The death of a loved one is a very difficult time for family and friends. The bereaved and well-wishers alike may find it difficult to know how to proceed with proper etiquette before, during and after the funeral. Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore offers some tips for all parties involved.
Common Expectations of the Bereaved
Most people will understand that you are going through a difficult time and will try to respect your needs. Many will want to offer help in the way of food, visits, and phone calls which can become overwhelming. Jacqueline suggests it is "helpful to have a point person" designated by the deceased's family. The point person can field questions and requests from well-wishers, leaving those who are grieving to focus on themselves. This point person can also help deal with some of the details after the service is over.
Once the service is over, you may find yourself bogged down with floral arrangements. Jacqueline recommends donating the flowers to a church or other local organization or using them to decorate the graves of other loved ones. Most families choose to decorate a gravesite immediately after burial.
If the deceased was cremated, it is best to honor that person's wishes in terms of where the cremains will rest. If your loved one did not provide specific instructions for the cremains, you have three main options:
- You could scatter the ashes in a place the deceased loved, such as the ocean.
- Bury the cremains in a biodegradable or wooden urn.
- Have a decorative urn made with the intention of displaying it somewhere in the home of a loved one.
It is a common practice in America for friends and neighbors to offer meals as a condolence to the bereaved. Be sure your point person is prepared to accept or gracefully decline these donations as you wish. If you find your refrigerator overwhelmed with food, Jacqueline says that you can share these meals with close friends and family, or donate the excess food to a local organization in need.
Thank You Notes
Proper etiquette suggests that people should acknowledge receipt of gifts and personal messages with thank you notes, even after a funeral. Expert etiquette website, EmilyPost.com, says there is only one exception to this rule: if the card does not contain a personalized message it does not require a thank you note. Four to six weeks after the funeral service is a good time to start sending out thank you notes. Although, Jacqueline points out that it is okay if it takes longer since "most people understand that the family is grieving and has a lot on their minds."
If you feel overwhelmed at the idea of sending out so many notes, you can enlist the help of close family members and friends in personalizing messages. Jacqueline says you could even make personal phone calls in place of thank you notes if that is easier for you.
Etiquette Tips for Well-Wishers
Sending a Card
Jacqueline believes sending a sympathy card as soon as you hear about the death is the best practice. The key to a great sympathy card is speaking from the heart. A sympathy message should express what you truly feel. Some people choose to send cards after the funeral or on the anniversary of death. These gestures can be met with unnecessary sadness or grief and may not be as welcome as you expect. Stick to an immediate card and your message will be received as you hoped.
The most common practice is to send flowers to the funeral home or church for the funeral service. Jacqueline suggests calling the funeral home for any details about the services instead of imposing on the family of the deceased. Some people choose to designate a memorial fund in lieu of flowers at the service. In this case, it is best to adhere to the family's request and avoid sending any flowers.
Many create a memorial fund in memory of their loved one. If the deceased enjoyed the local art museum, the obituary might read In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the museum. Some choose a favorite charity where monetary gifts can be made. Giving to the specific memorial will be meaningful to your friend.
The wake, or viewing, is typically held over a couple of days before the funeral. Guests are able to pay their respects to the deceased and the bereaved in a less formal way. Sometimes the viewing is for immediate family only. Typically, you should be able to tell from the obituary whether such an event exists and whether it is open to the public.
The funeral service is when a formal ceremony takes place to honor the deceased. Whitmore suggests that it is not necessary for well-wishers to attend both the wake and funeral, but it is certainly appreciated. Some of her general tips to remember when attending a wake or funeral are:
- Be respectful
- Offer your condolences to the family
- Keep it positive (don't ask questions like, 'how did this happen')
If you are at a loss for what to say, Whitemore suggests that you, ". . .tell a memorable or positive story about the deceased; this will lift the family's spirits."
Food for the Family
In the United States, food is traditionally brought to the home of the bereaved. Casseroles and desserts are common. This way, the family does not have to worry about cooking. If the family has small children, consider bringing some fruit snack pouches or kid-appropriate snacks for them.
Often, immediately after the funeral, friends and family are invited to a home for refreshments or a meal. You can offer to bring a dish for this occasion. The best way to know what the family needs and what they may already be overwhelmed with is to ask the designated point person or a close family member.
"Some families accept visitors right away while others would like some time to pass. The best way to show your concern is with a heartfelt card", says Jacqueline. You may wish to spend time with your friend as a comfort, but she may not be ready for this. Respect the wishes of the family and plan a visit if she accepts your offer.
If you do visit, keep your visit short. The grieving family is most likely lacking sleep and under a lot of stress. Perhaps they are having to deal with legal issues, social security problems, and other aspects that come with a death. Call to say you would like to visit. Then come at the time you said you would be there. Forty-five minutes to an hour is plenty of time. Don't be surprised if your friend has to answer the phone or if others come to visit when you do. You might not feel that your visit is significant, but know that your presence speaks volumes. Your friend needs to know others are there to offer concern and sympathy.
Learning Etiquette After Funeral
As you walk with your grieving friend, be sure to give her the care she needs at this time and continue to use proper etiquette after the funeral. Keep these tips in mind:
- Be kind
- Be patient
- Ask her how she is doing and listen to her reply
- Invite her over for coffee or a meal
- Let her know how important she is to you
- Know that some days she may not feel like doing much
- Respect her decisions
- Read books on how to help those in grief
- Realize grieving the death of a loved one is a long process
If your friend is of a different faith or culture, the funeral or customs may not be familiar to you. Try to be respectful of the customs by asking a close friend or family member for more information on what is expected of well-wishers. Keep in mind that the one who has lost her loved one is still grieving. Sadness and yearning for the deceased will continue for months and even years after the death.
Showing You Care Is Always Appreciated
The time after a death can be emotional and confusing for both the bereaved and well-wishers. Be honest and upfront about your needs, in turn your wishes will be respected.