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Loss is an incredibly painful and personal experience that people deal with in different ways. As a culture, Americans tend to feel discomfort around death, which sometimes leads to rude behavior at funeral services, shivas and other mourning rituals.
With that in mind, if you’re attending a funeral, there are faux pas you’ll want to avoid committing out of respect for the deceased person’s closest friends and family.
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It’s important to be sensitive to people who are mourning.
We spoke to etiquette experts to identify some rude behaviors they’ve observed at funerals and related events,
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“If the funeral is starting at 10 a.m., don’t show up at 10 a.m.,” advised Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “Show up at 9:45, so you can get into the venue and be seated before the family is walking down the aisle.”
If you do end up running late, be sure to make a discreet entrance, noted Patricia Rossi, a civility expert, keynote speaker and author of “Everyday Etiquette.”
“If you’re late, slip in a side door and go to the side pew,” said Rossi
It may seem obvious, but still, some people forget to silence their phones and put them away during these occasions. Rossi said she’s seen people actively texting during funerals. “It is beyond rude,” she noted.
Daniel Post Senning, an author and spokesperson for The Emily Post Institute, was recently at the funeral of a good friend’s father when someone’s phone started to ring in the middle of an emotional eulogy.
“It was in the bottom of her bag and took three or four rings to get to it,” he recalled. “If you could pick the worst possible time to have a phone go off, this is it. People are crying around us, the person is speaking and otherwise there’s silence. Then the phone is going off.”
Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid committing this faux pas. Senning advised: “Silence your phone, shut off your phone, or even just leave it behind. There’s nothing good you can do with it in that situation. Bring your attention to the place you are and the people you’re with.”
“With almost everyone owning a smartphone, it’s become a habit to capture the moment and post to social media. It would be insensitive to post pictures of someone’s funeral without special permission,” said Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “Although there are many special moments that happen at a funeral, it’s not a party, and, even though it may be looked upon by some as a celebration of someone’s life, respectful decorum must be used when taking pictures.”
Rossi said she’s received several email complaints about rude photo-taking behavior around funerals.
“It’s in the worst taste to take a picture. Don’t do that,” she noted. “And for goodness’ sake, no selfies with the body. I’ve gotten emails about that as well.”
“Every funeral is different, but the theme should be respectful and appropriate. Some people in a rural town may wear jeans and a nice shirt while other people in a different area would be dressed similar to what they would wear to a business function,” Gottsman explained, adding that mourners should avoid wearing clothes that are shiny, short or would cause a distraction.
“Wearing black and gray isn’t required anymore, but it’s not the time to break out your zebra skirt or bright green pants. It’s not a disco,” Rossi said.
Of course, there are exceptions to that rule. Religions often have different practices when it comes to funeral dress. And you may be invited to a memorial service that’s more of an upbeat celebration of life where people are encouraged to wear bright colors.
“You want to wear something as subtle as possible unless they specify, ‘Come in your Jimmy Buffett parrot headwear.’ If they specify that, obviously don’t come all wrapped up in black.”
– Patricia Rossi, author of “Everyday Etiquette”
“You want to wear something as subtle as possible unless they specify, ‘Come in your Jimmy Buffett parrot headwear,’” said Rossi. “If they specify that, obviously don’t come all wrapped up in black.”
If you aren’t sure what to wear, you can call and ask the funeral home or someone close to the planning process about the attire and general tone of the service.
Finish your coffee before you enter the funeral service.
“If you stop at a coffee shop and get a frothy caffeinated drink, do not bring it in with you to the funeral,” said Smith. “You can make it through a service without injecting caffeine in your body. You can chug it ahead of time or have it after. Don’t bring your to-go cup.”
“Don’t chew gum, and don’t make terribly distracting noises,” Smith said.
During the ceremony, even if you aren’t familiar with the rituals, try to follow what everyone else is doing, or at least don’t call attention to yourself.
“When people stand, you should stand,” Smith added. “If people kneel, you don’t necessarily have to kneel, but be respectful of the people who are praying that particular way.”
“When possible, it’s polite to stay for the entire funeral,” Gottsman advised. “You may not enjoy a long ceremony of any kind, but a funeral is the last time you will pay your respects to your friend. And the family will notice your early departure.”
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Grieving is a very personal experience.
It means a lot for people to see you show up and stay long enough to express your sympathy.
“Maybe you didn’t know the person, but you are friends with one of their children. If there’s a wake, a shiva, any sort of gathering, you should attend for your friend’s sake and be there to comfort that person in mourning,” Smith said. “Just posting condolences on social media doesn’t fulfill your requirement to your immediate social circle.”
When you do have a chance to speak with the deceased person’s loved ones, don’t ask for details about the death.
“It’s not your place to know every detail of how and why the person died,” Gottsman said. “Unless information is offered, steer clear from invasive questions.”
“There are ways to express your sympathy and your high regard for someone without being insensitive,” Senning said. “‘He’s in a better place now’ can sound comforting when you’re saying it, but for someone in the grieving process, that can sound like someone saying, ‘It’s better that they’re gone.’
Senning recommends being careful with your words because people are in an emotional state and in different phases of grieving. Of course, you shouldn’t let your concerns about saying the wrong thing keep you from saying anything at all.
“If you tend to be more introverted or shy, remind yourself that it’s OK to say to somebody, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss. I really cared about so and so. I’ve been thinking about them and all of you,’” Senning explained. “It’s not necessarily going to open someone up or expose some raw nerve, but it can be meaningful for people.”
It’s also good to keep your condolences simple to avoid taking attention away from the deceased and their loved ones.
“Don’t make it about yourself. Even if you’ve lost somebody, don’t say, ‘I know how you feel. When I lost my grandma, I felt this way or that,’” said Smith. “It sounds strange because usually in the world of etiquette, we’re trying to be more empathetic. But grief is a very singular experience, and people don’t like to be told that you understand exactly where they’re coming from.”
Instead, just say that you’re sorry for their loss, tell them you’re thinking of them, perhaps offer a nice memory you have of that person, and move on. Don’t hold up the receiving line sharing your sad story. Save that for another time.
There’s an urge these days to post information and reflections about significant events like deaths and funerals on social media, but that’s not necessarily the right thing to do.
“If the family hasn’t given you permission to say anything on social media, then I would stay off,” said international etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, adding that it’s best to follow the lead of the family. “I wouldn’t be the first person to post about the death of a person if I’m not part of the immediate family.”
“It sounds strange because usually in the world of etiquette, we’re trying to be more empathetic. But grief is a very singular experience, and people don’t like to be told that you understand exactly where they’re coming from.”
– Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting
It’s best to keep things positive in these situations and avoid making negative comments or colorful jokes about the person who has died.
“He or she may or may not have been the pillar of decorum while alive, but it is not your place to publicly list the multiple behaviors that garnered them the name ‘Rumpus Randy’ while still on this earth,” Gottsman said. “A funeral is a time to show respect to the family and person who has died. If you are sitting next to someone who is saying something negative, feel free to say, ‘I really loved Randy and I admire his commitment to his family.’”
It can be a big ask to try to get a mourner into the mental framework to make jokes at such a raw time. “Humor is a powerful tool that can work well to bring levity to a situation, communicate closeness, but it can also be misinterpreted and not be heard the way you expect. So it’s best to be careful,” Senning said.
Ultimately, you should follow the mourner’s lead, however. If they’re telling funny stories and laughing, you can laugh along.
Mourning is a very personal and individual process, so try to be with people where they are.
“It’s not up to you to try to change or move them faster through the levels of grief,” Smith said. “If they’re still in shock, sometimes you just need to sit next to them and hold their hand.”
Whitmore noted that it’s best to avoid telling people, “You should eat” or forcing food on them. “There are no ‘shoulds’ when you’re mourning. Let people mourn and work through the grief process the way they want to ― in their terms and on their time,” she said.
“Don’t forecast how they’ll feel in the future,” added Rossi. “Don’t say things like ‘time heals all wounds’ or ‘still a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about my precious Ralph.’”
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Don’t tell people how they should feel or how they will feel later.
While you may end up interacting with someone you’d like to connect with on a professional level, resist the urge to treat the day as a networking opportunity.
“Don’t treat this event like a business event. This is a time for mourning,” Whitmore said. “Don’t start giving out your business cards at a wake or funeral. Even if someone asks, just say you don’t have one at this time.”
Many funeral services have a formal car procession from the place of worship or funeral home to the cemetery, crematorium or final resting place. It’s important to be respectful during this time.
“The funeral procession is a solemn tradition, and honking at someone who cut in line is not recommended,” Gottsman said. “The immediate family goes first, generally followed by other members of the family, then friends.”
If you tell a mourner that you’ll be in touch to make plans, be sure to follow through. You can also offer to help with meals, child care, paperwork or anything else that needs to be done in the aftermath of the loss.
“After the funeral, a lot of people forget about the family,” Whitmore said. “After a week or two, when things settle down, you might want to call the person and ask if they’d like to go to a movie or to lunch, just to get them out of the house. If you promise to bring them food, follow through.”