Funeral & Shiva Etiquette

Like everything in society, funeral etiquette and what is expected of you has evolved over time.  As always common sense and good discretion is the best guide to proper funeral etiquette.  Here are a few do’s and don’ts of funeral etiquette.

DO:

  • Express your condolences – It’s not easy to come up with the words to offer sympathy to someone who has just lost a loved one.  You don’t need to be a poet, simply saying something like “I am sorry for your loss, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family” is enough.  If you can’t be at a funeral service in person, sending a card or leaving a message on a memorial website is a perfect way to express your sympathy.
  • Dress appropriately – Gone are the days of dressing up in all black for a funeral, but jeans and a t-shirt isn’t exactly acceptable either.  You should still dress to impress and avoid any bright or flashy colors.  Wearing what you would wear for a wedding or a job interview would be the most appropriate. *Also dress appropriate for the weather.
  • Sign the register book – The family will keep the register book as a memento for years.  Be sure to include your full name and please print LEGIBLY. 
  • Make a donation – You don’t need to go overboard with the amount or effort, after all it is the thought that counts.  A donation can be to the charity of the family’s choice, or you can make a commitment of service to the family at a later date.  A commitment of service can be something as simple as cooking them dinner, or offering to clean up their house, any of the “little” things that may be neglected while a family deals with death.  
  • Keep in Touch – You may feel that the family needs their space and time to grieve, but a simple phone call or note after the funeral lets the family know you care.  With social networking leaving a quick note is as simple as a click of a mouse.  The months following a death is when grieving friends and family need the most support.

DON’T:

  • Bring your cell phone – Your phone ringing will be highly inappropriate and will cause a disturbance, so turn any ringers or notifications off.  Even better, leave your phone at home or in your car, a funeral is not the time to be texting or checking your messages.
  • Allow your children to be a distraction – From a very young age children are aware of death, and if the funeral is for someone that was close to them (grandparent, aunt, uncle) they should be given the option to attend.  However if it is not appropriate for your child to be there, and if you feel they will cause a commotion, leave them with a babysitter.
  • Be afraid to remember the good times – Funerals are obviously a time of grieving and mourning, but remembering the good times helps with the healing process.  Sharing a funny and appropriate story is acceptable, and in some cases exactly what the deceased would have wanted.
  • Overindulge - If food or drink is served, do not over do it.  Have a bite to eat before you go to the service, you do not want to be that guy parked at the snack table.  If alcohol is served, limit yourself to one or two, do not become inebriated and risk doing something inappropriate.

The Shiva

The Shiva takes place within the context of community. The paradox of the Shiva is that while the family can withdraw from the community, the community cannot withdraw from the family. This reminds the mourner that there are others who truly care.

The Shiva Visit

If you are not certain what to say — be silent:  Silence can be very healing and soothing to those in deep emotional pain. Be willing to hold the mourner’s hand, share a smile, and communicate without words your concern and caring.

Allow the mourners the opportunity to express their grief:Allow mourners the opportunity to talk about their feelings of loss. Do not attempt to change the topic or divert mourners from speaking about painful feelings or crying.

Listen:  Ask questions that will allow the mourner to talk with you about their grief. The Shiva is the ideal time for reminiscing and reflecting on the life of the person who has recently died.

Share your feelings:  If you are feeling sad, share your tears. If you see humor in a certain memory, laugh. If you have a close relationship with the bereaved, do not hesitate to hold, hug or at least touch them.

Don’t expect to be fed:  It is the role of the community to care and support the mourner. It is our obligation to feed them, offer rides, to run an errand, or whatever could be helpful during this time.

What to wear: It is not a formal affair or event but be respectful, modest and appropriate.

Watch the time:  It can be exhausting for a mourner to be available all day; observe stated times for calls.

Minyan Service:  This is a prayer service usually 30 minutes in length. Please put down any food or drink, cease all conversation and participate. If you are not Jewish, do not feel uncomfortable that you must participate; you are welcome to follow along in English.

Take children:  It is appropriate for children to attend a shiva home, especially when their friend is a mourner (grandchild, son/daughter, etc.).