Funeral Etiquette

I lie to myself and say that I will know what to say. But I’m that guy. The guy who always says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Especially at a funeral or wake. Finding some felicitous phrase when greeting a bereaved family member is not my forte. The supposed purpose of a wake or funeral is to show the family or loved ones that the deceased was cherished in life.

The average person attends no less than 50 funerals in their lifetime, so why is it so nerve-racking to so many of us? Most of us worry that we will say the wrong thing. I always tell myself that I won’t, but it never fails; I always ask them how they are doing. And as I’m walking away with my head held low, I am screaming to myself…’ idiot, you know how they are. They are devastated because their mom died.’ Ultimately, we need to remember to not stress ourselves with remembering some eloquent speech. Remember that just showing up can mean a lot to the bereaved family. I know what you’re thinking: “Chris, in your opinion, what should you say to someone at a funeral?” Well, it’s funny you ask that because I have five things to do or say to a bereaving loved one at a wake or funeral and five things NOT to do or say to a bereaving loved one at a wake or funeral.

What to do/say

Use nonverbal communication: It is okay to smile at a funeral when greeting the bereaved. You honestly have no idea what that nonverbal communication can do to support the bereaving loved one. A hug or pat on the shoulder might also be appropriate. 

Simple words: “I’m so sorry about your loss.” “Please accept my deepest condolences for your loss.” “You and your loved ones are in my thoughts and prayers.” Avoid common platitudes. I am so guilty of throwing these into a conversation but saying “he is in a better place,” “his suffering is over,” or “she lived a long time” might not always reflect the feelings that the bereaved are feeling at that time. Sometimes less is more. 

Say the names: “You know your {the deceased} was a wonderful person. I will miss them very much.” “Mrs. Bettie made the best chocolate cakes.” Mr. Billy always made our store a happier place to work.” 

Share your story: “My name is {your name}, and I worked with {the deceased}.” Tell them appropriate anecdotes about the bereaved. Tell them that the bereaved loved them. “He/she was a great person.” Etc. “

Listen: Sometimes listening shows just as much care and concern as talking. As I said above, sometimes we talk too much. Take time to listen with love, even if you have heard that story a million times. 

What NOT to do/say

Show privacy: Do not take pictures inside the funeral service or at the grave site unless asked to do so by the family. People in attendance may be mourning, and some may be crying. Taking images at funerals 100 years ago was commonplace but with the advent of cell phones and modern cameras, casually taking pictures is not respectable.

Don’t ask: Just an FYI, if someone you know dies, you aren’t okay. So, asking someone who is going through this ordeal is redundant. I am guilty of this. This is the one thing that I have to work hardest on. It is an impulse for me to say, “How are you doing,” during all conversations, and meeting with someone in a bereaving state is no different. 

Again I say Listen: We want people to know that we are being empathetic, but there is a point that we need to listen and not automatically make it a time when we talk about our past grief. Steer clear of saying, “I know how you feel.” Fight that impulse.

No More Tears: Telling someone to stop crying or to ‘let it out’ is inappropriate. It is not our place to tell anyone how to process their emotions. 

Appropriate: My father’s biggest complaint when visiting a funeral is the way others act while people are grieving. To some, a funeral is a solemn place to show respect to the family, and cutting up with someone you haven’t seen in a long time while in line to meet with the bereaved family is shunned. To laugh and carry on while someone is crying with their family inside a room or at the front of the church is a disrespectful act. 

Note: All of this, in my opinion, is meant to apprise. The things suggested are backed by research done by multiple funeral homes and internet polls of bereaved families.


Donnellan Funeral Home by Unknown author –, Public Domain,

Helge Johnson funeral by Unknown photographer – IMS Vintage Photos, Public Domain,

Funeral for Arnt Olsen in 1932 by Lyder Kvantoland –, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Garnand Funeral Home by Boston Public Library – Garnand Funeral Home, CC BY 2.0,

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