Funeral etiquette – what to wear, do and not do

Kate BucklandBlog

Attending a funeral can be an overwhelming experience, especially if you’ve never attended one before. In this blog post we’ll give you the lowdown on what to expect and what is and is not appropriate when it comes to funerals in Australia.

While generally speaking, modern society is less formal these days, there are times in life when formality is still required. Generally speaking, funerals are one of the occasions.

What to wear

In Australia, funerals are generally sombre events, and as such it is usually appropriate to wear conservative clothing in dark or muted colours. While both our culture and events such as funeral are often a bit more relaxed nowadays than in past decades, this means it is easier than ever to show up wearing the wrong thing. How you dress at a funeral reflects the level of respect you are showing to the grieving family and the deceased person, so unless the family has requested those in attendance dress in a particular way, we suggest keeping it smart, neutral and simple.

For men, a suit in a dark colour – black, navy or grey – with a clean, ironed shirt and decent shoes are a safe bet. We’d also suggest wearing a dark tie. If you find when you arrive that things are a little more relaxed, then you can always lose the tie and jacket, but you’ll still come across as appropriate and respectful.

What not to wear to a funeral for men:

  • Baseball caps
  • Tracksuits
  • Thongs
  • Running shoes

Appropriate funeral attire for women can be a bit more of a minefield, simply because women tend to have more choices for the types and styles of clothes available to them. Unless the family have requested otherwise, keep the colour of your chosen outfit neutral. A suit, a simple dress or pants or a skirt with a formal top are all suitable choices.

What not to wear to a funeral for women:

  • Anything with a low neckline
  • Short shorts or short skirt/dresses – keep it below mid-thigh length
  • Loud, statement jewellery

For both – avoid bright colours unless it has been specifically requested by the family.

What should I do when I hear someone has died?

If you want to reach out to the family of the deceased person, then go for it. However, it pays to be mindful of how you go about doing so. Remember that this is a deeply traumatic time in their lives, so rather than knocking on the door or calling them, it is less invasive to send a flowers or a card and let them know that your thoughts are with them. Only write on the card that you are there to help with whatever they need in the following weeks and months unless you are truly prepared to follow through on this offer.

Where are funerals held?

Where the funeral is held will vary depending on the wishes of the family and the final wishes of the person who has passed away, as well as their religious beliefs. A funeral may be held in a church or at the side of the deceased person’s grave, or at the church before proceeding to the grave site. Funerals are also often held at Crematorium chapels.

Sometimes rather than a funeral, a family might choose to hold a memorial service rather than a funeral. These are often held at the home of the family, a hall or a place that was special to the deceased.

What about condolence gifts?

While it isn’t expected, it is also definitely appropriate to give condolence gifts. Flowers are usually welcome and appreciated, but you might also consider providing the family with some home cooked meals, a small tree or sapling that the family can plant in memory of their loved one, offer to clean their home for them or pay for a cleaner to visit to lend a helping hand with day to day tasks that might seem overwhelming,

Hot tip – check for an ‘in lieu of flowers’ note on the funeral notice before purchasing flowers, as the family may prefer a different gesture, such as a donation to a charity in the name of their lost loved one.

Watch out for our blog post on ideas for condolence gifts in the coming weeks.

Should I attend the funeral?

There are some things to consider when deciding whether or not you should attend the funeral.

You should strongly consider attending if you were a close friend or a family member to the deceased, or you are close to the family.

At times it may not be possible for you to attend the funeral even though you feel it is appropriate to do so. With current Covid-19 travel restrictions, many people across the world have not been able to say a final goodbye to someone they love.

It also may not be possible to attend due to an inability to get time off from work, caring duties or due to illness. In this case, we suggest reaching out to offer condolences to the family in one of the ways suggested above, such as a note or flowers.

For those that are unable to attend for whatever reason, Childers Woodgate Funeral Services offers complimentary streaming of every funeral we arrange if the family would like us to do so.

When it is not appropriate to attend the funeral

It is not appropriate to attend the funeral if it is a service closed to extended friends and family, if your presence might upset the grieving family in some way. If you are estranged, you may still wish to extend your condolences in some way, but ultimately you need to use your best judgement on attending the funeral.

What do I do when I arrive at the funeral?

When you arrive at the funeral, it’s likely that there will initially be people mixing and chatting. It is often easiest to wait until the end of the service or for the wake to express your condolences directly to the family so as not to overwhelm them too much. We suggest simply joining those who are waiting for the ceremony to start. The clergy or celebrant will indicate when it is time for guests to be seated.

Where do I sit at the funeral?

At a funeral, the front row or two is generally reserved for family and very close loved ones. If you don’t fall into this category, it’s best to take a seat in the middle rows. Avoid sitting in the back if there are empty seats in the front. Leaving empty seats in front can be seen as disrespectful. Apart from this, there is generally no set seating arrangement at a funeral.

During the funeral

The length of the funeral can depend on a number of things, including numbers of songs, readings and speakers, and the length of the eulogy. It’s important to allow everyone to have the chance to grieve as they need to, so be patient if the service feels long.

It is, of course, appropriate to show some emotion, and no-one expects you not to show any emotion, but do try to maintain a level of composure. It’s okay to excuse yourself briefly if you need to. Alternatively, some find refocussing your energy inward for a few moments to be helpful in regaining composure – close your eyes, take some deep breaths and move your focus away from the service and inward to calm yourself. Always have tissues at the ready, just in case.

After the funeral

It is polite to wait until the family has left the service before leaving yourself. If the service is held inside, the coffin will be carried out, followed by the family and then those in attendance generally file out from the front of the church or room to the back. There may be a procession to the graveside to observe the lowering of the coffin and the deceased to their final resting place if this is something the family has chosen. The family may choose to keep the graveside ceremony private, but if you are invited is customary to attend as a sign of respect and support. If you have not been specifically invited, make your way to the location of the celebration of life/wake and wait to reconnect there with the family to share your condolences and memories with them. If you are not invited, do not take offence. How families grieve and say goodbye is a very personal thing. If you aren’t sure whether it is appropriate to attend the graveside service, look to the funeral notice for guidance. It’s best not to ask the family about this on the day of the funeral – they have enough to cope with.

Many families choose to hold a celebration of life or a wake, and the details for this will generally be shared with you at the end of the service, and there will usually be someone to guide you as to where to go. These celebrations are the perfect place to share your condolences with the grieving family, to share good memories of the person you have all lost.

What to say at a funeral, and what not say

This can be a tricky one as some people understandably feel quite awkward at a sad event such as a funeral. It can be hard to know what to say or not say.

These phrases are all appropriate for a funeral:

  • I’m so sorry for your loss
  • He/she was a wonderful person and will be missed by all who knew him/her
  • You are all in my thoughts and prayers
  • “Name” was a very important person in my life, and I’ll never forget his/her kindness
  • I have such fond memories of your (husband/wife/brother/sister/father/mother etc)
  • I’d really like to help you out by cooking you a few meals/helping with house work/sending over a cleaner (or some other kind of practical help) while you’re going through this. Will you allow me to do that for you?” (this is a proactive way of offering that takes the onus off the person/family to specifically ask for help, but don’t say this unless you genuinely mean it and will follow through).

What not to say at a funeral:

  • I know how you feel
  • This is so hard for me
  • He/she is in a better place now
  • Name’s death is all part of God’s plan
  • He/she has gone home to God
  • This flower arrangement/decoration is awful!
  • Please let me know if you need anything, I am here for you (this is because it puts the onus onto the person/family to ask for help, which is something many people find incredibly hard to do).
  • At least he/she died doing what he/she loved (there are few, if any ‘at least’ sentences that are appropriate)
  • Time heals all wounds
  • Life must go on
  • Questioning why someone wasn’t invited
  • How much did all this cost?
  • Why aren’t they burying/cremating NAME?
  • This is really boring/I’m bored.
  • Anything negative about the person, family or funeral. It is not the place!

Finally, be extremely careful with jokes, or better yet, avoid completely. If you aren’t sure, don’t say it.

Some final tips

  • Be on time.
  • Put your phone away – turn it off, and absolutely no selfies!
  • Sign the memory/condolence book if there is one.
  • Wear black or dark colours. A funeral isn’t the time to stand out.
  • If the funeral is for someone from a culture different than your own, do your research and dress appropriately.
  • If you’d like to give flowers to the family, don’t bring them to the funeral. Have them delivered on a different day instead so as not to overwhelm them.
  • If you think you might need to leave during the service (if you’re feeling extremely emotional, have a child with you or a health concern that might disturb the service), sit towards the outer edges so as to cause minimal disruption if you do need to get up.