11 Mar 2024

Changing Funeral Etiquette

As with other life events, our rituals around death and mourning are changing. The rigid formalities of funeral etiquette are being broken down, and there is now a prevailing sense that bereaved families should choose how they want to mourn and memorialise the deceased, and if this involves introducing new elements to funeral services and their aftermath, it is their prerogative. However, many people feel numbed and disorientated by death and are more than willing to be guided through age-old rituals and practices by an undertaker. It is all a matter of choice.

Announcing the Death

Death notices in newspapers and the spreading of news on a social grapevine were traditional ways of conveying the news. Nowadays, many of us live our lives online, recording events and occasions, and communicating with each other through social media. Inevitably, deaths are increasingly announced online.

As with all aspects of funeral etiquette, you should defer to the bereaved family. It is imperative that you wait for the death to be announced by them before you post or pass on the news – nobody who is close to the deceased should find out second-hand through a third party. Keep reactions to the news short and heartfelt – now is not the time to post loquacious and heartfelt tributes, which may look like personal grandstanding. There will be opportunities to talk about the deceased and exchange memories in the weeks to come.

Also consider hand-writing a letter of condolence. Especially in this age of instant and easy communication, the effort of penning and posting a letter is a tangible reflection of the strength of your emotions, which will be truly appreciated by close family of the deceased and may be revisited in the difficult weeks to come. Resist the temptation to buy a generic “with deepest sympathy” card; they can look lazy as they give you an excuse not to write a personal message.

Before the Service

In most cases, funerals are open to everyone, and invitations are not issued. Once the date and time has been announced, anyone is free to attend. Some families to do opt for small private funerals and, if that is the case, there will not be a general announcement about date and location.

Think carefully about whether to bring your children. If they are very young, you will simply need to decide whether you are confident that they will make it through the service without causing disruption or distraction. If you have brought very young children, it is wise to sit at the rear of the church or chapel so you can make a hasty exit if volume levels rise.

If you are contemplating bringing older children, talk to them about the funeral first and make sure that they want to attend – dragging an unwilling, or nervous, child to a funeral is never a good idea.

If you are divorced, and still on good terms with your in-laws, you will probably be welcome at a funeral of a family-member, but you should check first. Remember, you are no longer a member of the family, so do not head for the family pews at the front. Never upstage the family when it comes to displays of grief; maintain a dignified and respectful distance.

If your ex-partner has died, try and put the travails of the past behind you – your children will need your support. If a former partner has remarried, you may find yourself completely airbrushed out of proceedings by the current partner. Accept this fate with dignity or consider not attending the funeral and holding a memorial service, perhaps with your children’s participation.

Dress codes for funerals are reasonably flexible. The paramount requirement is to look well turned out and respectful, in honour of the occasion. It is sensible, as a default, to wear dark, sober colours, unless specifically requested not to do so by the family. Flamboyant hats and dramatic outfits are inappropriate because they look self-preoccupied; the whole point of funerals is that they are about the deceased and the focus of everyone’s attention should never be distracted.

At the Funeral

Traditionally at church services mourners assembled beforehand and the coffin was brought into the church at the beginning of the service; in crematoria it is more conventional for mourners to follow the coffin into the chapel. However, these are not hard and fast rules, and there may be variations.

The pews at the front are generally reserved for the close family. Mourners are free to select their own seat and should be careful to avoid the family pews. Always aim to arrive at a funeral at least ten minutes before the start of the service; late entries are extremely distracting.

Mobiles should be switched off before you enter the church or chapel. Don’t switch them to silent as you’ll still be aware of vibrations and flashing screens, which will provide an annoying distraction. You should never look at your mobile during a funeral service.

If you are attending a religious service, and feel out of your depth, simply go with the flow: kneel, sit and stand with the rest of the congregation.

At the end of the service, the family will leave first. The tradition is that each row of seats empties in turn, working from the front to the back – this avoids undignified scrambling and bunching together at the exit.


Photographing and posting every moment of our lives has become second nature to many of us, and some people even indulge in this impulse at funerals. Long-lost friends and family come together at funerals and some people feel an overwhelming temptation to record this rare event; some people even take selfies to record their own participation, which they subsequently post online.  In most cases, it is entirely inappropriate to take photos at funerals, and there should be no question of doing so. Photography is extremely intrusive, it invades mourners’ privacy, and encourages subjects to pose for the camera at a time when they should be contemplating the loss of the deceased or comforting the bereaved.

Some families may request that photos be taken, or even organise professional funeral photography, and their wishes should be respected. However, it is always safest and most considerate to default to the no-photography rule.

Flowers and Donations

Most funeral announcements will indicate if flowers are appropriate. Follow these requests carefully – many families specify that flowers should not be sent, or that a charitable donation is preferred. Where flowers are acceptable, these should be sent to the funeral director before the service. Pure white flowers are considered the most appropriate, though sending specific flowers that are known to have been a favourite of the deceased is a touching personal gesture. The accompanying card should be addressed to the deceased, not the family, and should bear a message of memorial, not of sympathy. The classic message reads “In loving memory”.

If donations to a charity are requested, undertakers may collect contributions on the mourners’ behalf (either online or in cash at the end of the service), or a memorial fund may be set up at a specific charity – details will always be given on the back of the Order of Service.


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