Updated December 3, 2023
Every once in a while, someone asks me what to wear to a funeral. My answer is, it’s complicated. When someone passes away, the family and/or close friends have several options to choose from when planning a funeral. A funeral can be very formal church services requiring formal attire —to very a casual DIY at-home service or celebration of life, where less formal clothing would be warranted. How we honor our loved ones in death is rapidly changing, as are ceremonies that accompany them. This makes choosing an appropriate outfit for a funeral a little complicated.
The most important thing, when choosing a funeral outfit is to consider the family during this difficult time. The last thing we want to do is cause a problem. Though there isn’t a funeral dress code, we want to be respectful in our clothing choices. That is why choosing darker colors such as dark green, navy blue or black is the best choice.
It’s important that before we dive into what to wear to a funeral, we should break down the common types of funeral services we are most likely to attend, here in America. Also, religion, the location of the service, the beliefs and wishes of the family of the deceased, and the time of year will play a part in what you choose to wear.
Basic Types of Funeral Services:
- A formal, traditional funeral which consists of a visitation, funeral, committal, or burial and reception. The body is present for people to pay their respects, a religious ceremony follows, the body is laid to rest at the graveside, and afterward, there is a quiet reception during which guests express their condolences. Light food is often served, and depending on the region, and cause of death, this can be very quiet and subdued or a wild party.
- If the body has been cremated, the family will often opt for a memorial service or a hybrid between a formal funeral and a memorial service. An urn with the deceased remains is often present, along with photographs of the deceased and family. A service is held, followed by light food. The family decides how to handle the ashes and whether to hold an internment service or a ceremony to distribute the ashes.
- The difference between a memorial service and a funeral is that the body of the deceased is not present at a memorial service. There will often be a ceremony, followed by a reception.
- A celebration of life is similar to a memorial service but far less formal. Celebration of life ceremonies often combine various aspects of funerals and memorial services and are sometimes held in places other than a funeral home or church, and typically the body is not present.
- Graveside Services are often held as well. Such a service can take place on its own or be a part of a large formal service. At such a service, an officiant will say a few words. Family members will drop flowers into the grave as a final goodbye.
- A live stream service, hosted online has become very popular over the past couple of years, allowing guests to pay respects while remaining socially distanced—these live streams can be watched from home or in a small group setting, with a small reception held afterward.
- Families sometimes choose to simply host an informal dinner or luncheon in the deceased’s honor at home or at a restaurant.
Typical Locations for funerals and memorial services:
Traditional visitations are often held at the funeral home-though in some regions the visitation is held at home. The body is then transported to the church – or graveside, if the family has chosen a graveside service, for the funeral service, then to the graveside where it is placed in the ground.
If the body has been cremated, the remains are placed in a container that is either given to the family or placed in a memorial garden.
Memorial services can be held at the funeral home, churches, restaurants, or at family members’ homes. While celebrations of life are held in a variety of locations from community clubhouses, and golf courses, to the beach—the list here is endless.
Typically, funeral attire is made up of dark colors, and conservative in styling—funerals are not the time to draw attention to one’s self, but rather focus on the deceased and their loved ones. In some churches, the head and shoulders must be covered, so it’s important to know what will be expected.
Hats are rarely seen at funerals in America today, though, in Europe, black hats and veils are much more common. Funerals are changing, and often reflect the wishes of the deceased or family who may want to hold a more celebratory event.
When should you go to a funeral?
Some attend funerals to pay their last respects to the deceased, while others go to support the grieving family. This, and the formality of the funeral will govern what is worn by guests. For this reason, taking care to dress appropriately is seen as a sign of respect for the family.
It is important to remember that when attending a funeral, it’s about the deceased, their family, and their closest friends. Often loved ones are in considerable distress, and thus anything that inappropriately draws attention to you or is perceived to be a lack of effort or respect should be avoided. If you don’t feel like you want to or can hold sacred space for the bereaved, it might be better not to go to the funeral.
What is disrespectful to wear to a funeral?
- Workout clothing- to include sports bras, leggings, joggers, tracksuits—anything you would wear to the gym.
- Pajamas or loungewear—things you would wear to lounge around at home.
- Low-cut or overtly sexual attire. Deep V-neck, slit skirts, body con dresses. Things you would wear out to a club or to attract attention.
- Bright colors, sundresses, spaghetti straps, most prints, and florals-things you would wear on vacation or on a picnic. Glitter, sequins, or obvious evening wear—things you would wear to evening events. Jeans, tank tops, t-shirts, or shorts.
- Flip-flops, athletic shoes, and flashy, evening shoes should be avoided.
- Baseball caps—in short, avoid most casual wear unless the family says otherwise.
These clothing items would be seen as disrespectful to wear to a funeral. When in doubt, a dark suit or dress is a good idea.
What to wear to a formal funeral service:
Because a traditional funeral service is the most formal of the services, some funeral etiquette is in order. Black is considered to be the color of mourning in the United States and many parts of Europe and is the most appropriate color for somber occasions like a funeral.
A simple black dress, dark or natural-colored stockings, black shoes, and a bag is appropriate. Men can wear a black suit, button-down shirt, and dress shoes. This is considered traditional funeral attire.
Less formal options would include a black or navy suit with matching shoes. Moving less formal, a black jacket with charcoal trousers can be appropriate for some funerals. Black clothing is easy to come by, so it’s fairly easy to put together an appropriate look for a somber occasion. When it comes to prints, tone-on-tone prints can work.
Memorial services can be as formal as a regular funeral so it’s important to check with the family, funeral home, or place of worship to get an idea of how formal the service will be. As the services become more informal, dark colors such as emerald green, dark blue, charcoal, and dark brown will sometimes be seen. You will also see more accent colors and subdued prints. While less formal, these options are still considered appropriate funeral attire.
What to Wear to A Celebration of Life
Celebrations of Life tend to be the least formal, and depending on your level of casual, they can be quite tricky—especially for those of us who are more traditional. I have seen Hawaiian shirts worn by the family, in honor of the deceased’s love of all things Hawaiian—bright celebratory colors for guest attire were encouraged.
Black Jeans and a dress shirt –men could wear a black shirt, worn to an informal lakeside memorial, and golf togs worn to a memorial dinner at the country club in honor of the deceased love of golf is becoming increasingly popular—be sure to check with the family or close friends before choosing something so casual.
The important thing is to take into consideration the location, time of year, and formality of the funeral when choosing the right outfit. This is where I’d dress in a business casual style rather than going too casual.
Better to be on the side of caution. But at the end of the day, it comes down to common sense and respect.
If you are going to a religious funeral and you are unfamiliar with traditions, be sure to ask, or look it up on the internet. A funeral director, pastor, or officiant is a good source of information.
Some changes you may experience in modern funerals:
- Death Doulas- Doulas have long helped women through childbirth, and now help families navigate funeral preparations and assist the grieving family.
- Crowd-funded funerals-You may be asked to support a GoFundMe page to help cover funeral expenses.
3. Live-streamed funerals, rather than in-person services.
4. Much more personalized services with a variety of elements taken from formal funerals, weddings, and other celebrations.
A note if you are holding a funeral: Be sure to let the guests know if you are making a special request regarding clothing, and be sure to be gracious if some of the guests come with formal funeral attire.
Formal Funeral Attire:
What to wear to a memorial service.
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What to wear to a celebration of life
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What to Wear to a Summer Funeral
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Here are a couple of books you may find useful:
I’m Dead Now What? This is a planner to let your loved ones know how you want your funeral handled and who gets what-this is not a will, it’s more for the little things that people sometimes fight over once a person has passed.
When Somebody Dies: The Practical Guide to Logistics This helps with planning funerals.