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A Guide to Funeral Etiquette

Essential advice on funeral etiquette – what to wear, how to act, and what different religions expect

Last updated: 2 August 2019

Funeral Etiquette

Funeral etiquette can vary according to tradition as our guide to religious funerals discusses. It could depend on family values, so you may be unsure how to dress and our guide to what to wear at a funeral can help there. We have a guide to funeral flowers if you have any questions in that area. And for how to convey your sympathies, we have a guide for what to say when someone dies.

Whatever the way someone’s life is being mourned, prayed for or celebrated, the most important thing is to ensure that your own funeral etiquette respects the wishes of the bereaved family members who are arranging the funeral.

Funeral fashion etiquette – what do I wear?

Dressing for a funeral can depend on cultural traditions and whether the funeral service is of a particular faith. You can read more in our guides to religious funerals and our in-depth look at What to Wear to a Funeral.

Many people associate wearing black with mourning, but according to modern UK funeral etiquette it’s become customary for other dark colours to be acceptable, while in other cases, a bright colour code is the express wish of the bereaved family.

You’ll usually find guidelines in the obituary – but if in doubt, stick with traditional funeral etiquette and keep it smart and sombre. If you are wearing a suit, wear a tie, which doesn’t necessarily have to be black, but should be plain.

Paying respects at a chapel of rest – what do I do?

Paying your last respects to someone at a chapel of rest can be a more unfamiliar aspect of British funeral etiquette.

Known as a viewing, this is something that’s usually for close family and friends. If this is something you’ve been invited to do but feel uncertain about, the funeral home will be able to reassure you about what to expect.

If you feel that viewing a loved one would be too upsetting or difficult, that’s okay. If visiting someone who has died is something you wish to do, check if the funeral home or bereaved family would be happy for you to pay your respects, if this is not something detailed on the person’s obituary.

What’s the funeral etiquette for friends and family?

Traditional British funeral etiquette is centred around the wishes of the immediately bereaved family members who are arranging the funeral. This means that other family members and friends take their lead, or follow the funeral details provided by the funeral director on the family’s behalf.

Who goes in the funeral cars?

In a funeral procession the most immediate family members, which may be their spouse or partner, parents, children or siblings, travel in a funeral car behind the hearse.

It’s usual funeral etiquette to have at least one funeral car following the hearse, while more cars may be booked for other family members, or they may form part of a cortege in their own vehicles.

Funeral service etiquette – where do I sit?

Immediate family members and close friends sit at the front of the venue during the funeral service, with other close family members in the seats or pews behind.

There’s not usually a seating plan for a funeral, so if you are not family or a very close friend, it’s considerate to wait until other people have taken their seats.

If the venue’s not very full, it may be best to not sit right at the back – and the funeral director or celebrant may invite mourners to move up, before the service begins.

Can I just turn up at a funeral?

A funeral notice is often an open invitation to anyone who’d like to pay their respects to attend the funeral.

If you’ve heard that’s someone’s died, an obituary or social media post will usually detail where the funeral is. This will mention if it is to be a private service for close family and friends only.

If in doubt, you can call the funeral director and check if it’s okay for you to attend. It’s good funeral etiquette, if you have younger ones you’d like to bring, to ask - should children attend funerals.

It’s very unusual for people to be directly invited to a funeral in the UK, unless they are being asked to play a special part in the service, such as giving a eulogy.

Generally, attending a funeral to pay your respects is a gesture that’s greatly appreciated by bereaved families, who can be greatly moved to discover just how many people’s lives their loved one’s own life touched.

What words of sympathy can I say at the wake?

As we say in our guide to wakes the funeral reception, is a chance for sympathisers to express their condolences in person to the bereaved family and share kind words or memories with other friends and family. It’s good funeral etiquette to be ready with some polite and sincere words of sympathy.

If you’re feeling nervous or tongue-tied, imagine the kind of thing you’d appreciate hearing about a loved one of your own. You could express how sorry you are for the person’s loss and share a few kind words about what you’ll remember about them most.

Don’t forget to introduce yourself and say how you knew the person who has died, if you’ve never met their family before. Read more about words of kindness you can say and the etiquette of expressing sympathies to the bereaved.

Is it good etiquette to send a wreath or funeral flowers?

Many people appreciate funeral flowers or sympathy bouquets when they are bereaved, but sending flowers is not always appropriate, according to some religious customs.

According to funeral flower etiquette, the flowers that are laid on the person’s coffin are usually from immediate family, with other wreaths and tributes from family travelling with them in the hearse.

You can read more about funeral flowers, wreaths and what to send in our helpful guide to funeral flower etiquette. If you are looking for words of inspiration to write, our guide to funeral flowers card etiquette has lots of thoughtful ideas about how to express what you want to say.

Is it polite to ask people for donations instead of funeral flowers?

It’s also not unusual for bereaved families to politely request that the money you might have spent on flowers is donated to a charity they’ve chosen, instead.

If you are arranging your own loved one’s funeral, it’s perfectly fine to request for donations in lieu of flowers or a donation to a crowdfunding appeal for the funeral.

Giving money or contributing to funeral costs is an accepted part of modern UK funeral etiquette – and a way of paying respects.

If you are requesting donations to charity instead of flowers, your funeral director can help arrange a collection as part of the service, as well as for donations to be made via an online obituary.

How much money should I donate at a funeral?

The amount you donate to charity in lieu of funeral flowers comes down to what you can afford to give, or how much you would have spent.

Whether you put a few coins or a few notes in the collection box, your thoughtful gesture counts. If you are donating online, you can opt not to go public with how much you donated.

Good British funeral etiquette, though, is about how you pay your respects and are there for the bereaved family.

If you don’t have money to give, attending the funeral, kind words of sympathy and thoughtful words in the weeks, months and anniversaries that come after the funeral – remembering the person who died, are most valuable of all.

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