International Funeral Etiquette
If you travel a lot for work, have family overseas, live as an expat, or are abroad when a death occurs, you might find yourself invited to a funeral in another country (or for someone of a different culture). This can be an intimidating prospect, since different countries have different outlooks on death and dying. Their funerals may be loud and celebratory and open to all. They might be small, private affairs that outsiders are not welcome to attend. Funeral flowers might be expected, or they might be considered an insult. Unless you have a lot of knowledge about a country or culture, you have no way of knowing about their rituals.
However, a few things remain the same no matter where you are in the world. When attending a funeral internationally or outside your culture, it is important to remember these key points.
- Respect the Religious Observances: Few things are more sacred than a culture’s religious observances—especially when it comes to death and dying. Above all else, respect these traditions and beliefs, no matter how much you agree or disagree with them. (Note: This does not mean you should participate in the rituals, especially if you practice another religion. Just be respectful and unobtrusive as they take place.)
- Do Your Research: Knowledge is your best resource in a situation like this one. Before you attend a funeral or send any kind of gift, learn what the usual customs are. Refrain from asking the family that is dealing with the death, as they have other things to attend to right now. Instead, ask a close friend or coworker, research online, or even ask a religious official in the area. (Funeral directors also tend to be good sources of information.)
- Dress Appropriately: While doing your research, make sure you find out what is the accepted attire for a funeral. If in doubt, err on the side of neutral formality. Understated, modest clothes in shades like beige or navy are almost always appropriate. The goal is to stand out as little as possible.
- Treat the Funeral like an Important Meeting: Arrive on time. Turn off your cell phone. Be polite. Listen more than you speak. By treating the funeral like a professional meeting or interview, you can avoid many of the more common missteps that come from not knowing exactly what to do or say.
- Follow the Leader: One of the best ways to learn how to act at a funeral is to watch what other people are doing. The family will obviously have more privileges than regular guests, so find someone who seems to be in your same situation—paying respects but not putting themselves forward. By following their lead, you might better understand what is expected of you.
- Leave in a Timely Fashion: Do not linger at the funeral unless you have been expressly asked to stick around. In almost all countries and cultures, family members and friends will continue mourning or retreat to their own customs long after the funeral has ended. Leave when most of the other guests do to avoid accidentally overstaying your welcome and allow the family their privacy.