cleaned and went back in. He doesn’t dress up much, so finding all of the various components was a pain in the ass and even harder on top of grieving.

If only I had thought of that when we had 14 weddings in four years.

Last year my great-aunt died, so I experienced the sitting Shiva aspect for the first time. Well, I witnessed it as my cousins went through it. Since I’m not an immediate family member, my role was to actually to take care of everything they needed (along with helping my mother).

Honestly, it seemed to me that it was more of an inconvenience to my cousins than anything else. They had to meet with all these well wishers who wanted to talk about my aunt, and I could tell that they just wanted to be left alone. Or at least have a small gathering, but so many people kept dropping it. My aunt was well known and loved, which was lovely to see but my cousins were taking it really hard and I wanted to shake people and kick them out the door. I think if you can see that the family is having difficulties keeping it together, limit your comments and save the story for a later time when it can be more appreciated.

I can also say, DON’T be like the woman who showed up and tried to run the kitchen. She might have thought she was being helpful, but my mom was ready to skewer her.

I wish this had been published last week! I just went to my boyfriend’s great-aunt’s funeral on Friday. A full mass, Catholic ceremony. I didn’t know anything that was going on. As someone said below, it is a silent jack-in-the-box ceremony. They never said anything about standing or sitting. When everyone knelt, I just sat on the seat. It seemed fine.

Question for the Catholics: do you have prayer books with the prayers in them, or are you all just supposed to memorize everything?

Well…a lot of people memorize them, but typically there’s a “Missal” in the pew. Flip through it and you’ll find the Funeral Rite. The tricky think about the Missal is that you have to know where to look for each part- there are certain things that are static, certain things that are unique to each day/week, and certain things they do for Funerals.

Some extremely organized Catholics make their own programs for the Funeral Mass for people to follow along. If the priest knows a lot of non-Catholics are in attendance, he’ll usually add a “please stand/please be seated” when appropriate.

A lot of the prayers are repetitive and are memorized.  I think the Church I went to growing up had them in a book which was kept in the pew, but I had them memorized by the time I was probably 7 or 8.  I can still remember them even though I haven’t attended a mass except for weddings and funerals in 10 years.  My mom knows them in both English and Latin despite a similar gap.  You say the same prayers every week plus generally practice and/or break them down and study them in Sunday School.

Yes and maybe no.  I don’t have a ton of experience with it but I actually find Conservative Jewish services to be similar to Catholic services in terms of tempo, level of participation, mood and rhythm.  There is an order and restraint to both that is very similar.  You’d probably be more confused at a Baptist funeral than a Catholic one.

Former Irish Catholic here (still Irish, not Catholic): we just memorised everything. There were certain prayers you had to learn to make your Communion, and every Sunday there would be a leaflet in the pew with the day’s Gospel readings and occasionally a copy of the Nicene Creed. but mostly you were just expected to absorb it through osmosis.

If I may add- If you are asked to share a personal memory at the service, please think it through thoroughly before you share. I recently attended the funeral of a friend’s father, and a long-time neighbor and friend got up to speak. He rambled on for ages, but then started telling a story about how he and the deceased used to dress up as Santa for each other’s families at Christmas. He said this in front of all of the grandchildren, ages 3- 10, who had now not only lost their beloved grandfather, but had just been informed Santa wasn’t real, either.

Oy.

I would skip trying to cook something for a family that isn’t some denomination of Christian unless you’re of that religion yourself.  The Kosher dietary laws, for example, are maddening if you don’t already cook Kosher at home.  I’m Jewish and I don’t think I would attempt that.

My family doesn’t bring food or flowers for the grieving family. We always bring boxes of tissues and toilet paper.. the things people forget about or need more of with all the visitors. I think my mom started this tradition of ours, but it’s always gone over well.

Regarding the flower issue — most families now indicate if the family would prefer a donation made in the deceased’s name and to where in the obituary. Its a polite move to consult the announcement before sending anything along.

And no one should feel obligated to send anything. Showing up to a viewing or the service is often gesture enough. 400 people showed up to my aunt’s funeral and seeing a line of people waiting to pay their respects to my beloved aunt meant more to the family than any bouquet ever could.

If You’re Not a Believer: If you happen to be atheist or disagree strongly with the faith tradition involved, leave your doubts at the door. Funerals are for the benefit of the family and now is the time to respect everything that makes them feel better. Sing the hymns, say amen where appropriate, and bow your head during prayer.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. It may simply be down to my reading of it. But if someone goes to a service of which the main belief isn’t theirs, beside customs, I don’t think they should be obligated to partake in worship. I’ve been to Christian funerals, and I’m a Humanist. I haven’t said amen, after prayers or bowed my head, and I don’t see how that’s disrespectful, either.

I would say that not bowing your head could be viewed as a sign of disrespect because its a fairly universal gesture — its nothing religion-specific, like saying Amen or crossing yourself. It certainly calls more attention to the person who is not doing it in a room of people who are, you know?

I do see your point and that some people may view it in that light. Certainly I have been that person on many an occasion, but I think it’s also a case of showing respect on both sides: that I’m sitting quietly through that moment, albeit not with my head down and that those who are partaking in that moment aren’t going to unpleasant to me because I don’t partake. Perhaps not the best wording, but hopefully it makes sense.

I agree with you. I don’t participate in religious services, because I honestly feel it’s more disrespectful if I do. These are words that people are saying genuinely, and I feel that it’s wrong for me to say them when there is nothing behind it. I do lower my eyes and my head a bit when people bow their heads, just so I don’t draw attention, but I don’t close my eyes or anything. I follow along with the bulletin, stand when people stand, sit when people sit, shake hands, etc., but I won’t say the prayers or sing the songs. In all the years of doing this, no one has ever complained, no one has ever questioned it, and no one’s ever stared at me. I feel as long as you’re not being disrespectful or deliberately drawing attention to yourself, you should participate as much as you feel comfortable. (In fact, a lot of services I’ve attended have even said this regarding non-members or people of other faiths.)

I see your point, but I also think that participating even if you don’t believe is worthwhile. I still say the Our Father and will respond to the responsorial psalm even though I am an atheist. I think about it this way: any service is essentially a meditation and so long as you approach it with respect, it’s okay to participate as best as you can even if it is not your faith tradition — you can still enjoy the meditation on whatever topic involved (faith, love, grieving, whathaveyou). You should stand when everyone else stands, sit when everyone else sits, and so on (though as others have pointed out, you can skip kneeling if your knees are bad). Often at a Catholic mass they invite non-Catholics to approach the priest during communion for a simple blessing in lieu of accepting the host, which I do because I’m in someone else’s space. I want them to respect my beliefs at whatever non-religious memorial with lots of Mary Oliver poems that someone ends up giving for me, so I’ll do the same for them.

I can certainly appreciate what is being spoken and considered. I don’t feel that it should mean I go against my beliefs and participate in worship, though. And on the flip side, at a Humanist or atheist gathering, I certainly wouldn’t ask – or expect -  someone of religion to refrain from saying a discrete personal prayer. So, to me, I don’t see it as disrespectful to refrain, discretely, from not participating in an act of worship.

I participate in other religious customs only up to the point where it doesn’t: A) become disrespectful, or B) contradict my own. For example, Jews don’t kneel, so at the several Catholic services I’ve been to, I stand and sit when the rest of the congregation does, but when everyone else kneels, I just sit quietly. And I think it would be disrespectful for me to do something like cross myself or take communion, both to my own beliefs and to others’. There are some prayers in Christian services that are really just the translation of prayers used in Jewish services (the Aaronic blessing comes to mind), so when it’s appropriate, I participate. When it’s not, I stay still and quiet. I think it’s a good trade-off, and the only time I’ve run into trouble was with a priest who gave me stinkeye for not kneeling in front of an (open) casket. But I just stepped right to the family and bypassed it entirely.

I’ve only been to two funerals in my life and only one consciously (I was six at the first one and only picked up the sad but relieved feel of it). I think that simply being there in action and mind is the smallest and smartest thing you can do. Keep your feet away from your mouth, no over-drinking .. everything you wouldn’t do with any other big change in someone else’s life.

For the nonbeliever/believer of a different faith attending a religious funeral, I would say that singing and responding are not necessary. An unobtrusive silence is also fine.

Also, for those attending Catholic funerals, kneeling will be involved, but if you have bad knees do not feel obliged to put your knees into a painful position. It’s in the Catholic rule book that simply bowing your head is ok if kneeling is gonna put more stress on your knees than you are comfortable with for health reasons.

Some churches don’t require kneeling any more, it’s bizarre how it changes from parish to parish. I went to Catholic schools, and we went to Mass in the next parish over with the school over there. It came time to kneel. We didn’t, they did and we all stared at each other.

 

Ditto on both your points. Better to be silent than try to join in with a song you’ve never heard before.

Also you might see people genuflecting before they enter the aisles to sit down – you don’t have to do this if you’re not Catholic, just sitting down is fine. It is polite, however, to shake other people’s hands at the point in the Mass when everyone does it.

Incidentally, my heathen boyfriend’s first comment after attending my grandmother’s Catholic funeral? “Where were all the songs?”, swiftly followed by “I had no idea when to stand up and sit down!” so Catholic funerals are apparently silent jack-in-the-box ceremonies for those unfamiliar with them.

Huh.  I’ve never been to a Catholic funeral without singing.  But I guess all of the ones that I’ve been to have actually been high masses.  It’s a good point though.  The best thing you can do is just be quietly polite, especially if you don’t feel comfortable joining in with the responses.  That having been said, no one is going to be upset/angry/offended if you try and get it wrong.

And speaking of genuflecting tragedies, when I took my bf to Christmas mass for the first time, I dropped to one knee to genuflect, and forgot to warn him.  He had to do a sweet pick’n’roll to avoid tripping over me and flying headfirst towards the altar.

Yeah, I went the unobtrusive silence route at my great-uncle’s wife’s funeral last week. The sermon was very religious, I didn’t know any of the songs or prayers, and they didn’t give me a program, so I couldn’t even pretend to follow along. Nobody had a problem with this.

Funny enough, I think I may have found another atheist in the family because of the funeral. I glanced up briefly during the (very long) family prayer, and I noticed my uncle was not praying,either. We kind of exchanged a look of solidarity.That’s now three atheists in the family that I’m aware of!

I would say it’s all in the attitude. It’s one thing to respectfully stay silent, another to fold your arms across your chest and look huffy that other people are praying or whatever. A look of defiance is generally not considered appropriate funeral attire. :) Not that I think this is what you were implying, but I’ve seen it happen, and the person (when queried about it later) has most often responded, “What? I just didn’t say anything!” Grief doesn’t always bring out our best behavior, so I think the spirit of what Sally says holds true here. It’s just not the place for expressing your personal stance on anything; it’s a space for honoring the life (and values) of the person who has passed away.

Agree, and when I say participate, I say do it as best you can. Many people know Amazing Grace and if you went to church as a kid, are familiar with the general features of a Christian service. I think it’s bad form to not participate at all if you have a passing familiarity. Although I no longer believe, I view the service as a meditation and approach it that way out of respect for the people there. Also, a good priest/officiant will know there are people unfamiliar with the ceremony and will give giant hints as to what to do next.

Also, for those attending Catholic funerals, kneeling will be involved, but if you have bad knees do not feel obliged to put your knees into a painful position

In many parishes, if you are not of the religion, sitting during the kneeling/prayers is fine. (Bad knees or no — I just wanted to expand on that a bit.)

I think the principal is the same. It’s a dish that makes up in large quantities easily and it reheats well. The trouble with casseroles is that they are not all created equal, and occasionally there was the one that seemed to be made out of  whatever odds and ends there were available. Ground beef, egg noodles, cream of mushroom soup, and cauliflower? Really?

DO NOT SEND FLOWERS TO A FAMILY YOU KNOW SUFFERS FROM HAYFEVER.

When my BIL died, we had dozens and dozens and dozens of bouquets turn up. All absolutely gorgeous and appreciated, many from people who should have known better. It was my job to take the stamens off the lilies in an attempt to stop the itching, but in the end they all went on the deck and we admired them through the windows.

I think the biggest thing is support the family and don’t do anything that would cause drama. It’s not a time for that. There’s enough drama going on with the death of a loved one as it is.

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