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Funeral Etiquette in the UK And USA

Updated: Sep 18, 2023


Funerals are one of the most delicate moments in all human life. They are a time when family and friends of a deceased gather, not only to comfort each other but also to say goodbye to a loved one by celebrating their life and reflecting on all the love and memories shared.

The sensitivity surrounding funerals calls for courtesy, kindness, empathy, and understanding towards the bereaved and this reflects in speech, dress code, and how we conduct ourselves while attending a funeral. These aspects are part of a broader term, known as funeral etiquette; the customary code of polite behavior among funeral attendees.

Before we delve into some of the integral dos and don'ts of funeral etiquette, it’s important to understand the difference between a funeral and a memorial:

The Differences between a Funeral and a Memorial

A funeral is a ceremony or service held shortly after a person's death, usually including a final disposition in the form of burial or cremation. When the bereaved plan a funeral service in the UK and USA, where the deceased’s remains are physically present, the ceremony is typically divided into; the visitation, the funeral, the committal service, and the reception.

A memorial, on the other hand, is a service held to pay respect or commemorate a deceased loved one, in the absence of their physical remains. A typical example of a memorial includes services that are held on the annual anniversary of the death of a deceased.

Typically, a memorial service is not a replacement for a funeral. Instead, memorial services help the bereaved to reflect on the life of the deceased and to honor the memories shared with them, long after they’ve transitioned into the afterlife.

Flowers are not part of the Jewish mourning traditions
Flowers are not part of the Jewish mourning traditions

It’s important to note that funeral etiquette may vary based on the country of origin, religious affiliation, and existing family traditions.

However, the popular dos and don’ts of funeral etiquette for invited guests include:

What to Say

While it is possible to feel pressured to overexert condolences, less is more. Keep words simple and empathize with the bereaved. Words like "I'm sorry for your loss," "This must be so hard for you," or "My thoughts and prayers are with you"; are enough to express your condolences or support at that point. Also, sharing a fond memory of the deceased will help the bereaved family and other guests to focus their attention on happier moments Funerals are not moments to relive the death of the deceased or cause more grief to the bereaved family. So, avoid comments like "I know how you feel" or "How did he die?"

What to Do

It is emotionally and physically overwhelming to plan a funeral for a deceased loved one. Let the bereaved know that you’re thinking of them by creating a record of you attending the funeral by signing the guestbook with a meaningful quote, a thoughtful condolence message, or a beautiful memory of the deceased. Remember to sign with your full name and indicate your relationship with the deceased. Turn off your phone, and if you must keep it on, turn off the ringer. It is disrespectful to have your phone ring out loud while a memorial or funeral service is ongoing. Funerals sometimes include religious customs; try to get along with the rituals.

Funeral attire is one of the most important landmarks for funeral etiquette. Funerals and memorials are usually somber, so attires should be conservative. Whereas black is known as the traditional color for funerals in the UK and USA, more neutral colors like the darker shades of grey are increasingly being adopted for funerals today. Also, some funerals dictate what theme color to wear as a way to pay homage to a deceased’s favorite color. In this case, make sure to stick to the color code. Try not to go for revealing clothes or under-dress.

What to Bring to the Ceremony

The most popular traditional funeral gifts in the UK and USA include flowers, gift cards, and food baskets among other things. However, it is essential to do your research first and to make sure that the gifts are not inappropriate or extravagant. For example, when it comes to a Jewish funeral, sending flowers is not an appropriate gesture of sympathy.

When making funeral arrangements for a deceased loved one, the bereaved family should consider the following funeral etiquette guide:

Notification of Death

In the event of a death and for purposes of making funeral arrangements, close family members should be notified first. The announcement can be made by whoever has the most intimate relationship with the deceased, or whoever is present at the time of death.

Where to Sit

When people plan a funeral or memorial, the remains of the deceased (which can be in a casket or cremation urn) are usually placed at the front and the center of the room. For most funeral services, the first three rows are reserved for the bereaved family. Proper funeral etiquette requires that family members sit close to the casket or cremation urn, depending on how close they were to the decedent.

What to Wear

Depending on the culture, funeral attires range from black, and red to white. However, proper funeral etiquette in the UK and USA dictates that family members dress conservatively in demure or dark colors. Whereas black is a generally acceptable color, darker shades of blue or gray can also be worn. The men may go in black suits, sport coats, or black collared shirts while ladies choose formal dark dresses.

What to Say

It is okay if you don’t feel like speaking at the funeral of a deceased loved one. However, it is important to spare a few words in order to thank all who came to the funeral to sympathize with you and the rest of the bereaved family.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought up lots of restrictions, and the mode of spread makes it quite challenging to plan a funeral or grieve the loss of loved ones. According to health experts, the more extended physical interaction lasts, the higher the risks of spread.

Therefore, to help stop the spread of COVID-19, make sure that your funeral arrangements adapt to the following funeral etiquette:

Wear Your Mask Properly

Masks Block Large Particle Droplets, Splashes, and Sprays Containing Germs
Masks Block Large Particle Droplets, Splashes, and Sprays Containing Germs

The nature of COVID-19 is such that transmission is fluid. In-person gatherings and all close interactions increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Therefore, if you must attend a funeral, wear a multi-layered mask that fits snugly to your face and covers both your mouth and nose.

Maintain Social Distancing

Beyond wearing masks, include social distancing in your funeral arrangements. Reports have shown that the closer the distance, the higher the risks of spreading the coronavirus. When making funeral arrangements or while you plan a funeral, consider holding the ceremony in a well-ventilated environment. Attendees should maintain distances up to 2 meters (or 6 feet) apart from each other. Instead of hugging or holding hands, opt for smaller gestures such as nodding, waving, or a slight bow to acknowledge each other.

Limit the Number of Invited Guests

Proper funeral etiquette during COVID-19 includes limiting the number of funeral attendees to family members and close friends. Technology has made it possible to connect with loved ones wherever they are and at all times. Therefore, consider using live streaming services for all that can’t attend the event in person to join the event virtually and commemorate with you wherever they are. Funerals are universally emotionally difficult periods. As such, knowing how to act during this period can be challenging. While it is possible to feel overwhelmed by societal funeral etiquette issues, understanding the applicable rules can go a long way in making others feel comfortable at a funeral or memorial.

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