What to expect when attending a funeral for the first time

Attending a funeral for the first time can be overwhelming, especially if you have never experienced loss before. This period will be filled with emotion, uncertainty and questions about what life will look like now. However, being prepared and knowing what to expect at the funeral can help ease any anxious feelings you may have and make the grieving process more manageable for you and your family.

Keep reading as we delve into what the etiquette is for attending your first funeral and give you an idea of what you can expect to happen during this emotionally difficult time.

What should I do at my first funeral?

Attending a funeral for the first time can be daunting if you don’t know what to expect, however, if you follow proper funeral etiquette and are aware of the layout of the day, you will feel more prepared for the service.

When attending your first funeral it’s important to remember that your main focus should be to pay your respects to the family of the deceased and show your support for them during this difficult time. The funeral is also a chance for you to mourn the loss of the loved one in your own way and can help in your personal grieving process. 

What to take to your first funeral

No matter what type of funeral service you will be attending, there are a few things you should be prepared to take with you to ensure you feel as comfortable as possible throughout the day and to pay your respects to the family. You may wish to bring the following:

  • Tissues or handkerchief – During such an emotionally charged day, there are likely to be moments of tears from you and those around you, therefore coming prepared with tissues is a must.
  • Flowers – Gifting the deceased’s family flowers at a funeral is one of the most traditional ways to extend your sympathies. There will typically be an area set aside at the service for you to place flowers and sympathy cards at the service or the wake or you can choose to send them to their family home. If you’re unsure what flowers are most appropriate to send, our ‘how to choose funeral flowers’ blog will help you make an informed decision.
  • Charity donation – In some services, the family may request a charitable donation to a cause or causes of their choice instead of flowers or other sympathy gifts. This is usually done in a funeral donation box at the end of the service, therefore coming prepared with cash to give will be helpful.
  • Sympathy card – A card is a simple way for you to express your condolences to the immediate family of the deceased and can be a chance for you to offer your support during this time. Whatever you decide to write on the card, whether you share a memory, add a poem or keep it simple with a message of heartfelt support, will help bring comfort to those grieving.
  • A story or memory of the deceased – If you have a fond memory about the deceased, you might want to share this with the family after the service or write it in a guestbook as a way to show that the loved one remains in your thoughts. 

Following the funeral, there may also be a wake held. This is where family and friends of the deceased gather together to share fond memories and enjoy food and drinks together. If you’re attending the wake you may consider taking a food dish as a kind gesture to the family.

What to wear to your first funeral

When attending a funeral for the first time you may be unsure on what the correct attire to wear is. Traditionally, formal black or dark clothing is worn to most funerals due to its association with mourning. Men typically wear dark-coloured suits with a black tie and formal shoes and women will usually wear dark-coloured formal dresses or suits with a jacket and smart shoes. However, it is becoming more popular to wear brightly coloured clothing to symbolise a celebration of life in less traditional funerals. 

It is important to keep in mind the religion of the funeral you are attending as this can also dictate what colours are and are not appropriate to wear. To avoid any mishaps, we recommend consulting the family organising the funeral before the service to ensure you are dressed appropriately. For further insight on this topic, head on over to our ‘What to wear to a funeral’ blog.

What to say at a funeral

Knowing what to say at a funeral can be uncomfortable, especially if you have never attended one before. The best thing to say at a funeral is to extend your deepest sympathies to the family, offering a few kind words and letting them know you are there to support them if they need it. In some instances, if you wish, you can share a fond memory of the deceased with the family. We suggest avoiding stating anything that may be misconstrued as negative or making light of the person’s passing, instead, we recommend the following appropriate expressions:

  • ‘I’m sorry for your loss’
  • ‘You are in my thoughts and prayers’
  • ‘They were a wonderful person and will be missed dearly’
  • ‘I’m here for you and your family if you need anything’.

Depending on the type of funeral service being held and how close you are to the deceased, you may also be asked to give a reading or share a story during the service. This will usually be asked by the family before the service so you have ample time to prepare.

What happens during the service?

Depending on the religion of the deceased and the type of funeral they wish to have, each funeral service will look slightly different. If you are attending a traditional Christian funeral, the main objective of this service is to pray for the soul of the deceased and honour their life with a collection of readings, prayers and hymns.

In church the funeral ceremony will typically start with a small procession down the aisle by the immediate family and the pallbearers carrying the coffin. The coffin will then be placed in front of the altar, and once everyone has gathered together, the clergy will give an opening statement, typically a prayer and a statement of support for the family, then the service will begin.

In a traditional Roman Catholic funeral mass this will include a sermon from the priest, prayers, hymns and readings from the Bible, that relate to the life of the deceased in some manner. Typically, the family will choose relatives or close friends to take part in some of the readings throughout the service. The service will then conclude with a eulogy that reflects on the deceased’s life, their accomplishments and positive things about their character that had an impact on the world and those around them.

If the service is being held in the Crematorium Chapel the service will be similar to the above with the immediate family following in procession behind the coffin lead by the Officiant or Minister. Once seated the service will start and may include hymns, pieces of music, time for reflection and in some crematoriums there may be a photographic slide show.

What happens after the funeral?

Once the service has come to a close, funeral attendees will likely gather at a wake organised by family and friends of the deceased. This is typically held in a function room or someone’s home and is a chance for everyone to enjoy some light refreshments whilst showing support for the family and sharing happy memories of their loved one. 

Wakes can look different for every funeral as there is no set structure they should follow and each family will decide to celebrate their loved one’s life differently. Various cultures also have different etiquette when it comes to the funeral service itself and the wake following. If you’re curious about how other religions and cultures commemorate the passing of a loved one, head over to our blog on ‘Funeral customs from around the world’.

How long do you spend at a funeral?

The length of time you are expected to spend at a funeral will depend on the type of funeral service you are attending and whether you will also be attending the wake following the funeral. Each funeral varies in length depending on the religion and where the service is held, however, most funeral services typically last between 30-60 minutes. 

If you are attending the wake afterwards, these usually last a few hours, again depending on the venue and how long the family hosting has rented the venue for. Generally speaking, there is no set time for you to leave the wake, stay as long as you feel comfortable.

What should you do after attending a funeral?

Following the funeral and wake, you should give yourself time to grieve for as long as needed, ensuring you take care of yourself during this time. You may wish to reach out to others also grieving for additional support, however, if you find yourself in need of more professional bereavement support, there are many services available to you. 

After the funeral you may also wish to send your condolences to the family in the form of sympathy flowers, a thoughtful card or even a text, just to let them know you are thinking of them and so they are aware you are there to support them if needed. 

Discover more funeral etiquette advice from Heart of England Co-op Funerals

If you’re searching for more information on what to expect when attending a funeral, head on over to our ‘Guide to understanding funeral etiquette’ blog. Alternatively, if you need bereavement support or more information on arranging a funeral, get in touch with our funeral directors today.