A guide to British funeral etiquette
Not sure what to wear, do and say at a traditional funeral? Here, we look at the protocol, and how to follow it with ease.
Funeral etiquette means things like what to wear, whether to send flowers and where to sit. Every funeral is different depending on the family’s wishes, but generally the more traditional it is, the more specific the etiquette.
If you’re going to a particularly traditional funeral in a church or crematorium, it can be daunting if you’re not familiar with the etiquette. It may seem as if there are a lot of rules to follow.
But following the protocol - the details of where to sit and so on - is not about making you feel awkward. It’s a way to show that you’re taking the occasion and the family’s wishes seriously, and empathise with their loss.
Sometimes funeral organisers make personal requests for what to wear, or where to send flowers or charity donations. If they don’t specify anything, it can be helpful to follow standard funeral etiquette.
Phone or email to let the organiser know if you’re coming
Usually funerals are public, and the death notice will include the details. Anyone who wishes to attend is welcome and it’s likely the family will take comfort from a good number of people coming. But it’s polite to let them know in advance whether you’re coming.
If you cannot make it, an option is to send flowers with a message of sympathy and a brief explanation that you’re not going to be there.
There are some circumstances in which it may be best not to go:
If you’re estranged from the family or there’s tension between you and certain relatives. A funeral is not the right time to try to make amends or bring up old arguments. Consider whether it would be best to visit the grave another time by yourself.
If the family says it’s private or family only. You should respect their wishes. If you’re not sure, you can call the funeral director to check.
Do bring children, but prepare them
It can be good for children to be aware of death and understand what it means to lose someone, but it’s also good to give them the choice. If they’re old enough to understand, ask them whether they want to go.
You can give them an idea of what will happen on the day, so that they know to be calm and respectful.
If you’re bringing babies or very small children, it may be best to sit at the end of an aisle or near the back of the venue in case you need to take them out.
People generally wear black, but other dark colours are fine too
Suits and formal dresses are the norm at more traditional funerals, and people may wear hats. Children don’t have to wear all-black, but they should be as smart and tidy as possible.
Try to follow the family’s wishes if they ask guests to wear or avoid a particular colour that’s meaningful to them and the person who died. Sometimes a family will request bright colours in order to make the funeral more of a celebration of life.
It’s best not to bring flowers to funerals
This is because it can be overwhelming for the family to receive them, and a bit difficult to arrange and transport them after the service.
If you’re keen to send flowers to a funeral, you can do that via the funeral director. If you send a wreath or other arrangement to the funeral home in advance, the funeral director can bring them to the venue for the service, or place them at the graveside if it’s a burial.
Another option is to send flowers directly to the family home. It’s perfectly fine to wait to send them until after the funeral.
Swapping flowers for charity donations
Flowers are still popular at British funerals, but sometimes a funeral notice will suggest people donate to a particular charity instead. This is becoming more common as people think more about sustainability and practicality.
The funeral organiser may invite you to take part in a procession
Traditionally a funeral may include a funeral procession. Also known as a cortège, it’s when a group of people or vehicles follows the coffin as it makes its final journey from the funeral home or family home to the service.
The closest family members travel in a funeral car, sometimes a limousine, behind the hearse (the name for the car carrying the coffin). This is usually their spouse or partner, children, parents and siblings. Other cars drive behind carrying more family members, sometimes with guests following in their own cars.
When the procession arrives at the church, crematorium or cemetery, pallbearers carry the coffin into the service, with the family behind, followed by other guests.
The funeral director manages the procession and order of cars before the funeral. If there’s no procession, family and guests travel and arrive separately in good time for the funeral service.
Give yourself plenty of time to get there and find a seat
There’s no set rule about who should arrive and take their place first. For some traditional church services guests arrive and take a seat before the family comes in. Sometimes the immediate family leads the procession into the service and other guests enter afterwards.
If there’s a risk that you’ll be late, consider whether you might disrupt the funeral. If you cannot slip in quietly when the service is in progress, it may be best not to go in and instead join the funeral at a later stage, such as the burial if there is one, or the wake.
For the service, family and close friends usually sit in the front pews or rows, and all other guests gradually fill up the rest of the seats. Avoid sitting right at the back if it means leaving a big gap between you and the close family at the front. Anyone giving a reading sits in an aisle seat near the front.
At more traditional funerals the moments before the service, when people are arriving, are a quiet time where people tend not to make a lot of conversation. Other funerals may be more relaxed and sociable. It’s always best to take the close family’s lead.
If you’d like to give a reading, talk to the people organising the funeral well in advance
It’s important to find out what kind of funeral they’re planning. There’s no standard set of poems and Bible verses for a traditional funeral. With many factors to consider such as faith, culture, tone and sentiment, it’s entirely up to the family what they’d like.
Unless there’s an emergency, try not to use your phone during the service
Keep it on silent or switched off if you can. If you need to answer an emergency call, step out of the service and move far enough away so that people in the service cannot hear your conversation.
It may be tempting to take photos outside the church or at the graveside to capture the moment - especially if there are relatives you haven’t seen in a while. But it’s likely that at least one person will find this inappropriate, so if you’re at a traditional funeral it’s best not to.
Similarly, you may want to avoid posting anything about the funeral on social media. Funerals are very private for some people, and it’s important to respect that.
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The family leaves the service first with other guests following
By the exit, there’s sometimes a plate for offerings for the church or for a charity of the family’s choice, so you may want to have a donation ready.
In some parts of the world, including the US, there’s a custom of tipping funeral staff, such as drivers, pallbearers and grave diggers, but this is not the expectation in the UK. If you want to say a particular thank you, you can send a note or card after the funeral.
If it’s a burial, sometimes everyone makes their way from the service to the graveside, and sometimes the close family will keep this part private, asking other guests to go straight to the wake.
Why do we throw soil on graves?
At burials, mourners sometimes throw a few handfuls of soil onto the coffin, symbolising the return to the earth of the person who’s died. Sometimes they throw a few flowers, too. It’s generally only close family members who do this, and you don’t have to.
The wake is usually less formal than the service
Funerals in the UK traditionally include a wake immediately after the service. Every wake is different and there are no particular customs - it depends on the family’s wishes.
People hold wakes at church halls, hotels or pubs, and sometimes at the family home, and there’s usually food and drink. At some funerals, anyone who goes to the funeral service is welcome at the wake. Other funerals may open the service to all but have a smaller, private wake afterwards, depending on the family’s wishes.
It’s good to stay if you can. But it’s fine if you feel the need to leave or get the impression the family wants the wake to be brief.
It can be hard to know what to say at funerals, but it’s best to keep things simple
One option is to share a fond memory of the person who’s died. If nothing fitting comes to mind or you’re not comfortable doing that, it’s fine to make remarks, such as ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’, ‘I’m here if you need anything’ and ‘you and your family are in my thoughts’.
The fact that you’re there means more than exactly what you say. However, there are a few things you may want to avoid:
Jokes or comments that make light of their loss.
Remarks that make their experience less personal, eg ‘grief is something we all have to go through’.
Inappropriate stories about the person who’s died.
Comments that may assume beliefs about the afterlife, eg ‘they’ve gone to a better place’.
In the weeks after a funeral, the family may appreciate more support and sympathy
You may want to send a note expressing thanks for arranging the service and offering to help with anything. Even if you do not hear back, keep checking in with people who are grieving.
Remembering the date of the funeral and marking the anniversary with messages of sympathy and memories of the person who died is a lovely way to keep showing you care.
It’s always best to ask if you’re not sure of the etiquette
With any aspect of funeral etiquette try not to worry about getting it wrong. What happens at funerals varies depending on the family and the particular funeral they’re creating.
Some funerals closely follow tradition, while others take elements of it and some are completely unique. If you’re unsure about anything, it’s best to ask the funeral director or the family to find out their wishes.
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