A Guide to Funeral Etiquette

We answer some of the questions people have about funeral etiquette in New Zealand for both Māori and European-style funerals.

When attending a funeral, it’s good to remember that you are there to support and show your respect to the family of the deceased. Understanding etiquette will ensure you feel more comfortable at the funeral service.

When in doubt about going, do try to attend the service. Generally, the more difficult the situation, the more the family will appreciate your presence and your words of support. Your willingness to go out of your way to say a word or two of comfort will be very much appreciated.

These services and the outpouring of grief and support provide a sense of completion, a process for mourning, and comfort for the living.

PART A: Here are important things to remember when attending a Tangihanga:

Tangihanga (tangi)

This is a traditional Māori funeral held on a marae. Contemporary Māori practices for farewelling the dead continue traditions of tangihanga (tangi) and usually take at least three days. Often the tūpāpaku (deceased) body is prepared by a funeral director and is brought back to the marae of their ancestors in an open casket. When a death occurs in the city and links with an ancestral marae are not strong, the body may come back to a suburban home, church, or community hall.

The loved one is welcomed onto the marae with the whanau pani (the bereaved). Over the course of the tangi visitors are welcomed onto the marae and traditional speeches, songs and chants are exchanged.

The closest relatives of the person who has died – the bereaved family or whānau pani – have a particular role to play during the three-day tangi or set of rituals of farewell. They sit close to the tūpāpaku, who must not be left alone until they are buried. It is expected that whānau will show their emotions on the death of their family member. Family, friends and colleagues speak directly to the tūpāpaku (deceased). Songs and chants and traditional speeches are part of the rituals of tangihanga.

On the final day there is usually a service presided over by a minister, priest or tohunga, and then the body is taken to the urupā (cemetery) for burial

Mourners will accompany the body to the cemetery or urupā and Christian ritual is usually followed before the body is placed in the grave. Hands are washed when leaving the urupā to remove tapu (the sacredness of the place). The sharing of food after a burial brings everyone back into the world of the living and celebrates their connections.

Poroporoaki (spoken farewells) continue to be delivered to the person as if the deceased is still alive, as the wairua (spiri) is believed to remain with the body for some time.

Tangihanga are important healing processes for Māori with open grieving and an outpouring of emotion is encouraged.

It is important to be aware that each iwi (tribe) has its own tikanga (customs or protocols) for tangi. It is therefore best to consult the kaumātua (elder) of the deceased’s iwi for more specific information and advice.

Basic marae etiquette

All marae have their own kawa (protocols) and tikanga (rules). The best is advice is to ask the local people what their expectations are.

Before the pōwhiri (welcome)

  • Arrive early. It is considered impolite to walk onto a marae once a pōwhiri is underway.
  • Dress formally, particularly for a tangihanga.
  • Introduce yourself to other groups you don’t know.
  • Give your koha (monetary gift) to the kaumātua with the envelope.
  • Ensure that your group has a speaker and kaikaranga organised.
  • Ensure cell phones are switched off throughout the pōwhiri.

During the pōwhiri

  • You should not just walk onto a marae; you need to be welcomed on.
  • Women walk on as a group, while men also group together.
  • Do not eat or drink during the welcome.
  • Do not walk in front of a speaker on the marae ātea.
  • Speak in Māori, not English, if giving a speech (unless expressly allowed). After each speech a waita (song) is sung by the speaker.
  • Males sit at the front on most marae, though some marae allow both women and men to sit on the front seat.
  • At the conclusion of the welcome you should harirū (shake hands) and hongi (press noses). While on some marae kissing on the cheek is considered appropriate, others prefer that men and woman just hongi and harirū.

After the pōwhiri

  • Wash your hands (water will be provided).

In the wharekai (dining room)

  • Manuhiri (visitors) will be called in for food. It is polite to let kaumātua (elders) go first. Often the person calling people in for food will say who should come first.
  • Wait until a karakia (grace) has been said before eating.
  • Do not pass food over a person’s head in the wharekai.
  • Do not sit on tables.

In the wharenui (meeting house)

  • Remove your shoes before going into the wharenui.
  • Check before you put your sleeping bag down. Certain parts of the wharenui are reserved for particular manuhiri and tangata whenua.
  • Do not eat or drink in the wharenui.
  • Do not step over people in the wharenui.
  • Do not sit on pillows.
  • Mattresses and pillows will be provided but you will need to bring your own blankets or sleeping bag.

At a tangihanga

  • Wash your hands after greeting the bereaved family and farewelling the tūpāpaku (dead person).
  • Wash your hands after leaving an urupā (cemetery).

General marae etiquette

  • Some marae do not allow photographs, filming or tape recording without permission.

PART B: Here are important things to remember when attending a European-style funeral service:

What to take to a funeral

Whether the funeral is large or intimate, it is useful to know what things you need to take with you:

  • Tissues
  • Flowers (unless you have sent the flowers to the family’s home)
  • Charity donation
  • A story or memory of the deceased

If there is a wake (gathering, get together, refreshments) after the funeral service, you could find out if there is catering provided. If not, you could offer to make a shared dish for the wake.

What to wear to a funeral

Traditionally, black is the most worn due to its association with bereavement. However, wearing bright coloured clothing to symbolise a celebration of life is increasing in popularity.  Dress neutrally unless the obituary notice stipulates any variation.  Generally, guests are expected to dress in smart attire and avoid casual clothing.  

Who can attend a funeral?

A funeral service is usually open to anyone, unless the family has stated that it is a private ceremony. The funeral is typically an opportunity for all family and friends and those who knew the person to say goodbye.

The Viewing

When a loved one is lying in state or resting, you can pay your last repsects and this is often called visitation or viewing.  This is common in many culture, however, this can also be new for many people.

It is customary to say your goodyes by stepping up to the casket.  This is a time for you to also provide comfort to bereaved family members.

Whether a viewing is to take place or not is entirely up to the discretion of each individual family. A viewing typically takes place in the funeral home or at the family home. Although the casket can be open during a funeral service – this is not so popular currently. Sometimes allocated times are given at the funeral home for friends and family to visit. Often viewing is for family only.

When should I arrive at a funeral?

A good rule of thumb is to arrive 10-20 minutes early to allow for a few moments to interact with other guests before the service begins. If you arrive late, do not walk down the centre aisle to take your seat. Instead, use the side aisle to find a seat near the back as to avoid interrupting the service.

What to say at a funeral?

Though you may find it uncomfortable to say something to the family of the deceased at a funeral, it is always appropriate to extend your sympathy for the family’s loss.

All you need to do is offer a few kind words or even share a fond memory of the person if you wish. It’s important not to say only positive words about the deceased.

Here are a few appropriate words to say to family members of the deceased:

I’m so sorry for your loss

They were a wonderful person and will be sorely missed

You and your family are in my thoughts

I’m here for you if you need anything

I’m so sad for you and I’m here if you need me

I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can

Where to sit at a funeral

At a funeral, immediate family and close friends sit in the first few rows.

What to do?

The best thing to do if you are unsure how to act at a funeral is to watch, listen and follow.  Often, there is an individual or group tasked with leading the service and you in turn can take your lead from them.

At what time should I send flowers?

Sending sympathy flowers shows respect and provides comfort to those in mourning. You may wish to have them delivered to the home and this is often the easiest for the family.

You may wish to hand-deliver the flowers to the funeral.  Take the flowers to the front of the room and set by the casket.

Even if you send flowers a few days, it still shows that you care and are thinking of the family.

How much should I donate to the chosen charity?

Some people may request a charity donation in lieu of flowers. You could consider donating at least what you would have spent on flowers.

You may wish to include a note to the charity or association and send a card to the family and friends of the deceased.

Do I sit in the church/funeral home before the family?

Funerals vary depending on tradition, where the service is held, and family preference. Guests usually arrive before the family and take their place before the service starts.

The mood of the funeral

Funerals are typically sombre. This is a time for quiet sympathy and reflection. While it’s appropriate to cry quietly depending on your relationship with the deceased, over-the-top displays of emotion aren’t common. 

There are times when you might attend a livelier funeral or memorial service. These are often celebrations of life, and they might feel more like a party than a funeral. 

What happens at the end of the service?

When the service comes to a close, the minister/celebrant will leave, and everyone will stand to pay their final respects.

The casket may remain on view for last goodbyes before they leave and at this stage, you may be invited to place a provided flower on the casket.

The casket, depending on the service, will then carried out, followed by the family, then the guests.

Family and close friends will then leave first, followed by the remainder of the funeral attendees.  

What happens after the funeral service?

After most services, the family or friends organising the funeral will provide a get together, also known as a wake, with light refreshments either at a home or in a private function area such as at the funeral home. This is an opportunity to show support to the family and share fond and happy memories of a loved one.

Funeral Etiquette
It is always appropriate to extend your sympathy for the family’s loss

HonourThem has a Grief Support page with information to help you.

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