Proper Funeral Etiquette for Estranged Family Members

Published September 23, 2020
man at funeral mourning

If you are estranged from one or more family members, it can be difficult to know how to handle a death within the family. If you are unsure of how to handle a recent loss, turn to these helpful tips on funeral etiquette for estranged family members to can assist you in making informed and healthy decisions.

Funeral Etiquette for Estranged Family

No family is perfect, and it's common to have a complex relationship with one or more family members. The loss of a family member can feel like it further complicates an already stressful and/or volatile family situation. When grieving the death of an estranged family member, your specific situation may determine whether or not you should attend the funeral and what you should be prepared for.

What Do You Say When an Estranged Family Member Dies?

If an estranged family member passes away, and you want to support their surviving family members, you can absolutely reach out and pass along your condolences. You can consider sending a sympathy card, giving them a phone call, sending a sympathy gift, or sending them a text. If reaching out puts you in emotional or physical jeopardy, know that it is completely appropriate to maintain your boundaries and refrain from doing so.

Is It Bad Not to Attend a Family Member's Funeral?

Attending a funeral is a personal choice that only you can make. If you feel emotionally and physically safe attending a funeral and want to be there to support one or more family members, then you may consider going. You should consider not attending a funeral if:

  • Your presence would upset or cause a distraction to those in mourning
  • You have been asked not to attend
  • Attending may be unsafe for you emotionally and/or physically
man in a suit at a cemetery

Telling Estranged Family About Death

It can feel difficult to know whether it's appropriate to share the news of a recent loss with an estranged family member. If you are able to do so in a way that protects your emotional and physical safety, you can consider reaching out. Know that you don't need to tell them in person if you aren't comfortable doing so. You can send a text or email that says:

  • Just wanted to reach out and let you know that (insert deceased individual's name) passed away on (insert weekday). We are holding a private funeral for immediate family only.
  • I wanted to let you know that (insert deceased individual's name) passed away due to (insert reason). Memorial invitation will follow in the next few days.

Should You Attend the Funeral?

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what you feel comfortable doing. Attending a funeral is a way to honor an individual's life and/or support those in the process of mourning. When family relationships are estranged, it can make the decision to attend that much more difficult. Consider how you'll feel if you do attend versus not attending, think about if your presence will be a distraction, and consider your emotional and physical safety before making your ultimate decision.

What Is Proper Etiquette for Attending Funerals?

If you have decided to attend the funeral, it's best to prepare for the possible scenarios that may unfold.

  • Think about what you would do if you were confronted by a family member.
  • Have an exit plan in place if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe at any point.
  • Consider past interactions with certain family members and come up with a few calm responses to have.

How to Manage Complex Relationships at a Funeral

If possible, keep to yourself, pay your respects, and pass along your condolences if you feel comfortable doing so. If an issue arises at the funeral:

  • Remain calm and don't engage in arguments.
  • If someone approaches you in a way that feels unsafe, excuse yourself and refrain from engaging with them.
  • If you feel emotionally and/or physically unsafe at any point, it is absolutely appropriate to leave the funeral early- just do so discreetly.

Estranged Parent's Funeral

It can feel difficult to decide whether you'd like to attend an estranged parent's funeral. Know that there is no right or wrong answer, and it's important that you do what's best for you regardless of the opinion of others. How you choose to process the death of an estranged mother or father is a personal matter. Some individuals may have already grieved the loss of their parent while they were living because they weren't there for them, were emotionally and/or physically abusive, and/or were absent most of their lives. Before making your decision:

  • Imagine that the funeral already happened, and you chose not to attend. How do you feel?
  • Are you comfortable not having the particular type of closure that a funeral may offer?
  • What would it be like to attend the funeral? What would the social interaction look like and would it be stressful?

Condolences for an Estranged Family Member

Offering condolences to an estranged family member is appropriate if you feel comfortable doing so. If you do offer condolences:

  • Don't bring up any previous family issues.
  • Don't engage if they bring up any previous family issues and note that you aren't comfortable discussing that at this time.
  • Send a sympathy card, email, or text if you aren't comfortable speaking with them in person or on the phone.
Crying Woman Hugging Man

Is It Appropriate to Give Gifts?

You can opt to give a gift to an estranged family member who is in the process of mourning. Keep your message short and simple, and don't bring up any previous family issues. It's best just to focus on passing along your condolences. Appropriate gifts include:

Unwanted Family at the Funeral

If an unwanted family member shows up at the funeral, consider:

  • Will their presence disrupt the service?
  • Are they currently causing a scene or are they behaving appropriately?

If they are quietly attending the funeral and not making a scene, it may be a good idea to allow them to stay versus rocking the boat, unless they are putting others in physical and/or emotional danger. You can always have them not attend the repast if you are truly uncomfortable with them being there. If they are disrupting the service, either you, or someone else, can quietly ask them to speak outside. You can then request that they leave because they are disrupting the service. Some venues will have a manager or security guard on site to assist with situations such as these.

Family Arguments at Funerals

If you find yourself embroiled in a family argument:

  • Say you aren't comfortable discussing this right now.
  • Move seats if possible to create some distance.
  • Don't engage, even if baited.
  • Focus on the reason why you are at the funeral and schedule time to discuss the issue with them in the future if you'd like to.

Guide to Funeral Etiquette for Estranged Family Members

Family relationships that have a complicated history can cause some confusion around funeral etiquette. Experiencing the death of an estranged parent or other family member can bring up complicated emotions and memories. Before making any funeral-related choices, think through your decisions carefully and always consider the feelings of others, as well as your emotional and physical safety.

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Proper Funeral Etiquette for Estranged Family Members