When someone we know dies, most of us immediately want to offer our help, support, and encouragement to the bereaved. But you may not be entirely sure what to say and do in such a situation, which is perfectly understandable. To help get you through these painful moments more easily, I will try to summarize the guidelines of proper etiquette with respect to attending mourning ceremonies, funerals and meetings with the bereaved.
What to say
Finding the right words in these situations is always difficult. Be sure to start by expressing your condolences to the bereaved. If you feel it is appropriate, share your memories of the deceased with them. In these hard times, sharing the joy of the deceased’s life can help bring a more relaxed atmosphere to a difficult situation. For example: “I was so sorry to hear about Michael’s passing. He was always a great friend to me. When we’re together I just can’t help thinking about…”
What not to say
Try to avoid comments that trivialize the loss of a loved one, such as “It’s for the best, at least he/she is no longer suffering”, or “I know how it is, I’ve been through it myself”. Don’t ask what the person in question died of, wait for the family to tell you themselves.
How to express condolences
Ideally, condolences are given in person, together with a handshake, or sending written condolences, a wreath or flowers.
- Condolences should be hand written. If you use a word processing program, at least the greeting and signature should be in your own hand. Most often, you can write: “I feel for your loss, please accept my sincerest condolences”, “I know how much you loved your father, and I realize what loss his passing is for you”, “I was deeply saddened by the news of the passing of our mutual friend…”, or “This is a great loss even for us, we feel your pain, please accept our deepest sympathies”. Condolences should include an offer of help: “I know how difficult a situation you’re in. If you feel a need to turn to me, please don’t hesitate, I’m ready to help you in any way I can.” A letter of condolence is not to be written on decorative letter paper. Also, in the letter of condolence, avoid cliché and pathos. Send it as soon as possible. Sending a letter late could reopen the wounds and instead of comfort, create the opposite effect. Condolences and letters of sympathy are not replied to.
If you are not able to offer your condolences or express your sympathy in person, then:
- Call the bereaved.
- Send them flowers with a black ribbon, with a letter of condolence and your card with the notation P.C. (pour condoléance).
- Consider a gift to a charity in memory of the deceased. Don’t forget that wishes stated on the funeral card must be respected. Please forgo condolences. Instead of a wreath or bouquet of flowers, please make donation to charity.
- In the past, it was unthinkable, but today, when we may see a reinstatement of quarantine, it is acceptable to express your condolences via e-mail or on social media.
When to visit the bereaved
Immediately after learning of the death. If you are family or their close friends, contact them as soon as possible, and if they agree, visit them and offer help and support. You can help themwith caring for children and pets, preparing food, household duties, receiving visits or with the preparation of the funeral itself. Helping in these difficult times will undoubtedly bring them great relief and alleviate the burden on the whole family. There are countries where it is even common to send a basket full of food and ingredients as an expression of condolences. In my opinion, it is a well-thought-out and time-tested way of expressing condolences. Many people who suffer a loss are so paralyzed that going shopping is just another stressful burden for them.
You can send sympathy flowers or flower arrangements in advance to the funeral home or bring them in person to the premises where the ceremony will take place. If you bring them in person, then place them next to the bier without great ceremony or moving other flowers and wreaths, always with a slight bow towards the coffin. Here, white chrysanthemums are considered to symbolize death. It is a Czech custom to wear red or white roses to a funeral. The type of flowers and their color should be suited to the age and the taste of the deceased. Darker and more muted colors are chosen for older people while for younger people, it is lighter colors or their favorite flowers. An unwritten rule is the use of white flowers and ribbons for the final farewell to a child or a single person. It is important that we always bring only an even number of flowers, both for women and men.
What to wear to a funeral
Choose dark and muted colors. Those who were closest to the deceased, however, should wear black. For men, a suit, white shirt and tie are appropriate, with dark shoes. Women should wear a dress covering the shoulders and knees or a suit, hose, dark shoes, and possibly a hat as well. Jewelry should be fine and traditional. Always give precedence to an overall conservative look.
Arrival at the funeral hall or church
Always try to arrive on time and enter quietly. If you are one of the first to arrive, keep in mind that before settling in, the first few rows of seats are usually reserved for family and close friends. So, choose a seat in the middle or back rows.
Mobile phones should always be switched to silent mode, or shut off completely during a funeral ceremony. Checking one’s phone in such situations is always a blatant show of disrespect and distracts others.
Never force children against their will to participate in a mourning farewell. But try to encourage them and explain and describe everything they will see. Talk openly about death as a natural part of life and let them mourn in their own way. Psychologists advise that a funeral should be described to children as a ceremony to end the pilgrimage of each person’s life, so it would be very nice of them to, like other family members, come to say goodbye to the person in question for the last time. An advantage for them could be that there will be many people at the funeral with whom they can share their grief.
When and whom to extend condolences
At funerals, you usually give condolences twice. First, upon arriving at the ceremonial hall, visitors often go to greet the funeral organizer and the closest bereaved. If this is the first time you are seeing them after the loss, then shake their hand and verbally express your condolences. Official condolences occur after the ceremony, when the survivors of the deceased usually agree on whether they will want to receive condolences from those attending the funeral or not. If they want to receive them, then they gather at a selected place, and usually the funeral participants gradually approach them from the right and give their condolences. There are no hard and fast rules on who is given condolences at a funeral. But sympathy is always expressed to the closest survivors, which are husband, wife, girlfriend, adult children, or parents.
A memorial, or funeral feast (Kar)
Magnificent funeral banquets are considered out of place in our latitudes. Kar is meant to be a memory of the deceased, not an opportunity for fun. It lasts about two hours and should feature cold dishes, coffee, tea, soft drinks, or a glass of wine in memory of the deceased.
Period of mourning
The duration of mourning is no longer strictly observed today. It is considered respectful when close relatives continue to outwardly express grief over the loss of the deceased last for at least a year. The survivors shy away from social life. A widow or widower may only remarry after the period of mourning, but at least 10 months from the date of the partner’s death.
A different approach to funerals
The new “phenomenon” called Covid, is fundamentally changing the traditional concept of funerals, as the epidemic expands. It is not recommended to touch the body, which in some cultures is a fundamental intervention in the ritual of parting with the deceased. The rules of social distancing restrict visits, memorial services and funerals to only a very limited number of participants, usually no more than ten people. These restrictions have given rise to a new trend, which is to organize a farewell only among those closest to the deceased and postponing larger commemorative events and kar for an indefinite period. This is one feasible option for the survivors, and does not bother the deceased. Another way to deal with the new reality is to live stream the funeral on the Internet so that everyone, even more distant relatives, can at least attend the ceremony remotely.
We will probably have to give thought to “modernizing” our customs surrounding death, mourning, and funerals across the globe. I think it will be very difficult find new rituals and imbue them with similar meaning. For example, the Jewish people are accustomed to covering the coffin of the deceased with handfuls of dirt, one by one, until the lid of the coffin has been covered. This tradition is always easier to carry out when the ceremony is attended by fifty mourners than when no more than ten can attend due to restrictions. Families cannot even observe “Shiva,” which in Judaism is a week-long mourning period during which family and friends usually visit the deceased’s family to express their condolences and offer food. Adherents of Islam also hold it customary for friends and family to gather and pray over the body of the deceased.
We can only hope that these changes will not be necessary, and if so, then humbly accept that even our final journey from this world may be subject to certain “innovations”. But what will certainly remain unchanged is the fact that grieving friends and family must always be treated kindly, with dignity and consideration.