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Funeral Etiquette for the Family of the Deceased

Notifying Family and Close Friends

When someone dies, the immediate family should be notified first, either in person or by telephone. Next, the family's closest relatives and friends should be contacted by telephone, whether they live locally or in another city.

It is important to give people the name of the funeral director and funeral home address so that flowers will be sent to the proper location. The time of the service, however, cannot be determined until after the funeral director and clergy have consulted.

Records to Keep

In many communities, friends and neighbors follow the friendly practice of bringing or sending gifts of food to the family. Assigning someone to keep a record of these gifts will help when acknowledging them later. Be sure to mark each container promptly with the name and address of the owner. A record should also be kept of all services rendered for the same reasons.

Calling or Visitation Hours

It is customary to give relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers an opportunity to call at the funeral home, prior to the services, to pay their respects. The hours designated for this purpose are known as "calling or visitation hours." A member of the family is usually present at these times.

Each family should determine the number of family members needed during calling hours. Receiving the sympathy of friends hour after hour is consoling and helpful to some; to others, it is an almost intolerable, soul-shattering experience.

It is not necessary for family members to have long conversations with visitors. A simple, "Thank you, Joan: it means so much to have friends like you at this time," is all the reply that is required.

If the casket is open during calling hours, as is customary in many regions, callers may wish to approach the casket and say a final farewell. It is not necessary for a family member to accompany the caller.

Prior to the Funeral Service

The funeral director is in the best position to advise when the family should arrive at the funeral home or church before the start of the service. It is not unusual for the funeral director to send a car for the family; but there is no reason the family should not provide its own transportation if they prefer.

If the service is to be conducted in a funeral establishment, the family will be taken directly from the car to the family room. Here, the family can have a degree of privacy, time to compose themselves, talk briefly with their spiritual counselor, and settle any last-minute details with the funeral director in charge.

During the Service

Today's funeral services are usually brief, lasting not much more than 20 to 30 minutes. The relative brevity of the service places less emotional strain upon the family, compared with the lengthy services so common several decades ago. Should a family member faint or become highly emotional, the funeral director should be called promptly to handle the situation.

At the Cemetery

The graveside service is normally brief. Once the commitment ritual has been completed and the casket lowered to ground level, it is customary for the family to leave the grave site. After the family has departed, the casket is placed in a vault or other outside receptacle, interred, and the flowers placed on the grave.

After the Service

For several days after the funeral service, the family is entitled to rest and time to attend to the innumerable details that require their attention. Some families will appreciate having friends telephone or stop by to visit. Others will prefer complete rest and quiet. Families in this second category are entitled to a consideration. Phone calls may be terminated after a minute or so with a hasty, "Oh, there's the doorbell again. I must run! Thanks so much for calling."

Thank You Notes

Your funeral director will provide you with formal, generalized thank you cards, which are worded to acknowledge almost any type of floral offering, gift or personal service. The family may choose to use these cards or to send personal notes of thanks.

Whichever type is sent, the notes should be brief, sincere, personal and specific. With minor changes, the following examples of thank-you notes can be adapted to almost any situation.

Etiquette for Friends and Distant Relatives

Upon Receiving the News

If you learn that a friend or relative has died, the first thing to do is extend your sympathy and offer assistance in whatever way you can. If you live a distance from where the death occurred, tell the family if you will be attending the service and approximately when you expect to arrive.

If you cannot provide this information at that time, tell the family you will call back as soon as you have reached a decision. Keep the conversation reasonably brief, remembering that the family will likely have numerous similar calls to make and that long telephone conversations are undesirable given their emotional state.

If you learn of the death through the local newspaper or (as is customary in some small communities) a local broadcast, call the family immediately, briefly express your sympathy and offer your services, and end the conversation.

Sending a floral tribute is a an accepted custom in many traditions, unless the family has requested that memorial gifts be sent in lieu of flowers. Unless the notice in the newspaper state that flowers are to be omitted, friends and relatives may consider it obligatory to send flowers. Catholics have an option of sending flowers of a Spiritual Bouquet, indicating that a Mass or series of Masses will be said in memory of the deceased.

When ordering flowers, ask the florist to write the formal form of the donor's name and complete address on the accompanying card. This thoughtful gesture will make it unnecessary for the bereaved family to look up each address when sending acknowledgment cards or notes.

Memorial Gifts

When sending memorial gifts be certain to mention that the gift is being made in memory of the deceased. The organization receiving the gift will normally send a list of donors to the family so the family can express its thanks and acknowledge the donation.

Contacting the Family

Upon hearing of a death, only very close friends of the deceased and the immediately family are expected to visit the family residence prior to the service. For all others, it is appropriate to telephone the residence to express sympathy. When calling the residence, speak to whomever answers the phone. Don't insist on talking to the family of the deceased. Remember to keep your call short, as the family will need the telephone to make arrangements.

There are countless ways friends can be help when someone dies, such as preparing and serving food, babysitting, loaning cars or running an errand. Whatever you can do to be of service will be greatly appreciated.

Remember that conditions in the bereaved household may be somewhat chaotic. Therefore, simple, easy-to-serve food is most appropriate. Fried chicken, baked ham, potato salad and covered dishes will be welcome, as will pies and cakes. Don't call the family to ask if food is needed. Just prepare it and take it to the residence.

When Paying Respects

It is customary for friends to call at the funeral home prior to the day of the funeral service. A "friend" could include co-workers and some of the deceased's superiors. If an employee loses a very close relative, such as a husband, wife, father or mother, the immediate superior should call at the funeral home.

The obituary notice in the newspaper ordinarily incudes a line to the effect: "Friends may call at the Blank Funeral Home, Wednesday, between 2 and 4 p.m. and 7 and 9 p.m." This information could be interpreted as meaning that one or more members of the family will be present during these hours. If you prefer not to express your sympathy personally, or if it is difficult or impossible to call during the specified hours, you may simply sign the register book in token of your visit.

The registry should be signed by all who call, either to pay their respects or to attend the services. Your degree of closeness to the family will determine whether you will sign the registry formally as "Mr. and Mrs. Harold F. Smith" or informally as "Marjorie and Harold Smith."

Attending the Service

It is a good idea to arrive at the funeral home at least 10 minutes before the service is scheduled to begin. Services usually start precisely at the time specified, and it is considered rude to enter the service room or chapel after the service has begun. If you arrive early, do not try to meet or speak with bereaved family members. Conversation in the chapel, prior to the service, is permissible, but should be conducted in a very low voice. A friend can be greeted with a nod and a smile, but refrain from conducting animated conversations, even with a friend you haven't seen for a long time. A funeral service, regardless of where it is held, is a time to conduct oneself with decorum and a show respect for the grieving family.


It is a common custom for friends to go up to the casket for a final farewell before or after the service. It is not obligatory that this be done, however; and you show no lack of respect or affection by refraining.

Graveside Service

Attending the graveside services after the funeral is a choice for each person to determine. The deciding factor will be the closeness of the relationship between the individual and the bereaved family.

Funeral Procession

The trend today is toward shorter funeral processions. In larger cities, particularly, traffic congestion can make it difficult to move a long procession through the streets without interruptions and confusion. The funeral director or assistant will give brief instructions and an identification device to the drivers of all cars in the procession. The use of auto headlights is a commonplace method of identification.


As soon as you have parked your car in the cemetery, move as quickly as possible to the graveside. Do not attempt to engage the immediate family in conversation either before or immediately after the graveside service. It is courteous to follow, rather than precede, the family when returning to your car.

After the Funeral

The bereaved family will need a few days following the service to take care of the many details that are inevitable, and time to compose themselves. You will find the bereaved will draw strength and comfort from your support. No contribution is more worthwhile than that.