9 Dos and Don'ts of Funeral Etiquette

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iStock

There's no "right" thing to say to someone who has just lost a close friend, family member, or significant other. However, there are general etiquette rules to follow at the memorial service.

mental_floss spoke with Amy Cunningham, a Brooklyn-based funeral director who runs an establishment called Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, to get a sense of what is appropriate—and what is not—at a funeral or memorial service. While funerary customs differ from family to family, Cunningham provided a list of tips that are universal enough to apply to any ceremony.

1. DO: DRESS CONSERVATIVELY

“Modesty reigns. You're there to listen and learn, not seize the limelight,” Cunningham says. In short, steer clear of flashy or distracting outfits and accessories. While it’s a good rule of thumb to stick with darker colors, don’t worry about wearing all black. After all, “black isn't as uniformly correct as it used to be. At the Washington D.C. burial of a journalist, Diana McLellan, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wore white,” Cunningham says. (Of course, this is entirely dependent on the culture. Different countries have their own de-facto shades for mourning.) Also, it goes without saying that you should make sure everything’s neat, clean, ironed, and tucked in.

2. DON'T: SIT JUST ANYWHERE

The general practice is that the first few rows of the church or venue are reserved for family members or close friends. If you’re neither of those, sit toward the middle or the back. Once you're seated, stay put (and quiet) for the ceremony's duration. If you start coughing or crying, feel free to go to the bathroom or lobby and wait until it passes.

3. DO: ACT NORMAL

Chances are, you don’t know what to say to the person whose loved one just died. That’s OK. There’s no magic phrase that will make everything better, or sum up how sorry you are for their loss. Instead of tripping over your words, “be normal, hug, say nothing. Hug again,” Cunningham says. “Bring them some water or a snack if you see that they're stuck talking to folks in a receiving line or something.” It's also a nice gesture to send flowers or a card to the family member's residence or workplace, or to the funeral home in time for the visitation or memorial service. Try to send these sooner, rather than later.

4. DON'T: BE LATE

Cunningham says it’s a good idea to show up about 10 minutes early to a funeral. (If you think the service will be crowded, swing by a half-hour early so you can nab a seat.) If you do come late, the Emily Post Institute recommends that you remain unobtrusive by entering a row through a side aisle. If there’s a procession, wait outside until it’s done. However, it’s not the end of the world if you’re tardy. At the end of the day, the family is likely to be distracted for reasons other than your delayed arrival.

5. DO: LAUGH

If someone makes a joke during the eulogy, don’t be afraid to crack up. (To stay on the safe side, follow the family’s lead.)

6. DON'T: INSTAGRAM THE FUNERAL

Keep your phone off or on silent—and better yet, keep it in your pocket or purse. It’s inappropriate to tweet, Instagram, or Snapchat a funeral unless you’re an immediate family member. (In that case, you might want to use social media to take advantage of digital memorial platforms or websites.) As for photos, you shouldn't snap any during the ceremony, but it's OK to take them if you're away from the mourners and you want to pose for a group shot with friends or family members you wouldn't have seen otherwise.

7. DO: BRING KIDS

Babies should be left with a sitter, but it’s fine to bring kids over the age of six or so to a funeral. Don’t worry that the occasion will make them anxious or sad. “Kids want to be a part of the festivities, and are generally less scared of death than we assume they are,” Cunningham says.

If your child was close to the person who died, they might be asked to participate in the ceremony. They can read poetry, speak, sing, or play instruments. In short, be creative with your child's involvement. “We don't give kids enough to do at funerals,” Cunningham says.

8. DON'T: BE RATTLED BY RELIGION

If a service contains religious elements, don’t worry if you’re not a practicing member of the faith. You shouldn't feel forced to partake in a sacrament or say a prayer out loud. Instead, “stand and listen. Marvel at the world's liturgy and funeral customs,” Cunningham says.

9. DO: TAKE SOME TIME TO REFLECT

While you go to a funeral to pay tribute to someone who died, it’s OK to also take some time to reflect on your own life. “When you attend a funeral, you are—like it or not—exposing yourself to life's greatest mystery,” Cunningham says. “It’s an opportunity to sift through your own ideas regarding life's meaning, your work, your friendships, your family—in short, your commitment to living fully … Even if you don't experience a transporting ‘Eureka’ moment, you will get something out of it if you're present to what's happening.”

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

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Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

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In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

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In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.