A guide to funeral etiquette for families
There’s a lot to remember when you organise a funeral, especially when it comes to managing your family’s expectations or looking after everyone’s wellbeing.
But being aware of any customs, traditions and funeral etiquette can help you arrange a loved one’s funeral more easily. Knowing what to do, and who should do it, can help guide you throughout the day.
Announcing the death
This is usually the responsibility of next of kin or immediate family members. For example, if your husband dies, you will announce the death and vice versa.
‘It normally falls to the person who is with the person when they die, or who is in charge of organising their funeral,’ says Kate Parsons, a Co-op Funeral Service Manager in the South West of England. ‘Often, this is the same person.’
Who should be told about the death of a loved one? Direct family members, such as parents, partners or children, are normally told immediately, but it depends on their relationship with the person who died and how close they were.
‘Just because someone is close family doesn’t necessarily give them the right to be notified straight away,’ Kate says. ‘They may have had a difficult relationship with the person who died, whereas a good friend may be much closer and may deserve to be among the first people told.’
The person arranging the funeral is usually aware of any family dynamics, so they will know who needs to be contacted.
Announcing the death to your wider family also comes with some guidelines. Most importantly, don’t put anything on social media unless you know immediate family and close friends have been told. If they have, you could post an announcement online.
Raegan Drew, a funeral director for Co-op, says, ‘Over the last few years, we’ve seen more families taking to social media to share the news that a loved one has passed, as well as any details about their funeral. Traditional ways of letting people know about a person’s death are becoming less popular – we’ve seen requests for obituaries decline by almost 40%.’
If you create a Facebook group or online memorial page with information about when and where the funeral will take place, make sure it’s a private group – unless you do want to invite everyone. And make sure anyone who isn’t online, such as older relatives or those in remote communities, know about the funeral.
Arranging the funeral
Again, this is normally done by next of kin or those closest to the person who died. Kate says, ‘It could be a husband arranging a wife’s funeral or older children supporting their parent. If those relationships don’t exist, the funeral could be arranged by a close friend, an executor or a solicitor.’
Some families decide to arrange the funeral together. Young children can decorate the coffin with pictures or paintings, older children can choose the flowers, while cousins might give a reading. If your loved one planned their own funeral, you should have a clear idea of what they wanted and can carry out their wishes.
Who should be invited to the funeral is also a personal choice. Your loved one may have wanted as many people there as possible or only asked for close friends and family. ‘If you put something online, or make an announcement in the local paper, be specific about exactly who’s invited,’ Kate says. ‘Some people might send out funeral invitations.’
A common question about funeral planning is who pays for the funeral? ‘This normally falls to the person organising the funeral,’ Kate says, ‘but you or your loved one could take out a pre-paid funeral plan, so all the costs are covered.’ If there’s no pre-paid plan, the cost of the funeral may come out of the estate of the person who died.
At the funeral
There’s also some funeral service etiquette to follow on the day itself. For the funeral procession, the etiquette for who goes in funeral cars is usually immediate family after the hearse, followed by other family members and friends, then others who were important to your loved one.
At the funeral service, family traditionally sit on the right-hand side while friends, colleagues and other mourners sit on the left. Immediate family and close friends sit in the front few rows. ‘If someone has been asked to read a poem or give a eulogy, they also sit near the front or at the end of a pew so they can get out easily,’ says Kate.
The dress code for funerals is usually black or dark formal clothing, but things are changing. ‘We now arrange funerals where everyone is asked to come in bright colours, or the same colours as the person’s favourite football team, for example. It’s moving further away from black tie to something more personal,’ says Kate.
Taking photos at a funeral has also become less taboo. It used to be frowned on, but more people are now taking pictures – particularly if there’s an unusual vehicle in the cortege or a theme for the funeral. You could even ask your funeral director to hire a photographer and have the photos made into a memory book.
‘People tell us that has really helped with their grief,’ says Kate. ‘On the day, you might not be able to take everything in, but having those photos can be a wonderful way to look back and remember your loved one.’
What happens after a funeral?
If the funeral is in a church or other place of worship, the coffin will be transported to a burial ground or crematorium after the service. In this situation, the coffin is carried out first, then the funeral director escorts immediate family outside. After that, guests leave the rows of seats in succession from the front.
Things may be a different at a crematorium. ‘Close family and next of kin may want to remain behind after the guests have left, to have one final moment with their loved one,’ Kate says. After burial or cremation, people may stay behind to offer their condolences to those who are grieving or to support one another.
Once the service has ended, you may decide to have a wake. This gives friends and family a chance to catch up, to share memories of the person who died, and for those who couldn’t come to the funeral, such as parents with very young children, to pay their respects. ‘If you do have a wake, make it clear who is invited,’ says Kate. ‘Either tell people personally or put an invite on the order of service.’
It is traditional to invite the person who conducted the funeral, but it’s not expected. Kate says, ‘It’s very rare that we would be invited these days, but I believe a wake should be about spending time with those you love, rather than feeling like you’re hosting a formal event. Everyone has been on their best behaviour during the funeral service but now you can all relax.’
Although funeral etiquette can be helpful, it’s not something you must strictly adhere to; it’s more of a guide during a difficult time.
‘Things are changing – for the better,’ says Kate. ‘People are talking about death a lot more and personalising their funeral, so it becomes more of a celebration of life. Things have moved on from very sombre Victorian funerals, so why shouldn’t they keep evolving?’
• For more information on arranging or attending a funeral, see our helpful guides.