Sunday, April 03, 2005

Funeral Etiquette Suggestions

Please note that these are suggestions only

The death of a friend or loved one often leaves us feeling lost and not sure what we can do. Your first reaction may be to help, but you may not be sure of what to say or what you can do. It is natural to feel this way. We hope it will also give you some insight on how you can be of comfort to the bereaved.

While you may feel hesitant and uncomfortable about intruding on the family during their grief, it is important to visit them. This helps to assure the family that while their loved one is gone, they are not alone. While they are suffering a great loss, they are still connected to the living

When should I visit?
Upon learning of a death, intimate friends of the family should visit the home to offer sympathy and ask if they can help.

What should I say?
Using your own words, express your sympathy. Kind words about the person who has died is always appropriate. If the family wants to talk, they usually simply need to express their feelings; they aren't necessarily looking for a response from you. What you say depends entirely on your relationship with the deceased and their family. If the deceased is an acquaintance or casual friend, saying "I'm sorry," "He was a wonderful person and a friend of mine. He will be missed," "My sympathy to your family," or something comparable is appropriate. However, if you are closer to the family you may want to ask if there is anything you can do to help or express your feelings about the deceased. You should not ask for details from the family about the illness or death.

Before the Funeral

Offer to notify the survivor's family and friends about funeral arrangements
Help answering the phone and greeting visitors
Keep a record of everyone who calls, visits or has been contacted
Help coordinate the food and drink supply for family and visitors
Offer to pick up friends and family at the airport. Arrange housing or referrals to appropriate, nearby hotels or motels
Offer to provide transportation for out-of-town visitors
Help him/her keep the house cleaned and the dishes washed
House-sit to prevent burglaries during the funeral and visitations

Funeral Home.
The funeral is a ceremony of proven worth and value for those who mourn. It provides an opportunity for the survivors and others who share in the loss to express their love, respect, grief and appreciation for a life that has been lived. Through the funeral the bereaved take that first step toward emotional adjustment to their loss.

When you arrive, go to the family, and express your sympathy with an embrace or by offering your hands. Don't feel as though you must avoid talking about the person who has died. Talking can help the grieving process begin. If you were an acquaintance of the deceased but not well-known to the family, immediately introduce yourself. Do not feel uncomfortable if you or the family member becomes emotional or begins to cry. Allowing the family to grieve is a natural healing process. However, if you find yourself becoming extremely upset, it would be kinder to excuse yourself so as not to increase the strain on the family.

Other Expressions of Sympathy.
While there is no substitute for a personal visit if you are able to do so, there are many other ways to express your sympathy.

Flowers can be a great comfort to the family and may be sent to the funeral home or to the residence. Or, if you prefer, you may send flowers to the residence afterwards. If the family asks that that donations should be made in lieu of flowers, you should honor that request.
Memorial Gifts
A memorial gift is always appropriate, especially when the family has requested such a gift in lieu of flowers. Usually the family will designate a specific organization or charity. Remember to provide the family's name and address to the charity so they can send proper notification. It is acceptable to mention your gift in a sympathy note without mentioning the amount of the gift.
Phone Calls
If you live out-of-town you should telephone as soon as possible to offer your sympathy. Keep the call brief, since others will probably be trying to call as well. Remember to call after the funeral as well. Just a short phone call to let the bereaved know they are still in your thoughts and prayers, will mean so much.
Food for the family
One of the most welcome gifts at this time is food. There may be family from out of town or other visitors in the house who need to be fed. During the days immediately following the death, dishes that require little preparation other than reheating are appropriate.

E-mail is appropriate from those who are not intimate with the family such as a business associate or a former neighbor. The family will appreciate your message of concern.

Should I Attend The Services?
Unless the obituary states that "services will be held at the convenience of the family" or "private services will be held," family and friends are welcome to attend the services. In other words, if the location and time of the services are included in the obituary notice, it is considered an invitation to attend.

What Should I Wear To The Funeral?
It is no longer necessary to wear black to a funeral. Wearing colorful clothing is no longer inappropriate for relatives and friends. However, persons attending a funeral should be dressed in good taste so as to show dignity and respect for the family and the occasion.

The Funeral Service
Funeral services differ depending upon the religious and personal beliefs of the family. Funeral services can be held at a church, temple, funeral home, or even the residence. Whether the service is held at the funeral home or at church, enter quietly and be seated. The first few rows are usually reserved for family members, however, people should sit close behind them to give comfort and support. A member of the clergy usually conducts the ceremony, but the family may invite others to offer thoughts, anecdotes or eulogies. At the conclusion of the service, you will want to leave promptly, and wait in your car if you plan to follow the procession to the cemetery. Remember to turn your headlights on so you can be identified as being a part of the procession. Also remember to turn you headlights off once you arrive at the cemetery.

What Happens At The Cemetery?
The casket is normally placed beside the grave. People then gather around the casket to listen to the rites of burial given by the clergy. Following the clergy's remarks, family members may place a flower on the casket. In many cases the funeral director will provide flowers for each mourner. The clergy or funeral director will then dismiss the family and friends at the end of the service.

Immediately Following the Funeral.
Immediately after the funeral, the family sometimes invites the attendees to join them for food or a reception at their home or designated place. This gives everyone a chance to talk and provides some time to relax and refresh. Sometimes friends or church members will take it upon themselves to prepare food ahead of time for this gathering, and relieve the family of this task.

After the difficult and busy days surrounding the death, the family is faced with the challenge of trying to resume their day to day lives. Remembering the family during this time, often is critical in their recovery.

What do I say when I see the family in public?
What you say depends on if you've already had contact with them. If you attended the visitation or funeral, a warm greeting or a gentle expression of concern would be appropriate. If this is your first meeting with them since the death, you might carefully express your sympathy. Perhaps by saying you understand that this is a difficult time for them, you can express your concern without causing the bereaved to feel uncomfortable in this public setting. You might even ask when it would be a good time to visit or go to lunch or dinner.

What can I do to help later?
In the days and months to come, the family will continue to need your support. Try to write or call on a regular basis. Continue to include them in your social plans, they will let you know when they are ready to participate. It is also nice to remember the family on special occasions during the first year following the death. Don't worry about bringing up the pain and emotion of the loss, they are well aware of that. By remembering such occasions as wedding anniversaries and birthdays, you are not remembering the death, but reaffirming that a life was lived

The Circle of Life - Condolence Letters
By Mary Mitchell

A True Comfort to the Bereaved
Few gestures are as meaningful to someone who's lost a loved one than a condolence letter.

Losing a parent, child or sibling is a life experience that one has to go through to fully understand. When you do, you'll never let another person's loss go by without offering your condolences.

There is No Substitute for Kindness
No matter what else you have done - attended the funeral, sent flowers, paid a visit to the home of the bereaved, telephoned, sent an e-mail - the condolence letter will stand out for its kindness.

Such letters are both comforting and diverting for those who have lost a family member. Some even become part of a family history to be passed down to future generations.

Forget about buying sympathy cards or condolence cards. They are impersonal and the easy way out. Besides, true feeling can't be pre-packaged.

Write From the Heart
Write your letter in ink. Use a fountain pen if you have one. A ballpoint will do if you don't, but it's not very refined. Rollerball pens come a close second to fountain pens, followed by felt-tip pens. Use black ink.

If you own personal notepaper, use it. If not, purchase the best-quality stationery you can - go to a good department store or jeweler.

If your handwriting is hard to read, go ahead and type the letter. Sign it in ink, though.

What you write depends on how you feel. Write from the heart. Don't try to be formal; it comes out wooden and impersonal. At the very least, acknowledge your friend's loss. Say how sad you are about it. If you and the deceased shared time together, mention specific memories. That might sound something like, "Although he won't be around, his famous Fourth of July cookouts will be with me each holiday." Say how much the person will be missed, by others as well as yourself. Offer your friend your help.

Celebrate Their Life
The condolence letter is the place to recall in more detail the special characteristics of the deceased, visits to your home, lessons learned from that person, good times shared, and so forth.

Such reminiscences celebrate the life of the deceased rather than being morbid and depressing about the loss. The family will treasure the shared memories of that life and times.

Don't make the mistake of overemphasizing how much you personally feel bereaved. The purpose of the letter is to comfort others, not to make them feel sorry for you.

Pay attention to good grammar and spelling, but don't obsess about it. The person who receives your letter will not notice your "wordsmithing" skills nearly as much as the fact you took action.

How You Can Help
Sometimes it is best not to offer or ask but to just assume the tasks to help the grieving individual

After the Funeral (consider doing these every week for two to three months)
Prepare or provide dinner on a day that is mutually acceptable.
Offer to help with yard chores such as watering or pruning
Feed and exercise the pets, if any
Write notes offering encouragement and support
Offer to drive or accompany him to the cemetery regularly
Offer to house sit, so the survivor can take a restful vacation, or visit family or friends out of town
Make a weekly run to the grocery store, laundry, or cleaners
Help with the Thank You notes and/or other correspondence
Anticipate difficult periods such as anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and the day of death
Always mention the deceased by name and encourage reminiscing

Send flowers after the funeral. It is also a thoughtful gesture to send flowers several weeks after the funeral service to show the bereaved that you are thinking of them and they are not as alone as they might feel.

Send a note or card. Even if you don’t send flowers or make a charitable contribution, a note or card to the deceased's family expressing your thoughts of the deceased is a welcomed gesture, especially if you weren't able to attend the funeral. It is important to let the bereaved know you are thinking of them.

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.

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. Before visiting, a good rule of thumb is to wait until you have received an acknowledgment card or thank you note.

You will find the bereaved will draw strength and comfort from your support. No contribution is more worthwhile than that.

It is appropriate to send a short, personal note to clergy to thank them for their spiritual consolation and assistance, the funeral home will generally make a gratuity to the clergy on the family's behalf.

Cultural and Religious

Being aware of specific religious or cultural funeral etiquette can be helpful when attending a funeral or when comforting the bereaved.

How should I offer condolences to Buddhist friends?
It's not common to send food to the home of mourners, but it is common to send flowers to the funeral. Do not send a Mass card. The idea of a "Mass" is alien to Buddhists, be they Zen or otherwise. Rather than send a sympathy card, it might be better to write a personal note to your friends. Keep in mind that while they have suffered a loss, the Buddhist idea of death is different from the common Judeo-Christian idea. In Buddhism, each individual passes through many reincarnations until he or she is liberated from worldly illusions and passions and enter nirvana, which is Sanskrit for "a blowing out as of a flame."


How do Hindus commemorate a death?
Shraddah, or Hindu death observances, include rituals that continue for 12 months after death. In India, people wear only cloth or rubber shoes, and women don't braid their hair or oil it to give it a sheen. These practices signal their sadness at losing a close relative. (In rural India, in fact, men go entirely barefoot.) Mourners who touch a dead body are considered impure until they shower or bathe or regain their purity by touching a saint.
The mourning period lasts 10 to 30 days, depending on one's caste. After that, the eldest son in a family shaves his head for an entire year of mourning. Males who are mourning the death of a parent are considered too impure to enter a temple, since a grieving mind isn't suitable for ritual worship. But they can silently worship or chant the name of God at home.

These rituals help the deceased attain immortality and help the bereaved come to terms with their loss.
Why do Hindus wear white to funerals?
In most parts of India, it's the husband or wife who, if they're Hindu, almost always wears white to the funeral of a spouse. There is no hard and fast rule about what others attending a funeral wear. They can don just about any color. The same holds true for Hindu funerals in the United States.
But the emigre Hindu community is familiar with Western customs, and even wearing the darkest black in your wardrobe wouldn't be a blunder. Hindus living here know what Westerners are accustomed to, and would not consider your wearing even the most sober of blacks to be a faux pas. Just make sure your clothing, like your behavior, is dignified.

One reason spouses wear white is that it's considered to be a holy color, and wearing it, Hindus believe, can help a departed soul relinquish its attachment to the body it just left. Such attachment can make the departed soul temporarily earthbound. This would delay the reincarnation that is not only the soul's fate but its duty. Only through successive reincarnations can a soul spiritually evolve until it no longer needs a body to work out its karma and is free from the cycles of death and rebirth.

Should I send a bereaved Hindu flowers?
Sending flowers would certainly be a kind gesture and would offend no one, but keep in mind that it's a Western tradition not common in most Hindu communities. If you do send them, avoid bright colors (white is traditionally associated with Hindu funerals)--you might try white or pale yellow flowers.

Within the Christian faith, there are numerous denominations including: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Christian Orthodox, Baptists, plus many others. In general, these religions share a commonality in how they practice the ritual of funerals. Although cultural distinctions may exist, it is important to be aware and knowledgeable of the proper rituals when attending a Christian funeral. Traditionally, the deceased is taken to a funeral home and is prepared for family viewing. The body will generally be presented in a casket then later buried at a cemetery. Depending on the final wishes of the deceased however, the remains may also be cremated. Generally, friends, family and acquaintances gather at the funeral home to offer their condolences to the family and pay their last respects to the deceased. Upon arrival at the funeral home, it is common to firstly approach the casket or urn and take a few moments to silently reflect or pray. When finished paying respect to the deceased, one is expected to approach the deceased's family and offer condolences. This is a very general and common procedure at most Christian Funerals. Today, many funerals may vary depending upon the final wishes of deceased or the deceased's family. Often times a funeral mass or service will take place in a Church or funeral home chapel. So, it is suggested that you find out specific funeral service details, which are generally posted in a local newspaper, on the internet with or through word of mouth to be certain of times and dates.

The Interment:
Depending on the last wishes of the deceased, their family or cultural background, the body usually will be buried (Interned) in a final resting-place. Traditionally, the burial will take place at a cemetery or mausoleum. Close family and friends will gather around and a clergyman will recite ritualistic prayers. It was common for the casket to be lowered into the ground in the presence of those gathered. However, today the casket is usually lowered once everyone has left the cemetery. If the deceased has been cremated the remains will be placed in an urn and pending on the final arrangements the remains may either be scattered at a designated destination or kept by the family. A gathering or wake usually takes place immediately after the interment or is announced at a later date. This gathering is an opportunity for the family to offer thanks to those who have helped during their time of sadness and to also memorialize and celebrate the life of the deceased. Oftentimes food and beverages are serviced at these gatherings.

Within the Jewish faith, there exists 3 different sects, Conservative, Orthodox and Reform however all three share similar funeral rituals. According to Judaism, the deceased is usually buried the same day or within 24 hours because embalming is not permitted. The deceased's body is wrapped in a white burial shroud and is placed in a simple coffin made of wood. The Funeral Service takes place at the Synagogue where prayers, eulogies and sermons will be conducted. Depending on the religious sect, head coverings may be required. For Orthodox services both sexes are required to cover their heads, yarmulkes for men and scarves for women. For Conservative services, only men are required to wear yarmulkes. And for Reformed services, the choice is optional. Most Synagogues will provide the head coverings if required. Black and dark coloured conservative clothing is the most respectful attire. Once the funeral service has taken place only close friends and family members will proceed to the cemetery for burial. Once the coffin is lowered to the ground, close family members will place dirt on to the coffin. The focus, until the burial is on the deceased, after which, people may begin to approach the family and offer their condolences. Once the burial has taken place, Shiva (the mourning period) shall commence.

Shiva traditionally lasts for seven days and nights. The deceased's family is required to stay home for this time period, refraining from their day-to-day activities. Allowing mourners to focus on their grief and help prepare them to go back to their day-to-day duties. Shiva also allows friends, family and acquaintances to offer their condolences and offer help and support to the family. Friends and extended family usually prepare the first meal (Seudat Havrach) consisting of eggs, cookies, cake and fruit. Preparing food that is round in shape symbolizes the cycle of life. The Jewish tradition discourages people from cheering up the mourners, thus it is most appropriate to offer words that encourages family to come to terms with their mourning. It is not appropriate to send flowers. It is customary in the Jewish faith to plant trees to honor the memory of the deceased or to make a charitable donation in the deceased's name.

Muslim Tradition:
It is customary to bury the deceased immediately because embalming is not permitted in the Muslim faith. The body is prepared for burial by performing a ritualistic bath and is bound in a simple white shroud. The funeral service takes place in a Mosque where shoes are required to be removed; women and men sit separately in designated seats; and where women are obligated to wear a headscarf. The funeral service is brief, involving ritualistic chanting and readings from the Koran. Those in attendance will pay their respects by lining up and walking past the body, prior to the deceased being taken to their final resting-place. The deceased will be taken to the cemetery where the body is lowered into the ground, with the deceased's head pointing towards the direction of Mecca (The Islamic Holy Land).

A meal is later served at the Mosque for all those who attended the Funeral Service. Mourning for family members usually last for 3 days, 10 days for a widow mourning her husband. It is customary to bring food such as, baked goods and fruit or vegetable platters. Those offering their condolences should not bring or order flowers for the family. A food donation or a money donation is more acceptable. Within the Islamic faith it is a religious duty of members to help pay down the cost of the deceased's funeral expenses in order to help the family. While speaking with family members it is appropriate to listen to their grief and offer comforting words. The Muslim faith encourages family members to face and accept their bereavement.

Within the Buddhist faith customs may vary depending on culture and sects. There are however, a few traditional rituals in all Buddhist funeral services. They include chanting, incense burning and a memorial service. Historically, Buddhists have cremated their deceased, however burial is becoming more and more common with Chinese Buddhists. Those attending the funeral service are required to pay their condolences to the deceased and the family prior to the service at the funeral home. Wearing black or dark colours are not required. Wearing conservative clothing is the most appropriate, however, the colour red is frowned upon. If the funeral service takes place in the Temple, it is required to remove your footwear. During the funeral service a family member will initiate the service by offering a eulogy and present a life history about the deceased. Chanting sacred words will then take place. First a direct family member will ignite the incense and make a ritualistic offering. The family usually wears white because it is the colour for grieving, they will sit at the front of the room and accept condolences from those in attendance. When approaching the casket a simple bow is all that is required. After the funeral service interment will take place at a cemetery.

The family will pay special tribute to the deceased after the first year anniversary and the third year anniversary, ending the official grieving period. The first memorial gathering will take place within the first 7 days after the funeral. Friends and family will gather either at the temple or a family members home to remember and commemorate the deceased. It is appropriate when attending memorial services to bring with you gifts of food, preferably vegetarian plates or donations made in the name of the deceased.

Funerals usually take place within 24 hours after a death occurs. Embalming is forbidden because it is believed that the body must remain intact for the afterlife. The first-born son is in charge of the funeral arrangements. The funeral service usually takes place at a funeral home. Holy Montras (scriptures) are chanted by a Hindu priest who evokes the help of gods and deities to provide the soul the spiritual guidance to reach the eternal world successfully. Flowers may be placed on top of the deceased and a short service takes place at the crematorium. It is traditional that all Hindus are to be cremated. It is customary for bereaving family members wear white, and those attending the funeral should wear dark conservative clothing. Although sending flowers is not traditional, it is acceptable.

After these funeral rituals take place, Hindus are expected to grieve for 11 to 13 days. During this time family and friends are expected to visit the family and offer comfort and support. It is customary to bring gifts of food especially fruit. However, the direct family must strictly reduce their diets during this period. They are prohibited from consuming meat, salt, and certain vegetables. They are still required to wear white, the colour of mourning. By the last day of mourning, the Hindu priest conducts a ceremony in memory of the deceased where all family members participate. This will end the period of mourning allowing family members to return to their everyday lives. On the one-year anniversary, another ceremony takes place and it is then decided what is to be done with the ashes of the deceased. Depending on finances, family wishes and extent of the family's faith, it is most Hindus’ desire to have their ashes scattered in the holiest of places such as the Himalayas or the Ganges River.

Peter J Jackson, Funeral Directors