Attending a funeral

Who should attend?

People attend funerals to mark the death of the person and to comfort the bereaved. The informal expression ‘a good send off ‘ may sound slightly disrespectful but in attending a funeral that is the aim.

In rural areas many funerals are still held in large parish churches and parishioners will attend, not just family and close friends. In the country, memorial services are still relatively uncommon, other than for dignitaries or office holders such as lord-lieutenants. Funerals in cities or where the person has less connection with the area where they died are often far smaller.

Letting the Family Know
All funerals are considered public events and there is no question of invitations. It is up to an individual to decide whether or not to attend but it can be helpful to let the family know. Close friends and family who are in touch with the bereaved should let them know if they are able to come. If telephoning seems awkward, a quick letter or email saying how sorry you are and that of course you will be coming is appropriate. It may be followed by a full handwritten condolence letter after the funeral, which can include an element of thanks and praise for a lovely service and very kind hospitality afterwards.

‘Private’ and ‘Public’ Funerals
The family’s wishes are paramount and the words ‘private funeral’ or ‘family funeral’ in a death notice mean that the funeral will be small and it would not be correct to go. If the time and place are published, then it is a signal that the family does wish people to come and it is correct to make every effort to do so, as a good turn-out is a great comfort. Lives are often quite compartmentalised and people move around and lose track of one another, so the fact that you knew the person but not the family or vice versa should not inhibit you. If in doubt, go, as your presence will undoubtedly be a great support. It is unacceptable to question someone’s reasons for attending.

Service Only
Those who feel awkward about attending may choose to go to the service but perhaps not to any lunch or tea afterwards. It is polite, however, to shake the hands of family members on leaving the church and to add a brief word or two of sympathy. The words chosen are less important than your manner and the very fact you are present. Those attending a funeral may also be asked to fill in a card left in the pew or sign a book.

Attending Alone
For practical reasons a husband or wife may well attend the funeral alone. An individual may wish to write either on the card or in the book that he is representing another person, who is unable to be there, or possibly an organisation, but should not embellish this with additional phrases or sentiments. These can be expressed separately in a letter if desired.

Allowing children to come to funerals of close relations is now considered advisable for them, as opposed to shrouding the event in mystery. It may not always be practical to attend with babies or small children but, if they are in the congregation, common sense should apply. If you have a small baby, then sit at the end of an aisle or near the back. Children other than family or godchildren usually only come if there was a special connection or request. In the case of the death of, say, a school child, then the whole school or whole class may come, as may an organisation such as Scouts or the Pony Club. They may also come to support a school friend who has lost a parent or sibling, but less often a grandparent or uncle or aunt, unless that person was involved in their own lives.

Children are expected to behave well and be quiet. It is a good thing to explain to smaller children what will happen and if the funeral is taking place in a church and children are not used to attending, take them to a service the previous Sunday.

At the service

It is vital to arrive early for funerals and inexcusable to be late. If it involves a long journey then make sure you know the way and allow time. It is better not to go at all if it is obvious time is too tight. If a person does arrive late they should wait quietly outside or in the church porch. The congregation should be seated before the arrival of the family and before the funeral party brings in the coffin (in some cases the coffin may already be present). It is best not to greet the chief mourners as they arrive.

The front pews on the right-hand side are usually reserved for family and close friends. The front pews on the left-hand side can be reserved for prominent individuals from an institution or representatives of the deceased’s profession, or for family. This can vary according to the layout of the church or venue, but there should be plenty of space reserved for family. Readers need aisle seats near the front.

At a large funeral there are usually ushers, with a list of people requiring specific seating, who will show people to their pews. Those not on a list should take their places quietly further back or to the side. While it is acceptable to try to sit near friends, who may have already been placed, it is incorrect to make a disturbance by clambering over people or making a fuss. It is best not to talk or look round but acknowledge greetings quietly.

After the service allow the family members to leave first, as at a wedding. Save the social chat until you are outside. Walk slowly and show respect. If there is a plate for offerings for the church or a chosen cause then attend to this as you go out. Have your donation ready so that the people behind you are not held up.

Mobiles and Gadgets
Mobiles should be switched off and all silent activities avoided, for example checking email or sending text messages.

Dress Codes
Black is still the usual colour of mourning but it is not essential to wear unbroken black. A dark colour, such as grey or navy blue, is acceptable.

Men should wear a dark suit with a black tie. Women should dress fairly formally and skirts are still considered more correct than trousers. Showing respect by dressing modestly and smartly is more important than unbroken black. Hats are often worn, but are not essential. They should be relatively simple and appropriate to the season. Remember that very high heels will be difficult to manage in the soft grass of a graveyard.

In cold weather, both men and women should wear a smart tailored coat or jacket rather than a fleece or anorak.

Children should be neat and tidy, with young boys in jackets or school blazers and girls in dresses and coats if possible.

Occasionally a family will make it known that they want something particular in the way of dress, for instance if the dead person hated black or any kind of formality.

At some very formal and grand funerals men may wear morning dress, traditionally worn with not only a black tie, but a black waistcoat. At state occasions military uniforms may also be worn. In such cases, unlike normal funerals, people receive an invitation, which would include instructions.

Royal Family
Traditionally the Royal Family does not attend private funerals other than on very exceptional occasions. However, they do send representatives to both funerals and memorial services. The royal representative arrives after the congregation but before the family and will usually be placed at the front on the left. The congregation will rise as the representative makes their way down the aisle.

The Graveside
Sometimes the congregation goes to the lunch or tea, while the family attends the burial itself, which may be held away from the church where the service was held. In other cases, especially in the country, everyone goes to the graveside. Different rules apply in different traditions but the celebrant will almost certainly point out any rules or they may be printed on the service sheet. In any case, less close friends should hang back, while allowing the family to stand closer to the grave itself. Usually only family members throw soil, or occasionally flowers, into the grave.

Flowers & Donations

Death notices often mention flowers. They are becoming less usual than they once were for practical reasons, as they are no longer particularly welcome in hospitals and fewer people are buried in large rural graveyards. Flowers, therefore, are considered by many to be wasteful and less practical than a donation.

Choosing The Flowers
Family flowers may be in the form of a wreath or perhaps a cross, and the flowers of close family members are often placed on the coffin. If a non-family member does send flowers a simple bouquet, or flat spray, is more usual than a wreath. A large organisation may send a wreath. Colours are usually white or cream but if it was known that the person whose funeral it is loved, for example, pink, then choose accordingly.

It is important to make sure any flowers are clearly and securely marked, as the family will wish to know who they are from and will wish to thank the donor verbally or in writing. If the flowers are being sent because someone is unable to attend, due to absence abroad for example, an explanation may be added to the card; however any message should be primarily addressed to the deceased, rather than the family. For practical reasons the card may have been written by the florist so it is important to check they have the name and wording correct. Ideally the card should be handwritten by the sender but clearly this is not always possible. Simplicity and discretion are crucial.

After the service

During the funeral service, mourners may be notified about details of the wake; alternatively an invitation may be printed on the order of service. Those not wishing to attend may make a brief excuse on leaving the service. It is not obligatory to attend, nor is the wake intended just for close friends.

Those not at the burial can go directly to the lunch or tea and it is quite in order to be served with drinks or food before the family returns. Be aware that it is not a party, so do not overstay your welcome. However, in certain cultures you will be expected to make a night of it. It is a time for sensitivity and awareness, which, as always, are the essence of etiquette.