While any funeral is a reverent affair, military funerals are typically more formal. All attendees are generally expected to maintain their bearing and not cause a commotion. This is particularly true for military members in uniform. Understanding this etiquette will help attendees know how to conduct themselves while attending a military funeral and avoid any unintentional etiquette mistakes.
When to Salute
If you're attending a military for the first time and have no military affiliation, follow the lead of other attendees in civilian clothing. Note that there is no etiquette rule stating a non-veteran civilian should salute at any time during a military funeral; while some civilians may feel this is a sign of respect, when rendered incorrectly a salute can be a huge breach of etiquette.
If you are a member of the Armed Forces, you will be expected to behave in a respectful manner. Besides wearing your dress uniform, you should stand and salute when it is appropriate (except if you are a pallbearer):
- When the hearse passes in front of you
- At any time while the casket is being moved
- During the gun salute
- While Taps is being played
- If present, when the casket is being lowered into the ground
Civilians and Those in Civilian Dress
If you are in civilian dress, you should remove your hat and place it over your heart in lieu of saluting. Use your right hand if you aren't wearing a hat. Remain standing for the entire service except when the chaplain or other religious figure is reading the committal service if seating is available, or when the person presiding over the service instructs attendees to sit.
What to Wear
Etiquette is different for attendees depending upon their function and their military affiliation. Etiquette can also be different between those in military uniform and those in civilian clothes.
Military personnel should wear their appropriate dress uniform, which is typically the Class-A uniform. The military mess dress is not appropriate for a funeral.
Family Members and Friends
Everyone in attendance at a military funeral should be dressed respectfully. Dress as you would to attend a traditional church service. Civilian men should wear a suit and tie, or at least, slacks and a button-up shirt and tie. Civilian women should wear a dress, a suit, or skirt and blouse, or nice pants and a blouse. Casual clothing such as jeans, shorts, t-shirts, and athletic clothing are frowned upon. Wear comfortable dress shoes, as these services tend to run a little longer than a regular funeral service.
There are a few other customs and traditions you should be aware of so that you do not inadvertently appear disrespectful.
Allow immediate family members to sit in the chairs available at the cemetery. The next of kin should be in front, as he or she will be the recipient of the folded American flag given as part of the service. Family members and friends who are seated at the gravesite should remain seated throughout the ceremony.
Young children and toddlers should not be present at a graveside military funeral unless the family requests their attendance. They simply are too young to understand, and it is difficult for them to remain quiet and still for an extended time. Older children may be old enough to attend, but use your best judgment, and inform them ahead of time of the process, so things such as the gun salute doesn't catch them off guard.
Follow Chaplain's Lead
Those attending the service should follow the lead of the chaplain; he or she will instruct attendees as to when it is appropriate to sit, stand, or turn your attention toward the flag or casket. Military chaplains generally do a good job of offering instructions to attendees, knowing that not everyone is familiar with military customs.
No Electronic Devices
Cell phones and other electronic devices should, of course, be turned off for the entire duration of the ceremony. It's a good idea to double check your devices, as a ringing or buzzing cell phone during a service is a grand faux pas.
A Respectful Farewell
After the funeral, make time to visit the family who recently lost their loved one. Take time to send not only a sympathy card, but a letter of condolence as well. Phone calls even a few weeks later will be welcomed, and appreciated.