Funeral Etiquette

5 Funeral Visitation Blunders to Avoid

Unless you want to mar somebody's funeral wake/visitation, don't make these common mistakes. Photo © Rich Legg/E+/Getty Images

Death is an unpleasant and unwelcome reality of life, and funerals often make us feel uncomfortable like little else can. Here are five common funeral wake/visitation blunders you should avoid making to prevent causing undue stress and pain for the immediate family and other mourners.

Cell Phones

Let's face it -- the rise of smartphones and advancements in cellular technology for mobile devices is both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, cell phones enable us to stay connected to people and events around us like never before, but, conversely, mobile devices have also given rise to an unprecedented level of distraction that can precipitate genuine bodily harm, such as the incidents captured on this YouTube video involving texting and walking.

And even if users aren't in physical danger, constantly staring at, tapping on or talking into your mobile while in the company of others can signal distraction, disinterest or downright rudeness. (Time will tell how the new Apple Watch will enhance this phenomenon.)

Therefore, when attending a funeral visitation/wake, leave your cell phone at home or in your car. If you feel you must carry your mobile device with you, then set it to silent/vibrate, keep it in your pocket or purse, and avoid the temptation to check it in front of the deceased's family, friends and other mourners.

If you must use your cell phone, then visit a restroom, find another vacant spot or step outside so others cannot see you.


Often, and especially if you arrive right when the wake/visitation starts, you and other attendees will need to stand in line in order to offer condolences to the immediate family and others close to the deceased, who generally stand in front of/near the remains of the deceased, whether casketed or inurned.

This queue can extend to the back of the room, funeral home chapel or church, or even extend outside of the building.

You might also wonder in this situation "Why bother?" if you didn't know the deceased personally but simply wanted to attend to show support for a professional colleague, friend, or other acquaintance

Nobody enjoys standing in line, but if you arrive at a wake/visitation and see a receiving line or an endless group of visitors surrounding the immediate family, avoid the temptation to simply turn around and leave without offering your sympathy -- even if you didn't know the deceased personally. Remember that your physical presence and the fact that you made the time to attend this funeral conveys to the immediate family and others that, during his or her life, their loved one mattered. Words cannot express the value and genuine impact of this life-affirming message on survivors as they grapple with the forever-loss created by death, even when provided by someone who didn't know the deceased personally.

Your John Hancock

Almost as important as personally expressing your condolences to the immediate family and others close to the deceased (described above), you should also make sure you sign the register book. This is typically located just outside/inside of the doorway leading to wherever the remains of the deceased reside. (And even if the body is not present, as is often the case at a post-cremation memorial service held weeks or months later, families might still provide a register book.)

It's important to sign the funeral guest book for several reasons because, understandably, those closest to the deceased will not later recall everyone who attended because of the consuming nature of grief. Thus, providing your name, address and, if requested, your relationship to the deceased enables the immediate family to send thank-you notes if they desire; to acknowledge floral arrangements, plants and/or monetary donations; and simply to serve as a comforting permanent record of the many people who made time to honor their loved one with the gift of their physical presence.

The Remains

In the United States, embalming the deceased for the purpose of temporary preservation is common practice, regardless of the form of final disposition selected (burial, cremation or otherwise). During this process, a licensed embalmer drains bodily fluids from the cadaver and injects preservative chemicals into the tissues, organs, bodily cavities and the body's arterial network. Afterward, usually working from photographs supplied by the immediate family, funeral professionals will apply cosmetics to the skin and style the deceased's hair.

Throughout this process, the goal is to approximate how the deceased looked while alive and provide a "natural" appearance to the greatest extent possible. Unfortunately, many things can affect the success of this endeavor, including the cause of death, the individual's age and/or health at the time of death, the skill of the embalmer, cosmetician and/or hairdresser, the recency of the supplied photograph(s), etc. In addition, and frankly, many people harbor naive expectations about embalming due to their unfamiliarity and/or unrealistic understanding of the process, which can further influence a family's satisfaction regardless of the results.

For these reasons and others, when attending a funeral wake/visitation, you should never comment on the appearance of an embalmed individual unless in response to a direct question. Being the first to comment on how the deceased looks is never wise because you simply don't know what an immediate family member or close loved one thinks. Obviously, if a mourner expressly asks you, "Doesn't he/she look wonderful?" then you should readily agree. Short of that, avoid any comments on the appearance of the deceased in order to prevent causing undue stress and pain.

Correct Dress

You might not realize it, but the modern tradition of wearing black, dark or somber-colored clothing to a funeral arose in part from the Victorian custom of widows weeds. These days -- despite the steady relaxation of dress codes and societal expectations -- even people who haven't attended a funeral visitation/wake recently still think that they should dress "appropriately" by wearing something more appropriate than a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flop sandals.

Generally, dressing conservatively remains the correct thing to do, but you should first check the deceased's obituary just in case the family requested some non-traditional form of attire. Given the rise of personalized funerals, "celebrations of life" and memorial services without the body present, coupled with the movement away from tradition-dictated behaviors in general, it is not uncommon for the deceased's loved ones to request that funeral attendees wear something different. This might include, for example, casual clothing, Hawaiian shirts or beachwear, hats, or simply "nothing black."

Do your best to honor the wishes of the deceased's family members, but if you cannot locate anything to the contrary in the obituary or on the funeral home's website, then you should wear something conservative. And if your schedule forces you to go to a wake/visitation wearing whatever you have on, then for heaven's sake just attend. Your presence and the comfort it provides to the immediate family outweighs all other considerations.

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