The death of a friend or loved one often leaves us feeling lost and not sure what we can do. Your first reaction may be to help, but you may not be sure of what to say or what you can do. It is natural to feel this way. This part of our web site has been designed to offer some suggestions that you might find helpful and to guide you on the proper etiquette. We hope it will also give you some insight on how you can be of comfort to the bereaved.
While you may feel hesitant and uncomfortable about intruding on the family during their grief, it is important to visit them. This helps to assure the family that while their loved one is gone, they are not alone. While they are suffering a great loss, they are still connected to the living.
When should I visit?
Upon learning of a death, intimate friends of the family should visit the home to offer sympathy and ask if they can help. You may prefer to visit the family at the funeral home. This setting may be more comfortable for you and the family, as they are prepared for visitors.
How long should I stay at a visitation?
It is only necessary to stay for a short time; fifteen minutes or so gives you enough time to express your sympathy. Your simple presence will mean a lot to the family. You do not need to stay for the entire visitation, but try not to leave during any prayers or services that might be offered.
What should I say?
Using your own words, express your sympathy. Kind words about the person who has died is always appropriate. If the family wants to talk, they usually simply need to express their feelings; they aren’t necessarily looking for a response from you. What you say depends entirely on your relationship with the deceased and their family. If the deceased is an acquaintance or casual friend, saying “I’m sorry,” “He was a wonderful person and a friend of mine. He will be missed,” “My sympathy to your family,” or something comparable is appropriate. However, if you are closer to the family you may want to ask if there is anything you can do to help or express your feelings about the deceased. You should not ask for details from the family about the illness or death.
The Visitation at the Funeral Home
The funeral is a ceremony of proven worth and value for those who mourn. It provides an opportunity for the survivors and others who share in the loss to express their love, respect, grief and appreciation for a life that has been lived. Through the funeral the bereaved take that first step toward emotional adjustment to their loss.
A formal visitation provides a time and place for friends to offer their expressions of sorrow and sympathy. This practice is most common among the Protestant and Catholic faiths. The obituary should tell you the visitation hours and when the family will be present, or you may call the funeral home for this information.
When you arrive, go to the family, and express your sympathy with an embrace or by offering your hands. Don’t feel as though you must avoid talking about the person who has died. Talking can help the grieving process begin. If you were an acquaintance of the deceased but not well-known to the family, immediately introduce yourself. Do not feel uncomfortable if you or the family member becomes emotional or begins to cry. Allowing the family to grieve is a natural healing process. However, if you find yourself becoming extremely upset, it would be kinder to excuse yourself so as not to increase the strain on the family.
Many times the family will be in a receiving line near the casket. Viewing the deceased is not mandatory. However, if offered by the family, it is customary to show your respects by viewing the deceased, and, if you desire, spending a few moments in silent prayer. If a kneeling bench is placed in front of the casket, you may kneel and say a prayer. If you do not wish to kneel, you may stand in front of the casket for a moment. Always sign your name in the register book. If you were a business associate of the deceased, it is appropriate to note your company affiliation if the family may not otherwise know you.
Other Expressions of Sympathy
While there is no substitute for a personal visit if you are able to do so, there are many other ways to express your sympathy.
Flowers – Flowers can be a great comfort to the family and may be sent to the funeral home or to the residence. Or, if you prefer, you may send flowers to the residence afterwards. If the family asks that that donations should be made in lieu of flowers, you should honor that request.
Memorial Gifts – A memorial gift is always appropriate, especially when the family has requested such a gift in lieu of flowers. Usually the family will designate a specific organization or charity. Remember to provide the family’s name and address to the charity so they can send proper notification. It is acceptable to mention your gift in a sympathy note without mentioning the amount of the gift.
Phone Calls – If you live out-of-town you should telephone as soon as possible to offer your sympathy. Keep the call brief, since others will probably be trying to call as well. Remember to call after the funeral as well. Just a short phone call to let the bereaved know they are still in your thoughts and prayers, will mean so much.
Food for the family – One of the most welcome gifts at this time is food. There may be family from out of town or other visitors in the house who need to be fed. During the days immediately following the death, dishes that require little preparation other than reheating are appropriate.
Mass Cards – If the deceased was Catholic, a mass card instead of or in addition to flowers would be appropriate. Catholics and non- Catholics may arrange for a mass to be said for the deceased. It can also be a loving tribute to arrange a mass on the anniversary of the death.
E-mail – E-mail is appropriate from those who are not intimate with the family such as a business associate or a former neighbor. The family will appreciate your message of concern.
Should I attend the Services?
Unless the obituary states that “services will be held at the convenience of the family” or “private services will be held,” family and friends are welcome to attend the services. In other words, if the location and time of the services are included in the obituary notice, it is considered an invitation to attend.
What should I wear to the Funeral?
It is no longer necessary to wear black to a funeral. Wearing colorful clothing is no longer inappropriate for relatives and friends. However, persons attending a funeral should be dressed in good taste so as to show dignity and respect for the family and the occasion.
The Funeral Service
Funeral services differ depending upon the religious and personal beliefs of the family. Funeral services can be held at a church, temple, funeral home, or even the residence. Whether the service is held at the funeral home or at church, enter quietly and be seated. The first few rows are usually reserved for family members, however, people should sit close behind them to give comfort and support. A member of the clergy usually conducts the ceremony, but the family may invite others to offer thoughts, anecdotes or eulogies. At the conclusion of the service, you will want to leave promptly, and wait in your car if you plan to follow the procession to the cemetery. Remember to turn your headlights on so you can be identified as being a part of the procession. Also remember to turn you headlights off once you arrive at the cemetery.
The casket is normally placed beside the grave. People then gather around the casket to listen to the rites of burial given by the clergy. Following the clergy’s remarks, family members may place a flower on the casket. In many cases the funeral director will provide flowers for each mourner. The clergy or funeral director will then dismiss the family and friends at the end of the service.
Immediately following the Funeral
Immediately after the funeral, the family sometimes invites the attendees to join them for food or a reception at their home or designated place. This gives everyone a chance to talk and provides some time to relax and refresh. Sometimes friends or church members will take it upon themselves to prepare food ahead of time for this gathering, and relieve the family of this task.
After the difficult and busy days surrounding the death, the family is faced with the challenge of trying to resume their day to day lives. Remembering the family during this time, often is critical in their recovery.
What do I say when I see the family in public?
What you say depends on if you’ve already had contact with them. If you attended the visitation or funeral, a warm greeting or a gentle expression of concern would be appropriate. If this is your first meeting with them since the death, you might carefully express your sympathy. Perhaps by saying you understand that this is a difficult time for them, you can express your concern without causing the bereaved to feel uncomfortable in this public setting. You might even ask when it would be a good time to visit or go to lunch or dinner.
What can I do to help later?
In the days and months to come, the family will continue to need your support. Try to write or call on a regular basis. Continue to include them in your social plans, they will let you know when they are ready to participate. It is also nice to remember the family on special occasions during the first year following the death. Don’t worry about bringing up the pain and emotion of the loss, they are well aware of that. By remembering such occasions as wedding anniversaries and birthdays, you are not remembering the death, but reaffirming that a life was lived.