Q. I am going to a funeral mass for a friend’s elderly mother, who died after a long illness. This is my first Catholic funeral—I am not Catholic myself—and I feel uneasy about what to do (or not do) during the service. Can you give me some guidance? Also, do I have to attend the wake, as well as the funeral? Would it be disrespectful to skip the wake?
A. Any funeral can be anxiety-provoking. We’re forced to confront issues of death, loss and our own mortality. There’s added stress and mystery when we’re unfamiliar with another religion’s rituals and don’t know what to expect. In this case, you are not required to kneel or sing with the congregation if you do not wish to, although you should stand when others do. Do not take communion, which is reserved for Catholics, or say prayers that are contrary to your own religious beliefs.
A little bit of research can help demystify the funeral rituals of another religion or culture and help you feel more comfortable. The easiest thing to do is ask someone of the faith involved to educate you. Or explore online. Enter “What to expect at a ---- funeral” or “Etiquette at a ---- funeral” in your search engine and see what comes up. You can also check reference books on etiquette, which often include information on funerals, at the library or book store. Such resources are indispensable tools in our multicultural society today.
As for the wake, look at the level of your relationship with the bereaved. The word “friend” can cover a lot of territory. If the person is a very close friend, I’d attend both the wake and funeral, if at all possible, to offer support. This is what dear friends are for. On the other hand, if you’re casual friends, it is not disrespectful to go to the funeral and bypass the wake (or vice versa). The person is likely to appreciate that you showed up at all.
Be aware that it is important to take the scheduled hours of a wake seriously. For example, if a wake is from 2PM-5PM and from 7PM-9PM the day before the funeral, do not arrive early (to avoid intruding on family discussions of private matters). And don’t stay beyond the indicated hours. The bereaved, who are emotionally and physically drained, need to rest and refuel.
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons / jessica mullen