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British Funeral Etiquette

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Mourner wearing black and holding a red rose next to a coffin

The subject of etiquette can be a contentious one when it comes to what is socially ‘expected’ of you, particularly when it comes to a funeral. Whilst more and more families are opting for less-traditional services for their loved ones it can still be important to understand what is considered proper conduct before you organise or attend a funeral.

In this guide, we cover the traditional etiquettes for funerals in the UK from what is expected before a service as well as what usually happens afterwards. We look at both sides of the occasion from the perspective of those arranging, and those who are attending, a funeral in Britain.

British Funeral Etiquette vs Modern Funerals

Funeral etiquette in the UK is steeped in many centuries of formal traditions which have largely been dictated by religious ceremony as well as social and cultural expectations. 

Many of the rituals observed at a funeral in Britain have been adopted from key periods of our history and have remained unchanged for many years or have been adapted to suit the modern way of life. From wearing black clothing which became popular in the Victorian period to the tradition of a funeral procession that can be dated as far back to Roman times the last rites and rituals of the deceased have a certain protocol.

The importance of etiquette in modern Britain has become less of an influence in many areas of our society but can be seen no more strongly than when it comes to a funeral.

However, alternative funeral services are becoming more popular and it is not uncommon for families to dispense with the accepted etiquettes of a traditional British funeral in favour of something more modern and ‘fitting’ for the deceased.

Increasingly, funerals held in the UK are moving away from more formal rituals and being replaced by informal and celebratory events which focus on a life well lived rather than the sadness of a death.

In this respect, although there are some social rules and guidelines for what to do and how to behave at a funeral, you should not be bound by these if you want to arrange something less traditional. 

Likewise, if you are attending a funeral service then do try to observe any wishes that the family has requested in respect of the occasion. This can be a small tweak to the usual etiquette such as wearing colourful clothing instead of dressing in black or asking for donations to a charity in lieu of funeral flowers.

Before the Funeral

Who Places an Obituary & Announces the Death?

The tradition of placing a notice of death in the local newspaper can be dated back as long as the printing press has been in use. Sometimes called Death Announcements, Memorial Advertisements or Death Acknowledgements, they are an official way to announce a death and to advertise the date and time of a funeral. 

Publishing a notice of death remains a common practice even with modern British funerals as they help the family of the deceased to publicly invite mourners to a funeral service. 

A death notice is a brief but factual statement which includes the full name of the deceased, the date that death occurred and is usually accompanied by the details of surviving family members. This is usually accompanied by details of the funeral including where and when this will be held along with requests from the family about flowers, donations or other specific wishes. It is standard practice for the funeral director to take charge of this on your behalf.

Obituaries however are a more detailed biography of the deceased and are used to memorialise the lives of someone who may have had a wider influence. Though the practice originally started to honour the lives of people who were socially prominent, the rise of the obituary commemorating the ‘ordinary man’ has become more common.

There is no etiquette about who should write an obituary but one is usually prepared by someone who knew the deceased well and can give a good written account of their life in a concise way.

In the digital age, the obituary (for some people) is being replaced with social media networks able to reach an audience more quickly. Popular platforms, like Facebook, also allow relatives to turn the deceased’s profile into one of public memorial (see ‘Useful Advice for Modern Funeral Etiquette’, below)

Should I Offer Help?

Arranging a funeral can be very stressful with those that are undertaking the responsibility often doing so alone. As well as having to deal with their own grief, the practical efforts of organising a funeral can take their toll.

With the exception of condolence cards, social etiquette dictates that families are left in peace during the preparations for a funeral. However, it is expected that close friends and relatives offer to help with any preparations for the funeral and any wake.

Should I send a Condolence Card?

It is customary to send your condolences in advance of the funeral, usually when a death is first announced. 

Condolences are usually sent in the form of a card which should be sent to the closest relative of the deceased (widow/widower or eldest child for example). A sympathy card should be short and kept simple and you should always include your full name and write your address on the back of the envelope. 

Whilst sending post is falling out of favour in modern British society, the practice of sending condolences is one that is appreciated by the bereaved. The alternatives of sending a message via social media are not considered appropriate by most people and should be avoided (see ‘Useful Advice for Modern Funeral Etiquette’, below).

What Should I Wear To A Funeral?

Black is traditionally seen as the most appropriate funeral attire due to its association with mourning. This has been common practice in the UK since the Elizabethan period but came to prominence during the Victorian times. 

It was Queen Victoria herself who continued to mourn over the loss of her husband, Prince Albert, which gave rise to the tradition of widows being expected to wear black for a period of up to two years. 

Though there is no expectation that this remains the case, sombre colours are generally expected to be worn at the funeral itself. This can include dark grey, dark blue and black. 

Funeral attire should also be smart and formal with men being expected to wear a dark suit or trousers with a shirt and jacket. Women should wear something equally formal with a smart dress or suit being appropriate. It is customary not to wear anything new to a funeral, especially shoes.

Casual clothing such as jeans, trainers and hooded tops are not acceptable clothes in the standard etiquette of a British funeral.  

It is worth noting that churches and cemeteries are not the warmest of places to congregate and, especially during the winter, can be very cold. As well as style and colour, you should also consider comfort and wear a suitable coat or jacket.

Lastly, you should always consult the instructions given by the family when it comes to what to wear as some funeral services are more celebratory and mourners are asked to wear bright and colourful clothing. If you are in doubt about, or are uncomfortable, following this advice then it is best to wear something neutral.

Should I Send Funeral Flowers?

Sending flowers to the relatives of the deceased has been a part of funeral tradition since the middle ages and was necessary to mask the scent of death during the rituals observed up until burial. 

They are a now seen as a way of offering some comfort to the relatives as well as showing respect to the deceased. Where flowers are requested by the family, these are most often sent to the funeral home rather than the family’s address.

The Victorians were very keen on sending flowers as part of funeral proceedings and the choice of flower has great symbolic meaning. White lilies, which represent the innocence of the soul, are the most popular choice of flower. 

You should be aware that certain religions have their own etiquette when it comes to flowers or floral tributes so it is best to seek advice before arranging these. 

It has become more popular that mourners are asked to make a donation to a charity in lieu of flowers and if this is requested, it is the correct etiquette to honour this. 

Far from being a modern tradition, donations to a charity have historically been offered as long ago as the Elizabethan times when the feast of mourning included giving money to the poor.

Do I Have To Attend a Viewing?

A ‘viewing’ is the term given for when the body of the deceased is laid out, either at home or at the funeral director’s ‘chapel of rest’/private viewing area and where close family and friends can pay their last respects.

There is no standard etiquette about whether this should be done and, if so, where it should happen. 

Most viewings are private and arranged for close relatives only but if you would like to see the body before the funeral in this way then you should ask the person who is organising the service to see if this can be accommodated.

At the Funeral

Who should attend a funeral?

Unless stated otherwise, funerals are usually open to anyone who knew the deceased including family and friends as well as colleagues, teachers, students and other acquaintances. 

Some families request that the funeral be for close friends and relatives only.

If in doubt, the death notice should have details about who should attend the service as well as stipulating who is welcome at the wake.

Should Children Attend Funerals?

Children are not forbidden from attending funerals but discretion should be used when it comes to families with babies or toddlers. Younger children can be noisy and disruptive which may be upsetting for other mourners. 

Older children are usually welcome but this remains a personal choice of their parents as funerals can be a distressing event to attend. 

If you are in doubt about bringing a child to a funeral then it always best to consult with the family.

How is the Funeral Procession Arranged?

The procession is a very traditional element of any funeral and is practiced in many cultures around the world. This ritual dates back to ancient times around the world.

Though the manner of a cortege varies between religions, a typical British funeral will consist of a hearse carrying the coffin preceding close family who travel behind, usually in one or two limousines arranged by the Funeral Director. See the article: 'funeral cars: who goes in what car?'

Some families will ask for mourners to follow the family cars to make up a longer procession as they travel to the church, cemetery or graveyard.

The funeral director will usually advise on how the traffic flow for longer corteges is managed.

Though a funeral procession does not benefit from any official laws or traffic management regulations, the correct etiquette for being part of one or witnessing one includes slowing down, allowing it to pass unhindered and behaving respectfully around it. 

Does the Deceased’s Funeral Procession Start From Their Home?

Traditionally, the procession started from either the home of the deceased or that of their closest relatives; typically, in accordance with the practice of having a body laid out at home for viewings (see above).

Nowadays, a procession usually starts from the funeral home or may only occur at either the start and/or end of the journey to the funeral service. Again, there can be variations of what is expected in accordance with different religious beliefs.

What is the Etiquette Around Funerals with an Open Casket?

The choice of an open casket at a funeral is a personal one and you are under no obligation as a mourner to view the deceased if this has been arranged.

If an open casket is likely to upset you then it is best to seat yourself to the rear of the congregation.

When The Coffin Arrives at the Church or Crematorium, Do People Go In Before or After?

It is normal practice for the congregation to arrive first and to take their seats before the immediate family and then the coffin is processed in to the church or crematorium.

Some religions have a different format to this and there can also be variations such as if there is an open casket ceremony. In the case of the latter, the deceased will be in place before the congregation enters.

Who Sits Where at a Funeral?

Immediate family and close friends usually take their seats in the first two rows with the remaining seats being filled in any fashion.

In venues that are small, standing room is usually taken first by people who were not that close to the deceased. 

In those venues that offer a lot of seating, it is good practice to fill space near the front of the congregation so that the family do not feel isolated and so that you can hear the service.

Who Should Give The Eulogy?

There is no formal etiquette about who is the ‘correct’ person to deliver a eulogy and the choice of who should do this is usually made based on who is willing and able to do so.

However, the final choice over who offers a eulogy at a funeral should be made by the next of kin.

What Happens at the End of a Funeral Service?

When a funeral service comes to a close, the congregation are usually invited to stand as a mark of respect to the deceased. 

At a cremation service, the coffin will be committed which involves either the closing of a curtain or the withdrawal of the casket in some fashion. The family and close friends will be the first to leave.

It is traditional for the family to make their way directly to the wake but some families now wait for the congregation to exit after them whereupon they may accept condolences in a formal way.

At a burial, the coffin will be lowered into the ground and the family may be the first to take a handful of dirt to cast into the grave. Whilst all mourners may do this, it is customary to allow close family followed by other relatives first before friends and other acquaintances do so.

It is not expected that mourners stay to watch the grave being filled in.

After a Funeral

What Should I Say After a Funeral?

Whether before or after the funeral, either at the church, graveyard, crematorium or wake, you may find yourself with a member of the deceased’s immediate family.

It may feel difficult or uncomfortable to find words to offer but there are some rules of etiquette that may help you in this situation.

Firstly, you should avoid saying anything negative or making light of the occasion. It is important to be sympathetic and to offer your condolences with some kind words. Something simple like saying that you are sorry for their loss and that you are here if they need anything should be enough. However, you may feel prompted to offer a warm memory of the deceased; this might be more appropriate at the wake.

Remember, it’s okay not to approach the family and you should not feel obliged to do so. As long as you keep your words respectful, simple and offer only positive memories then you should be okay.

Often, the tone of an occasion can be set directly by the family themselves and more modern celebrations of life can encourage mourners to share the experience with laughter and humour. 

What To Expect at The Wake

The tradition of a wake originates from many centuries ago and pre-dates Christianity. The term is derived from the practice whereby family and friends would keep a nightlong vigil over the deceased’s body. When the grave had been dug and mourners were assembled, the body would be moved and it is this that was known as ‘waking the corpse’.

In Anglo-Saxon times, celebrations were given in honour of the dead and were often held with dancing, feasting and even sports. Parishes would organise prayers on the night of the funeral with a holiday the following day. 

The tradition of a wake has evolved over the centuries but is still largely regarded as a celebration and an opportunity for family and friends to grieve together and share fond and happy memories.

Wakes are often held at the home of one of the deceased’s family (usually the closest relative) or at a local hospitality venue such as a hotel, pub or club.

Depending on the circumstances of death and the tone of the funeral itself, wakes can be quite sombre in mood and some families choose to restrict the guests to close friends and relatives only. 

What is the Etiquette Around Tipping the Funeral Staff?

In some parts of the world, tipping is very much a part of their culture and funeral staff such as pallbearers and grave diggers may still be paid in cash. However, this is usually handled by the funeral director. 

Here in the UK, there are no such expectations but often the family prefer to make sure these arrangements are dealt with correctly. 

Certainly, there is no stipulation that you must tip at a funeral and under no circumstances are the family expected to do so. 

Should the Family Write Thank You Notes?

It is tradition that the family write to thank all the guests who attended a funeral, sent flowers and cards or who have helped in any way.

To assist in this process, many families have a condolences book available for guests to comment in at the wake. This is a nice way to collect together some memories of the deceased but is also a useful aid to knowing who attended in order to prepare these thank you notes. 

It is customary for stationery that carries a black border to be used for writing a thank you note.

Useful Advice for Modern Funeral Etiquette

Modern society has changed at such a rapid pace over the last few decades such that the rules of etiquette may not have kept up or, at least, people are not aware of them.

Though not formally a part of British funeral etiquette, we thought that these useful pieces of advice were worth iterating:

  • Switch off your phones: Mobile phones are an accepted part of our modern lives and it is not expected that you leave yours at home when you attend a funeral. However, it is not respectful to be checking your phone during a funeral nor for it to be buzzing or ringing. Switch your phones to silent or turn them off entirely. If you do need to text or make a call then it is expected that you remove yourself from the funeral, or wake, in order to do this. 
  • Be on time: You should show respect to the deceased and other mourners by being on time to a funeral. It is not acceptable to turn up late and interrupt the occasion for the rest of the congregation. Plan your journey to the funeral in advance and aim to get there early.
  • Dress appropriately: As detailed above (‘What Should I Wear to a Funeral?’), you are not expected to wear black nor are all funerals an occasion for formal dress. However, you should be respectful with the outfit you choose and aim not stand out but to blend in with other mourners. Clothes should not be revealing or flamboyant. The exception to this is if the family have specifically requested a dress code.
  • Don’t share, or announce, the event on social media: Social media and networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all very useful ways to contact and inform people about a death; however, there are some golden rules about how this is managed. Firstly, you should never announce a death on social media unless you are close family and you have agreed with other relatives that this is how it shall be done. Finding out about the death of a loved one in this impersonal way can be very upsetting for most people. Secondly, you should not take and share photos of the funeral service itself. Lastly, if you do want to share your experience of the event online then consider very carefully what you are posting before you do so. Is the message or image likely to cause offence? Could the post contain personal information that should not be made public? The golden rule with social media is that if you are in any doubt about what to share, then don’t share it. The majority of people would consider it distasteful or disrespectful to witness a private occasion such as a funeral in this way. 
  • Be prepared to take a back seat: There is an unspoken hierarchy to grief at funerals and family members should be allowed to take ‘centre stage’ in this respect. If you are not an immediate member of the family then it is right that you allow them to talk, share memories and grieve. By all means, this does not mean that you cannot also do so but be aware of their need to spend this time with family and friends to help with their own loss.
  • Put your feelings aside: If you have differences with former friends or family members in the congregation then a funeral, or wake, is not somewhere to discuss these. Wait until after the occasion is over if you must air your feelings and remember to conduct yourself with dignity. 

Lost Traditions

Just as modern funerals incorporate many old traditions, there are some that have not survived or evolved. 

Once important and customary rituals, the following are no longer commonly practiced in the UK but can sometimes be observed, particular in the older generation:

  • Stopping the clocks in a room where someone has died.
  • Covering mirrors in the house where some has died.
  • Closing the curtains in the deceased’s home.
  • Turning over photograph of the deceased.
  • Placing a laurel or wreath tied with black ribbons on the front door of the deceased’s home.