Memorial Etiquette
May 28, 2014 7:56 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I have been invited to a perhaps slightly out of the order "memorial event", and as we've never attended an event with that precise profile in this country, we're wondering if there are some rules and expectations we should be aware of.

A neighbor of ours died a few months ago. We were slightly friendly with that particular neighbor, and his sister is organizing a 'memorial event' to which we have been invited - basically it's a gathering at a home, to last 3 hours, and during that time we're all going to be sharing memories and telling stories about the decedent, (this was communicated to us in an email from the sister). We have no idea how many people are going to be in attendance.

The only memorial services we've attended in this country were held shortly after the death of whoever it was that died, and were connected with the funeral.

This is clearly not such a memorial service, as the person has been dead and buried for a few months now. Instead, it's a 'memorial event', is how it's been phrased. Given that we've never attended such an event, there a questions: do we bring anything? condolence flowers (for the sister?)? do we dress to indicate some kind of mourning (black, or black bands or what?)? Sorry to be clueless, but we were not super close to the neighbor who died, however we have communicated with his sister, and we have by mutual agreement adopted his cat (I hope it's not expected that we bring the cat to the event?? wouldnt' that be in bad taste?). So, expectations?
posted by VikingSword to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you would need to wear black, just dress formally.

You might call or email the sister to ask about food, or if there's anything you can bring to help out.

Do you have any pictures of your neighbor? Bring those, but don't feel like you will HAVE to show them. Or take a minute to jot down things you remember about your neighbor (but don't feel like you will HAVE to get up and say them in front of everyone).

Bring a picture of the cat (not the actual cat).
posted by daisystomper at 8:05 PM on May 28, 2014

(I meant like "going to church" formal, not "going to prom" formal, of course.)
posted by daisystomper at 8:05 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can ask the sister about what to wear etc. I have been to lots of memorials like this. They're similar to wakes, just not right after the funeral. I'd wear something black and think of something nice to share about your neighbor either in conversations one-on-one or to the group as a whole. You probably won't be asked to do the latter during the event unless you're comfortable with it. Don't bring the cat. He isn't invited, I assure you.
posted by sockermom at 8:07 PM on May 28, 2014

Yes, dress in sober, darker colors and not too casually. I wouldn't bother about bringing food; leave that to the closer friends or family. I wouldn't feel obligated to speak, since you didn't know your neighbor well. Perhaps a very short statement about how you fondly remember your neighbor every day as you care for his/her cat. You're also not obligated to stay the entire time, maybe an hour?
posted by primate moon at 8:11 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is "this country" the US? Was the deceased a participating member of any religious and/or ethnic group* that you might mention to make answers here more helpful?

Definitely ask the sister what to expect, though, and ask if whatever small gesture you'd like to do would be appropriate.

*Re: Soliciting info on funeral traditions related to culture -- this is nice-to-know information in case someone mentions, does, or eats something you're not familiar with. No one would expect you to be, but it's nice show of respect if you're able to go with the flow without asking too many questions. But don't walk up to anyone and say, "Hey I know Albanians do xyz at memorials..." or otherwise try to dazzle them with your "vast" knowledge of their culture. So many ways that could go wrong.
posted by lesli212 at 8:48 PM on May 28, 2014

Usually these are occasions for people who aren't quite as close to the decedent to have a get together, talk with the family, and maybe meet each other and swap stories. Often this is done (in my experience) if there was a small (or no) funeral and especially if there weren't church services or of there were small church services and this is a more open "for anyone" thing. I put on one of these a few months after my dad died (we did a family-only burial and it was a very sudden death so we were in no condition to do something at the time and this way people from far away could plan to be there) and AskMe helped me a little bit with what to expect. I also went to another one of these a few years ago which was a work colleague of my partner.

Both of these were basically casual hang-out affairs and people didn't dress in black or formally though that was stated at the outset both times. At my father's event there was a lot of chitchat and mingling, looking at photos of my dad, I had a guestbook for people to sign. After maybe 90 minutes we gathered in one room and people told stories and there was more formallish talking about my dad. We had a few people we knew would be saying stuff and then other people were welcome to and some did. At the other event I went to it was a similar format except that people gathered outside and sort of went in a circle telling stories. I hadn't known the guy so I didn't say anything but it was neat to hear what people had had to say about him. After people share reminiscences my experiences is that some people hang out longer and eat or drink and others take that as their cue to head out.

I think flowers are appreciated but not necessary. I think a nice photo of the cat in a frame would be a neat keepsake though also not at all required. I think asking if it's casual or if there is something you can bring is a decent idea, otherwise wearing something in darker colors that is comfortable (but probably not a suit or something of that level) should be appropriate.
posted by jessamyn at 8:54 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry, should have been more clear - this is in Los Angeles, California. The neighbor's ethnic/family background: WASP, but he himself was not religious from what I gathered. He lived here in WeHo for at least 20 years, his sister (who is organizing this) is flying in from back East where she lives. Thank you, all the answers have been very helpful so far. Based on suggestions here, I already wrote the sister an email asking if there is anything we could bring that could be helpful, so I'll see what she says.
posted by VikingSword at 9:09 PM on May 28, 2014

A common term for this is Celebration of Life, if that helps.
posted by radioamy at 9:55 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you feel inclined, you could tell stories about the beloved cat. I'm sure that people would enjoy the update, as the cat is certainly part of the family.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:22 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sister is flying in from the East to hold a Memorial Event for people in her brother's neighbourhood?

She's holding this event for you. Basically she picked up the idea from her brother that there were people in his neighbourhood that were important to him and to whom he was important and she is trying to give you guys a chance to observe the loss. It's also possible that she is hoping to find meaning in her brother's life from an observation of grief in his local friends and neighbours that she can't get from the family and friends who all lived in other States.

But basically the event is for you and the other neighbours. She's trying to meet your need to mark your neighbour's passing. So do what you think would be meaningful. You might want to see if you can get a tree planted in the neighbourhood to leave a "permanent" marker. You might just want to come and dredge out commonplace reminiscences: "He used to go jogging past my house at nine o'clock in the evening, but the didn't do it very often."

You might want to think if there is anyone that would miss or mourn your neighbour who she would have failed to invite - his jogging buddies perhaps? and you could tactfully offer her the contact information to invite them if you have it.

But mostly you get to go and be polite and shuffle your feet and offer her your condolences. "I'd just like to say I'm sorry for you loss ... I am going to miss him," is the format I generally follow.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:27 AM on May 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I wouldn't stress out about this. It would be a good idea to ask if you can bring anything, but the sister will probably say no. These kinds of things are social events more than anything else. I would probably wear a subdued jacket-and-tie combo, but I generally err on the side of overdressing, so if you go that route, be aware that you will probably be the most formally dressed person there. I would guess a lot of people (especially older folks) are just going to toddle over in their khakis. People don't really dress up for these kinds of things the way they used to, but you can't really go wrong with a jacket and tie. A suit would be overdoing it.

Once a fair number of people get there, it will probably take on the air of a mixer. "How did you know Bob?" "How long have you lived in the area?" "So, your daughter is heading off for college this year?" That sort of thing. At some point, the sister will probably stand up and start reminiscing and invite others up to do the same. I would be prepared to speak for a minute or so, but there's no need to prepare a formal speech, especially if he was basically a casual acquaintance. If you're not the kind of person who likes public speaking and don't want to say anything, that should be OK, too--nobody is going to hold it against you, especially since you've shared your memories with everyone you've already spoken to. If you do want to say something, make sure not to ramble on pointlessly.

Definitely ask if they are accepting donations to any causes in his memory, and get the info so that you can send a check when you get home.
posted by Leatherstocking at 4:45 AM on May 29, 2014

his sister (who is organizing this) is flying in from back East where she lives.

Ahhh. I wondered if this might be the case.

I'm from the northeastern US, and this is pretty not-weird in my neck of the woods. I have been told that this tradition started because of frozen ground -- you couldn't bury the dead if they died in the winter, so you held off on the memorial service until the spring. This is no longer the case, but the tradition of holding memorial services in the spring for those who died in the winter persists.

We had the winter death-May memorial service setup for a family member a few years back. I prefer it, actually; much easier to plan travel if there are friends/family who might want to come but couldn't drop everything for a trip right after the death. Also, there's been some time, and it's often easier to think of the good times when the loss isn't quite so raw.

I think the most important thing to bring is stories about your neighbor. If you have photos (of him or of the cat), those would be appreciated too; bring copies for his sister. And yes, I think it was a good idea to ask her in email if you can bring food, etc.
posted by pie ninja at 5:30 AM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the clarification! I thought it was pretty weird that everyone was just assuming US WASP type traditions in the absence of any information (though, I suppose that is typical).

I mean, there are traditions where you shouldn't, for example, bring flowers. When my gran passed, people definitely did and said some awkward things because of assumptions they didn't even realize they were making. It wasn't offensive because I knew they were expressing how much they cared, but I certainly really appreciated the few people who acknowledged their unfamiliarity with my culture and asked.
posted by lesli212 at 6:22 AM on May 29, 2014

Thank you everyone, this was very helpful and educational. The sister responded, thanking for the offer, but she's all set, and we just need to attend. Now we feel better prepared for the event.
posted by VikingSword at 11:05 AM on May 29, 2014

I went to one of these for a friend. The family had had a private funeral, so this was for his friends and acquaintances.

I'd guess most of the people were coming from work, and so were dressed anywhere from jeans to... nicer jeans, because this was Seattle. But just think of work clothes. Definitely no need to go in mourning or bring flowers.

We watched some movies the friend had made, shared stories, had some drinks. There was a guestbook to sign.

You could bring some photos of the cat in its new home, if you wanted, to show to family members if the mood seems right.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:54 PM on May 29, 2014

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