A guide to funeral etiquette from our funeral services team
The funeral is a ceremony of proven worth and value for those who mourn, providing an opportunity for the survivors and others 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 type of funeral service conducted for the deceased is specified by the family. Our Geelong funeral directors are trained to assist families in arranging whatever type of service they desire. The service held either at a place of worship or at the funeral chapel with the deceased present, varies in ritual according to denomination.
Friends and relatives may be requested to sign the register book. A person’s full name should be listed e.g. “Mr 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. 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.
This service is by invitation only and may be held at a place of worship, a funeral chapel or a family home. Usually, selected relatives and a few close friends attend the funeral service. Often a private viewing is held, condolences are sent, and the body is viewed.
A memorial service is a service without the deceased present and can vary in ceremony and procedures according to the community and religious affiliations. Some families prefer public viewings followed by a private or graveside service with a memorial service later at the church or funeral chapel.
Friends, relatives, church members or business associates may be asked to serve as pallbearers. The funeral director will 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 eulogy may be given by a member of the family, clergy, a close personal friend or a business associate of the deceased. The eulogy is not to be lengthy, but should offer praise and commendations and reflect the life of the person who has died.
What to wear to funerals
People attending a funeral should be dressed in good taste, to show dignity and respect for the family and the occasion. People may also decide to wear colourful clothing – this is no longer inappropriate for relatives and friends.
Funeral Procession / Cortege
When the funeral service and the burial are both held within the local area, friends and relatives may accompany the family to the cemetery. The procession is formed at the funeral chapel 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 or the residence.
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. At the funeral home the cards are removed from the floral tributes and given to the family so they may acknowledge the tributes sent.
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 from any Catholic parish.
In some areas it is possible to obtain Mass cards at the funeral chapel. 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 is legible and that you list your postal code. This will make it easier for the family to acknowledge your gift.
A memorial contribution to a specific cause or charity may be appreciated instead of 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 recognised as a charitable institution, some gifts may be deductible for tax purposes.
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 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 services and make them feel 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 an email or card expressing your sympathy is also appropriate.
Your presence at the viewing demonstrates that although someone has died, friends still remain. Your presence is an eloquent statement that you care. Viewing provides a time and place for friends to offer their expression of sorrow and sympathy, rather than awkwardly approaching the subject at the office, supermarket or social activities.
The obituary or death notice will designate the hours of viewing 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. Friends should use their own judgement on how long they should remain at the funeral chapel or place of viewing. If they feel their presence is needed, they should offer to stay.
When a person calls at the funeral home, sympathy can be expressed by clasping hands, an embrace, or a simple statement of condolence, such as:
- I’m sorry.
- My sympathy to you.
- It was good to know John.
- John was a fine person and a friend of mine. He will be missed.
- My sympathy to your mother.
The family member in return may say:
- Thanks for coming.
- John talked about you often.
- I didn’t realize so many people cared.
- Come see me when you can.
Encourage the bereaved to express their feelings and thoughts, but don’t overwhelm them.
The family should acknowledge the flowers and messages sent by relatives and friends. When food and personal services are donated, these thoughtful acts should be acknowledged, as should the services of the pallbearers. The funeral directors may have available printed acknowledgement cards which can be used by the family. When the sender is well known to the family, a short personal note should be written on the acknowledgement card expressing appreciation for a contribution or personal service received. The note can be short, such as:
- Thank you for the beautiful roses. The arrangement was lovely.
- The food you sent was so enjoyed by our family. Your kindness is deeply appreciated.
In some communities it is a practice to insert a public thank you in the newspaper. The funeral director can assist you with this.
Children at funerals
At a very early age, children have an awareness of and a response to death. Children should be given the option to attend the viewing and funeral services. Our funeral directors can advise you on how to assist children at the time of a funeral and can provide you with additional information and literature.
It is healthy to recognise death and discuss it realistically with friends and relatives. Grief is a large emotion, and needs to be shared. People in sorrow will welcome your expression of sympathy, and your offers of help after the funeral. It is important that we share our grief with one another. Visit My Grief Assist for more information.
Our funeral directors and funeral parlour staff are trained to support grieving loved ones. Our Bereavement Care program is provided free of charge for family and friends of those who choose our funeral services.
Religious customs for funerals
Funeral services, often seen as an opportunity to celebrate someone’s life, may include many different rituals, beliefs or customs. These are important for family and friends of the deceased to express their grief and acknowledge their passing. Below is a brief summary of funeral customs from several major religious groups, including what may be expected at the service.
Bahá’í funerals take place at a Baha’i chapel or at the grave side and are usually conducted by family or other Bahá’í members. It is an extremely simple service with only one prayer reading before burial. Bahá’í followers must be buried within a one-hour drive from the place of death. Embalming is not allowed and cremation is forbidden. Baha’is may wear anything from casual attire to formal wear to funerals and attendees should dress respectfully. No head covering is required and mourners usually wear dark colours and no make-up.
Women and men are permitted to sit together. Sending flowers or cards in memory of the deceased is appropriate, however non-Baha’is cannot contribute to a Baha’i fund.
Buddhist funerals generally take place within a week from death, in a funeral chapel rather than a temple. Viewing of the body is usually held the evening before the funeral. At the funeral service, the family sits at the front of the room. Candles and incense burn until the body is moved to the cemetery. Visitors are expected to greet the family and offer their condolences, before bowing at the coffin.
Visitors are not expected to participate while a monk conducts prayers and chanting. The family of the deceased wears white, while friends often wear black. No headgear is required and men and women can sit together. Sending flowers is appropriate and visitors also often send a financial donation to the family.
Personal heritage and tradition determines a large part of the Catholic ceremony. Irish, Croatian and Italian are just a few of the cultures that influence the funeral service. However, there are some constants, such as viewing the body in a funeral chapel, before the body is transported to a church for a funeral mass.
A priest will lead the rosary and prayers, which takes about 15 minutes. Visitors can join in or simply observe, however it is considered disrespectful to talk or leave during the rosary. Members of the Catholic faith bow when entering the church and take communion. Non-believers should not imitate these gestures, but should rise and kneel as instructed throughout the funeral service.
Visitors often send flowers and sympathy cards, or make a donation. Catholics can purchase mass cards to be displayed in the funeral chapel.
Generally, Christians believe in resurrection and the continuation of the soul. All Protestant denominations revolve around the Christian theme that life exists after death. Funeral services usually take place within three days of death and most commonly take place at a funeral home or church. Visiting hours are usually arranged the day prior to the funeral service.
Funerals are generally led by a minister, while family and friends can participate in the service. Some services include time for visitors to give testimonials about the deceased.
Nowadays it is unusual for people to wear black or cover their head. Instead, people display their sympathy to the family by sending flowers, cards or making charitable donations in the name of the deceased.
Hindus try to hold a funeral service before the sun goes down on the day of the death. The funeral service serves Hindus as a purification process to cleanse the soul for a possible union with Brahma. After a Hindu has passed away, the family prepares the body for the funeral and wraps their loved one in a shroud.
Traditionally, funeral services are held at a funeral chapel and conducted by the eldest son. Mourners wear white, while visitors simply wear subdued colours. Sometimes the men will shave their heads as a sign of respect for the deceased. At the funeral service the family may lay flowers on the deceased. While not traditional, visitors may send flowers to the family of the deceased.
After the funeral a short service also takes place at the crematorium. All Hindus are cremated, as the burning of the body symbolises the release of their spirit. The family of the deceased will then enter a formal grieving period for at least 13 days. The duration of the formal grieving depends on the caste of the family.
Muslims try to bury their dead as soon as possible and usually within a day of death. Muslim funeral services always take place in a mosque. Everyone is required to leave their shoes at the door before sitting on the floor. Women and men are seated separately and women must wear a veil or scarf and loose clothing. Mourners close to the family wear black, while visitors can send cards and flowers to express their sympathy.
The short service includes ritual chanting and recitation from the Koran. Visitors and mourners are invited to pay their last respects, before the body is take to a cemetery for burial. Following a short ceremony at the burial grounds, further prayers are held at the mosque and visitors can offer consolation to the family of the deceased. Later, a meal is eaten at the mosque.
Jewish funerals take place as soon after the death as possible, either the same day or the next day. People pay their respects in three ways:
- by attending the funeral service;
- by attending the burial service at the cemetery; and
- by supporting the family during the week of Shiva (a time when activities are restricted in order to grieve) following the service.
While there are three different types of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – funeral services for each are similar. Head covering is required for both sexes at Orthodox Jewish funerals, for men only at a Conservative, and is optional at Reform. Head coverings are provided for anyone arriving without one.
Until the body is buried, the focus is centred entirely on the deceased person. As a result, it is not appropriate to approach the family until the body is buried. Sending flowers is not part of the Jewish tradition. Instead, people honour the deceased by making a donation to the family’s favourite charity or cause.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly referred to as “Mormons”, approach funerals with a projected spirit of hope, based on the anticipated reunion with the deceased after this life. Funeral services are directed by local church leaders and generally held in an LDS chapel or mortuary. However, some cases may dictate a memorial or graveside service only.
Services usually start and finish with sacred music and prayer, as well as congregational singing or a choir. Mormon funeral services include reminiscences and eulogies, with some families asking family members or friends to sing or talk about the life of the deceased. Following the funeral service, family and close friends traditionally attend a simple graveside service. Often there is a reception held afterwards, where friends can offer their condolences to the family and give flowers or cards.
Sikh funerals are held at a funeral chapel rather than a temple, usually within 48 hours of death. While men and women are permitted to sit together at a chapel, both sexes require head covering. A simple silk scarf is considered appropriate for both men and women. Passages from the Sikh holy book are read and prayers are offered at the funeral service. Friends and relatives should not cry, but instead are asked to recite scriptural hymns. Sending flowers or cards is appropriate.
Following the funeral service, Sikhs enter a mourning period for between two and five weeks.