Sinai Memorial Chapel Sinai Memorial Chapel Locations Home

Tools and Resources

Etiquette Guidance for Family and Friends

Friends and family of the deceased sometimes want to know more about matters of etiquette and what to expect regarding funerals, burials, visits to the family in mourning, etc. As a result, here are some guidelines—many based on Jewish tradition..

In general, Sinai encourages people to find ways to be with and support the grieving family, since it is important that they be surrounded by the comfort of family and friends. In fact, Jewish tradition considers attendance at the funeral and burial to be a religious obligation.

When you spend time with mourners, tradition suggests that you:

  • Be a good listener. Let the bereaved guide the conversation, starting with whether or not they want to talk about their loved one who has died.
  • Don’t hesitate to to speak the name of the person who died.
  • Don’t talk about your own grief. Instead, focus on the needs of the survivor.

Etiquette associated with the funeral:

  • Be sure to find out where and when it takes place, and try to be early. If you can, you should get this information from someone outside of the immediate family.
  • Do not greet the mourners before the funeral starts unless you are a member of the family or a very close friend.
  • If you do speak to the family (before or after the service), take their lead in starting a conversation, and then feel free to offer your condolences and talk to them about the person who died. If you don’t know what to say, a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” will suffice.
  • Sign the register book, if there is one.
  • Regarding dress, while formal black attire is not as mandatory as it used to be, dress conservatively; men often wear a coat and tie, and women often wear a dress.
  • Men customarily wear a yarmulke (a skullcap, which will be provided by Sinai).
  • If children attend, be prepared to quietly excuse yourself and remove them from the service if they create any kind of disturbance.
  • To the extent that you’re comfortable doing so, participate in any responsive readings that are part of the service.

Etiquette associated with the burial:

  • Chairs at graveside are for use by the immediate family members or disabled/elderly guests; others will be expected to stand.
  • When the family arrives, do not greet them. Often, this is the most difficult part of the entire experience. Let them take their places for the graveside service.
  • Do not sit, walk, or lean on gravestones or markers.
  • Do not take photos, unless you have a legitimate reason for recording the event. Any photographers should have the prior permission of the family.
  • Take part in ritual of placing dirt in the grave at the close of the graveside service.
  • Feel free to take part in the tradition of shura—the formation of a double line through which the family passes as it leaves the gravesite. This symbolizes the beginning of the period of mourning.
  • Feel free to partake in the traditional washing of the hands as you leave the cemetery—a symbol of dissociating oneself from death.

Etiquette associated with shiva:

After the burial, according to Jewish custom, the family traditionally mourns their loss at their home for seven days, although shiva is sometimes observed for shorter periods. Shiva can occur at the home of the deceased or in another home chosen by the family.

  • If you were close to the person who died or the family, it is customary to visit them during this period. Find out the details regarding the family’s shiva arrangements. These will be announced at the funeral or memorial service, or they may be found as part of the obituary on Sinai’s website. Or, you can try to get this information from someone outside of the immediate family.
  • If you were not well acquainted with family members, introduce yourself and tell them your relationship to the person who died.
  • A brief prayer service is often held as part of shiva. Take part to the extent you feel comfortable.
  • Visitors to the shiva home often bring light refreshments or food for the family to eat at a later time. A close friend or extended family member may be coordinating meals for the family, so it’s a good idea to talk to that person and find out how you can be most helpful.
  • You will likely see several indications that the family is observing Shiva. These include coverings over mirrors (one explanation is that this allows the mourners to focus inward on their grief rather than their outward appearance); a memorial candle that burns for the seven days of Shiva; and low chairs or stools on which the mourners sit (a literal expression of “feeling low”).
  • There is no need to engage in conversation beyond consoling the family members and offering them sympathy and support in bearing their loss. It is appropriate, and appreciated, to share your thoughts about the person who died.
  • A brief prayer service is often held as part of shiva. Take part to the extent you feel comfortable.
  • If you are close to the family and feel comfortable doing so, you can offer to help in whatever ways you can—doing errands, providing food, caring for pets, etc.

For more information, you can download a copy of Sinai’s “A Guide for the Comforter” or pick one up at Sinai’s San Francisco facility at 1501 Divisadero Street (at the corner of Geary Blvd.).