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!
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