Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reader Questions: Funerals and Etiquette

I have recently received a number of unrelated questions concerning the subject of funerals. Funerals and memorial services are somber occasions for many, but the celebration of life is what is important to me. Here is a sample of some of the queries.

Hello Jay,

I am a regular reader of your column. Would you please address sometime, funeral parlor visitation etiquette? It has been my experience that "visitors" often spend too much time reminiscing with the bereaved, especially when there is a lengthy line of people waiting to pay their respects. I feel that it would be more appropriate after expressing condolences to say "lets get together in a few weeks and catch up" instead of talking and talking as others wait their turn. It may be a sensitive issue and I don't suppose the parlor staff would be comfortable in "moving things along". What are your thoughts? Keep the columns coming!


Dear J.H.,

I recently spent a couple of hours at a local funeral parlor speaking with the funeral director and his staff. We discussed, among other things, receiving lines and how long it can take to navigate them. There are a couple of considerations. First of all, a long receiving line can take a long time to go through. This is not comfortable for anyone involved, be it the bereaved or their guests. If there are several family members present at the funeral home, consider not having a line. Family members can be given the task of circulating amongst the guests and accept their condolences on behalf of the family. This avoids unnecessarily long conversations with only one person in a line where it is important to move along as quickly as possible.

As far as receiving lines are concerned you will have to practice patience. The family in mourning is certainly not in a hurry to go anywhere nor is the deceased. Out of respect, it is your turn to wait. If you are not prepared for a lengthy line return at a different time; it is utterly disrespectful to think that things ought to at these moments accommodate your needs.

At a Catholic wake, it is traditional to have a receiving line and/or have elderly relatives seated near the family greeting people paying their respects. Wakes take place over a number of hours. Sometimes the family divides the time between several days or two 3 hour periods for receiving persons. This makes a lot of sense to me. But the number of persons who attend a wake is very variable and there is very little way to predict numbers and length of lines. Be prepared to be respectful and spend the time needed if it is your intention to pay your respects to the family who has suffered the loss.

If you feel that it is applicable, keep your condolence remarks brief and move along through the receiving line.


Dear Jay,

Close friends of ours recently lost their young son very unexpectedly. While attending the services I noticed people handing over envelopes to the family. My parents told me that people donate money to the family to help with funeral costs. Should I do the same and how much is appropriate?

Thank you.


Dear Phyllis,

Thanks for asking this good question. What a very sad situation. There are many ways people can help at such times. Helping with the costs of a funeral is completely appropriate. Other envelopes might simply be condolence cards or in the case of a Catholic death, Mass cards. If the family has asked for donations to a charity in lieu of flowers, that is another option and appreciated by the bereaved. Naturally, what you can afford to give is contingent on your own personal financial situation. There is no specific amount which is correct. You could also donate to the charity if you are so inclined and able. Whatever you are able to do will not go unnoticed or taken for granted. I hope this helps.


Dear Jay,
Is it customary, necessary or expected that a widow write thank you cards in response to sympathy cards. I have received over 50 and to reply would be a very daunting task.


Dear Pat,

Thanks for asking this good question. A notice in the local newspaper is sometimes published for the family. In most instances it is polite to at some point acknowledge the cards and letters which have been received. This is a daunting task and might takes months. Printed thank you cards are usually supplied by the funeral home and are the way for the family to acknowledge the kindness of people at a horrendously difficult time. Further if a charity is named in lieu of flowers, the charity will supply you with a list of those who made donations (not the amount of the donation). It is appropriate to acknowledge these people with a hand written note. I hope this helps.


Remember that if you go to a funeral or a memorial service that respect is the order of the day. Dress appropriately. You do not have to wear black. Men ought to remove their hats and caps upon entering the house of worship. Children should be dressed appropriately and should be well exercised, fed and been to the bathroom before the service so as to create the least disturbance. This is another opportunity for one’s parenting skills to be employed. Teaching young people about respect at such occasions is important. It also is a time for us to reflect on the many blessings we have in our own lives and how fragile life is.

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