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A funeral is an important occasion for the family and friends of the person who has died. It's easy to feel like you might do or say something wrong, especially if you haven't been to a funeral for a long time. Or perhaps you've never been before and want to know what to expect.

We’ve put together this guide to help you understand what happens at a funeral. However, it's important to know that every funeral service is different. The details will vary depending on the culture and religion of the person who has died. They may also have left instructions on how they want their funeral to be carried out.

Consider these general guidelines to help you plan the best you can.

What happens at a funeral?

Every religion has its own funeral customs. There are Humanist funerals too, which are non-religious celebrations of life. And some people have unique spiritual beliefs, which are reflected in their funeral services when they die.

Despite these differences, funerals often follow a similar overall structure. Here's what to expect.

Before the funeral

Some faiths have special rites that are performed before the funeral ceremony. Muslims, for instance, ritually wash the body of the person who has died – as do Hindus.

These rites are usually only for close family members of the person who has died. If you're a friend or distant relative, you won't be expected to go.

Arriving at the funeral

Before the funeral begins, people will gather at the venue. This could be a religious building – like a church – or a non-religious venue such as a crematorium.

You'll be expected to wait patiently and respectfully for the funeral to start. When the time is right, venue staff or the funeral officiant will lead people inside.

Usually, close family members will enter first and take seats close to the front of the room. As a rule of thumb, you should sit close to the back if you didn't know the person well. However, if there aren't many people at the funeral, you should sit nearer the front.

Sometimes, the coffin is carried into the venue as the funeral begins. Other times, it will already be inside.

The funeral service

The service is the main part of a funeral. It's a formal ceremony that means different things to different people. In Christian funerals, its purpose is to help the soul enter Heaven. In some non-religious funerals, it's more like a reflection on the person's life and personality.

Funeral services can vary a lot depending on the wishes and culture of the person who has died.

Most funeral services will include some or all of these things:

If it’s a religious funeral, you can also expect:

  • Readings from a holy book
  • Prayers
  • Hymns

The coffin will usually be on display during the funeral. It might be closed or open. If it's open, the service is called an 'open-casket funeral'. It's fine to sit away from the coffin if you're not comfortable seeing the body.

After the service, people will file outside. Often, family and close friends will leave the venue first.

The cremation or burial

After the funeral, the body is either buried or cremated.

A burial can be attended or unattended. If people go to the burial, there might be a separate ceremony next to the grave.

Cremations are usually unattended. However, it's common to have a ceremony at the crematorium, even if there has already been a religious service in a place of worship. Sometimes the whole service is held at the crematorium.

After the funeral

In some faiths and cultures, the family is expected to enter a period of mourning after a person dies. This is a time set aside to remember and pay respect to the person.

During a period of mourning, the family might wear dark clothes, stay indoors more often or perform religious rites.

The length of the mourning period varies. Traditionally, Muslims are expected to mourn for three days after a person has died. The Jewish mourning period – or 'shiva' – lasts one week.

What do you wear to a funeral?

 At most traditional funerals in the UK, people are expected to wear smart, dark clothes. Black is a safe choice. Dark blue or dark grey are usually acceptable too.

This isn't always the case, though. At Hindu funerals, people usually wear white, which represents purity. And it's common for people to go to Humanist funerals wearing bright or casual clothes.

Still, dark clothes are considered suitable for most Christian, Muslim and non-religious funerals. It’s best to assume this is the dress code unless you've been told otherwise. Learn more about what to wear to a funeral.

How to behave at a funeral

Funerals usually have a sombre atmosphere, and there are lots of unspoken rules about what to do and how to behave.

It’s natural to have questions, especially if you're going to a funeral of a different faith. It's easy to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. But try not to overthink it. As long as you're respectful and supportive, people will appreciate that you're trying your best.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Be quiet and respectful

Try to stay quiet during the ceremony, unless you're joining in with prayers or songs. It's fine to cry if you need to – but be aware that religions have different customs around public displays of grief.

Don't eat, use your phone or take photographs. Remember: you're there to reflect on the memory of the person and support their family and friends.

Know when to join in

Often, hymns and prayers are printed on the order of service. If you share the same religion as the person who has died, feel free to join in. If you don't know the tune or you're of a different faith, it's okay to stay silent instead.

Some religions have strict rules about this. For instance, only Muslims are allowed to say the Islamic funeral prayer – though it's fine for non-Muslims to quietly observe.

Don't worry if you don't feel sad

Not everybody who goes to a funeral feels sad. Some people just sit quietly and reflect on the life of the person who has died. They might even feel a little joy remembering happy times together.

So don't feel bad if you don't cry. You should see the funeral as an opportunity to say goodbye in your own way. As long as you're respectful, it's fine to feel any emotion.

What to say to someone after a funeral

Usually, there'll be time to talk to people before and after the funeral. It can be hard to know what to say – after all, many people are grieving and might get emotional if you mention certain things.

Most people will say things like ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘he/she/they will be sorely missed’. You could also offer support, whether that’s emotional or practical.

Sometimes, it might be inappropriate to talk to people. For instance, the family of the person who died might be very emotional. Or they might be busy talking to close family members and friends. Use your judgement to decide whether it's OK to approach them. If you don’t get chance to speak to someone at the funeral, it’s fine to send them a message afterwards to let them know you’re thinking of them.

We hope this article answered your questions. You can learn more about funeral customs or how to plan a funeral in our advice centre.

Photo by joaph on Pixabay.