London funerals
April 30, 2017 2:59 AM   Subscribe

I will soon have to attend my partner's parent's funeral. This is in the UK. I am from another culture/ country and don't know what to expect. What are UK funerals like?

My partner's parent will probably not have a religious funeral, though if they do it'll be Church of England. I believe the body will be cremated.

I am from another culture altogether where the way of death is very different. I'm nervous about getting things wrong. I have been with this partner for over a decade and am very close to his family, but this is the first time I'll be attending a funeral.

I have plenty of experience of death in my own cultural context, but this is quite new to me and I can't ask my partner or his surviving parent for advice.

My questions are:

1. What typically happens at a funeral in the UK?

2. What should I wear given my close-yet-not-immediate relationship? All black? How formal?

3. What level of intimacy or comforting for the chief mourners is typically acceptable or expected?

4. Should I expect or offer to have any role, for instance receiving attendees or shepherding them around?

5. How does the funeral and cremation usually link up? Are they at the same time/ place? Separate? Do people come back to the house afterwards?

6. I have read about wakes. Are these typically held in fairly posh upper middle class London families?

Any other points, or even accounts of funerals you have attended in the UK, might be useful. I am hoping for answers from people with experience with funerals in the UK as I have no basis for judging where there might be differences from US funerals.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
1. All the ones I've been to have been cremations held at a crematorium chapel, officiated by either a CofE vicar or a humanist celebrant. You turn up, wait for the previous funeral to end, then wait outside until the hearse draws up with the coffin and the pallbearers (either family or from the funeral home, depends on the circumstances) carry it in and lay it on a platform and everyone else follows in. The service is like church lite depending on the person's/family's preferences - there may be hymns, readings (religious or other), pieces of music, one or more people may say a eulogy etc. Again this can either be done by family/friends or by the officiant. Depends what they want. Usually lasts 20-30mins.

2. Black is safe unless the deceased specified no black. Funerals in the UK seem to be getting increasingly business casual and dress very much depends on the socioeconomic background of the deceased's circle - fancy people's mourners will probably all wear a mix of dark suits/dresses/jackets, less fancy people's mourners might turn up in whatever they had to hand (or had to go to work in).

3. Totally depends on the preferences and social relationships of the people involved - your partner or other family you're close to can probably guide you best here. We are a very non-emotional family and whenever I have been among the closest to the deceased I have seen my role as hosting more than being comforted - but sometimes the chief mourners are deep in grief and need other people to handle interference for them. It really depends on the people.

4. I wouldn't say expect it but it wouldn't be rude to offer to help if there's a lot going on. But don't be surprised if they say no - you might not be in-group enough to be asked/expected to help depending on how close you are with the family. Funeral work is generally done by those closest; those who are less close are treated more like guests (at least in my family). Also remember that some chores might be an excuse for the person to get away from the group and have some quiet time (e.g. doing laundry, dishes), and the person might be too British to tell you they don't want company if you offer insistently to help - try to get a read on the person and the room before absolutely insisting.

5. Some people have a church service then a cremation then an after event (three different locations) but many have the service & cremation done at the same place. The after event will usually be straight after the service and could be at the house of the deceased, at the house of another family member, at a more casual venue like a pub or at a more formal venue like a function room/hotel/club. It's totally up to family tradition, budget and preferences, and the amount of food/drink provided again varies by family and budget. Most people will drive to the crematorium and then to the venue after, often carpooling (or sometimes taking a taxi) if there's a designated driver and others want to drink. How sedate/rowdy the after event is varies a lot by family.

6. Wake does not have a super formal definition here but might imply Irish heritage or planning lots of drinking. Any after-funeral reception (from the locations/options I mentioned above) can be called a wake depending on who is organising it.

Above all, I would say it's hard to make a serious faux pas at a British funeral by messing up the process - all the faux pas I have seen in the past have been something unfortunate that someone said rather than someone doing something wrong. Assuming the family are reasonably British in cultural/social terms, they will probably be worrying about making sure you're comfortable too. Do roughly what everyone else is doing and don't worry too much. And performative emotion expectations really vary over here, but it's unlikely you'd be chided for being too emotional or too unemotional at a British funeral.
posted by terretu at 3:31 AM on April 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

Funeral culture differs a bit across the countries and regions of the United Kingdom, but is largely similar.

My experience is from middle/upper class Southern English culture.

The primary goal at a funeral is to be inconspicuous. Drawing attention to oneself is an enormous faux pas.

Dark, suble tones tending towards dark greys and black for clothing. Splashes of subtle colour totally OK. Nothing bright unless explicitly requested

Arrive early - by 10-20 mins. Lateness is utterly beyond forgiveness. Only one person is permitted to be Late, and that job is taken.

Identify the group and orbit at a comfortable distance. Polite condolences to people you don't know. Firm nods, flat, thin-lipped smiles. Rigid-body hugs permitted by women who know each other well and were close to the deceased are acceptable.

Enter the venue. A few tears, dabbing at eyes with a handkerchief is as far as emotion should go during the service (secular, religious, We're All British Here). No Sobbing. Seriously. "Stiff Upper Lip" is a cliche, but this is where it comes from. We Do Not Sob. We hold it together.

Drop the corpse in the ground/furnace and aim to leave in the second half, but not the last quarter, of the exit. This is tricky because nobody wants to leave too soon or too late.


"I'm so sorry for your loss." == I knew the deceased, but I don't know you."

"I'm so sorry I never had the chance to know Doris better". == "I am a new member of the extended family."

"Such a loss to us all." == "I was his boss and have never met his family."

"So sorry. So very sorry. {furrowed brow, half-nod, move on}" == "I think I'm at the wrong funeral."

At the post-funeral reception: Cold meats will be served. This has always seemed odd to me. But! Now you can socialize a bit. People start to unwind. You will start to hear distasteful jokes about death, dying and mortality. This is why we have funerals. It's to make fun of mortality.

Anyway. Key points. Do Not Stand Out In Any Way. Dress conservatively, avoid attention, then go and get drunk and celebrate the lost life in a pub later.
posted by Combat Wombat at 4:14 AM on April 30, 2017 [29 favorites]

What terretu said! Some extra bits and bobs...

There will sometimes be a "receiving line" at the exit of the crematorium where everyone files past the immediate family of the deceased (that's probably your partner but not you) and shakes hands / hugs and says a few words.

The crematorium runs these things super efficiently back-to-back all day, so the crematorium part will be short, and it will start and end bang on time. They have the places laid out carefully so you won't actually run into any of the people from the previous or next cremations.

Whether the reception afterwards involves alcohol will depend heavily on the family's culture, I'm pretty sure CofE makes "no drinking" more likely.

There will be a funeral announcement and it will tell you when/where these things will be taking place. There will usually also be a funeral director who will come to the house beforehand and talk the immediate family through everything. It's common enough for relatives to be handling their first funeral and not to know what to expect, and the funeral director will be used to talking people through it. So if you get an opportunity, this funeral director can help you out with explaining some of the crematorium logistics (although they are unlikely to be involved in the reception).

If there is singing or standing up and sitting down or anything like that involved in the service (whether church or crematorium), then it will be explained extremely clearly: you won't be the only person there who's unfamiliar with the traditions.

A black suit is appropriate, or a black dress with some kind of coverup if necessary so shoulders are covered (to be on the safe side, YMMV). Most people go pretty formal unless there's an announcement to the contrary.

People will probably be very buttoned up. Any crying will be done quietly and nobody will make or want a huge fuss. If someone you know well is crying you can safely ask if they'd like a hug. It's polite to go find the chief mourners and say something reasonably brief about how sorry you are and how you'll miss the deceased. But everyone else there (including people they don't see regularly) will also be wanting to say their few words so it's probably not a good time for an extended conversation, especially if you'll have the opportunity to talk about it some other time.
posted by emilyw at 4:16 AM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

That's a great answer from terretu, I have little to add. So just a few small things.

All of the practical arrangements are made between close family members (surviving parent I guess, in this case) and the funeral director and/or the celebrant of the cremation service. If you haven't been involved in any of that, you should assume that you'll be present in the capacity of attendee, not participant. Stay somewhere near your partner, offer them your support, take their cue about the level of emotion that's going to be expressed publicly. In terms of your own expression, maybe aim for one notch less openly demonstrative than your partner's response.

Sounds like you're not super-close to the other family members, so I wouldn't be going out of my way with effusively comforting others. Aim for polite & respectful consideration of their loss, with friendly but subdued greetings for anyone you know already. You'll be introduced to a whole bunch of extended-family type people that you'll never have any idea who they really are, either before or after. Just nod & smile, and pass whatever pleasantries you can muster.

All or mostly black formal attire is good, if you're in any doubt about dress code. You'll know what your partner plans to wear I guess - so again, aim for the same, or half a notch less dark & formal than whatever they're wearing. Women will wear black or dark coloured dress or suit, arms most likely covered, hem below the knee, maybe a small dark non-fancy hat esp. if they're older or posher. Men will wear dark grey suit, white shirt, black tie.

I'm going to guess that the "wake" will be called a "reception", and will be held in the function rooms of a decent hotel near the crematorium. There will be a buffet, sandwiches, tea/coffee, etc. Probably a bar, but no-one's going to be getting lashed & breaking into uproarious song.

Don't be surprised if your different cultural background comes up with boring regularity in the small talk you're obliged to make with random extended family members. Again, nod & smile.

Good luck. Hope you're partner's holding up OK. Be there for them.
posted by rd45 at 4:21 AM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Agree with above answers. Attendance is lower at British funerals than in some other cultures and the atmosphere is definitely restrained.

A non-religious funeral may still include the Lord's Prayer or another prayer (and it may not). It's not unusual for the funeral service to feature music that the deceased particularly enjoyed even if it is mildly incongruous. Participation isn't normally a major feature (eg no open mic).

Dark business clothes are generally appropriate unless told otherwise.

The other thing that occurs to me is that the 'chief mourners' usually arrive and leave in cars arranged by the funeral directors. You may or may not be included in that arrangement if there is one.
posted by plonkee at 4:23 AM on April 30, 2017

I totally forgot about the chief mourners coming in a limo thing because I've categorically refused to do it and driven myself to the last two funerals I had to go to where I was very closely related to the deceased. Which is in itself kind of illustrative that a) yeah it's a thing, but b) as with most aspects of British funerals, it's 100% optional and up to the individuals organising the service to choose what they're comfortable with.

Personally I hate being on show and the centre of attention, so getting out of a limo and being part of the formal procession stuff was a super stressful idea and I was glad to be able to opt out. But I can easily imagine other people being too upset (or concerned with formality/convention) to want to drive themselves, in which case the funeral limo is a good idea.

There are so few fixed constants for British funerals (other than "general reserve", as other commenters have noted) that what will happen is significantly more strongly determined by the family in question than by the overarching national culture.
posted by terretu at 4:41 AM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think most things have been covered but I'll add a little of my experience the day of my mothers funeral. I'm from the UK but live in the US with my American husband. Funeral was in the UK.
During the funeral at the church and the cremation at the crematorium, my husband hovered around ready to be there if I needed him. My father wanted us and my siblings to sit together at the front, not with SOs. My husband was behind me but I was ok during the services. My father siblings and I carried my mothers coffin into and out of the church and into the crematorium. We were also the only ones in the hearse.
At the wake he spent all his time with me and he held a plate of food so I didn't forget to eat. And kept me stocked with beer. It can be awkward seeing all these people you don't know well and having them talk to you out of a sense of duty. It was so comforting to have him there. He was just ~there~. It made a huge difference.
I don't know what his family is like but people are pretty relaxed at funerals in my experience. People aren't super serious at the wake. It's just food and drinking. Depends on the family though.
I'm sorry for your husbands loss. I'm glad he has you.
posted by shesbenevolent at 9:18 AM on April 30, 2017

Well there's some things that tend to be consistent with the funeral of a parent. Have you not taken part in the discussions with the undertaker? That suggests to me that your partner themself isn't so much involved in the planning.

1/ As your partner is male, will he be a pallbearer? Really, ask.
2/ You shouldn't expect to have a role as such. Funeral directors are usually very very good, take care of everything and explain it clearly to the family, since in general people aren't very churchy in the UK any more. It may be different for Catholics. However had you been male, and not officially involved in the planning (like if your MIL was doing it all on her own) you might have asked if you could help pay for various things, especially extras e.g. the bar at the reception if there were a free one.
3/ It's very unusual to have an open coffin: I've never been to a funeral with one. But there may be an opportunity to view the body at the undertakers before the service if people want to. There's no obligation to do this whatsoever.
4/ I can't think of any faux pas a sympathetic person is likely to commit. You're not expected to fix anything, or make people not be sad, which is impossible anyway. You already have a relationship with your partner's family so just act with your normal human kindness and sympathy and genuine feeling. It will be appreciated.
posted by glasseyes at 11:09 AM on April 30, 2017

Sorry about the gender essentialism of my answer - my experience is these things get more fixed during rituals unless the family expressly and overtly make an effort to do it differently.
posted by glasseyes at 11:22 AM on April 30, 2017

6. I have read about wakes. Are these typically held in fairly posh upper middle class London families?

I would say no. A wake takes place in the couple of days before the funeral. A reception after the funeral is a different thing. Generally the body is waked in their home, or that of an immediate family member (child or sibling), and usually the coffin is open. People come and bring food for the family and say goodbye to the deceased and offer condolences to the bereaved. (It's quite offensive to assume it involves alcohol and as an Irish person I can't remember having been to a wake - and I've been to several - where there was anything stronger than tea and sandwiches offered.) The body is then brought from the house by the undertakers to the chapel/church on the morning of the funeral. I would doubt that this would be a typical procedure for a London family unless there is Irish heritage. Even so the advice on how to behave is the same as above: somber clothing, general condolences such as "I'm sorry for your loss", and follow your partner's behaviour cues.
posted by billiebee at 3:13 PM on April 30, 2017

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