Attending an American funeral

During your time in the U.S. you may know someone who dies, or have a friend who loses a loved one to death. Since every culture has different ways of dealing with death and traditions associated with the passing from life to death, you will need to know what Americans generally expect after someone passes away.

To eliminate any confusion, Americans might use any of a number of terms to indicate that someone has died. Since many people feel uncomfortable talking about such a serious subject, they often come up with words that sound less final and morbid. Some of these expressions seem to take death lightly or even make fun of it, but again, remember that for those who have difficulty talking about such a solemn subject, the use of these terms take away some of the heaviness. Listed below are a few of the terms you might hear instead of died/dead:

  • She’s no longer with us

  • He checked out

  • departed

  • expired

  • kicked the bucket

  • “we lost him”

  • He met his maker

  • She passed or passed away

  • He perished

  • He went to be with the Lord

Americans typically do one or more of the following things when someone we know, or someone close to someone we know dies: 

 

  1. Send a sympathy card. Since we don’t usually know what to say, most people purchase a pre-printed card expressing the sadness and sympathy we feel for those suffering the loss of a loved one. You can purchase a sympathy card anywhere greeting cards are sold; grocery stores, Target, Walmart, pharmacies, card shops, etc.

  2. Send flowers, a meal or a monetary gift to a charity of their choice. Since many families host other family members from out of town, have many details to arrange and are mourning, providing flowers or food is a practical way to reach out to them in the grief and commotion. Sending money to a charity is called a memorial gift and honors the memory of the one who died by helping to support something that they held dear to their heart.

  3. Attend a visitation, memorial service or funeral. A visitation provides a time for people to visit with the family and friends of the deceased person. Most visitations operate like an open house: visitors come and go at any time during the hours listed. Funeral homes or churches generally host the visitation.

Sometimes the person who died (or their family) made the decision to have the dead body cremated. This means that the remains undergo very high heat to reduce the body to ashes. These ashes can then be buried, retained by the family, or scattered to return to nature. In the event of a cremation, a decorative vase or container containing the ashes may be on display at the memorial service.

At the end of a funeral service, those gathered might participate in the burial. Sometimes the family chooses to make the actual funeral or burial a more private service. The memorial service, since it does not have the remains on site, can be held at a later date to allow people who have to travel or make unexpected arrangements, the time to do so.

Many visitations/memorials/funerals include a guest book. Feel free to sign your name and include any comments you wish to share about the deceased with his/her family.  Since it is such an emotional time, and many people attend, this book helps the family and loved ones of the deceased look back later and see who attended to pay respects.

Traditionally, people have worn black or dark colors to a funeral/memorial service out of respect for the dead and in solidarity with those mourning. Black was thought to demonstrate sorrow. In previous generations, the spouse and families of those who died had to wear black for a required length of time after the death to indicate their mourning. However, in more modern times, that tradition is no longer the norm. As long as you dress conservatively, and show dignity and respect, you do not have to wear dark colors.

The service often includes music, words from the pastor or clergy, and sometimes the memories or a eulogy from one or more of the people close to the one who died. Although a funeral type service generally has a sad and somber undertone, many people choose to celebrate the life of the person who has passed on, instead of dwelling on the loss they feel.

While you do not need to feel obligated to all of the above, taking the time to do at least one can mean a lot to those left behind.

For Christians, though the family still feels sad to lose someone’s presence on this earth, their belief in heaven and a life with God after this one on earth, changes the tone of the sadness. Christians can rejoice that the dead person has gone on to live with God eternally, especially if they had suffered pain or sickness in their last days.