Etiquette for Sympathy Cards and Calling Hours

Before or after the funeral, ensure you have the proper calling hours.
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It's natural to feel awkward when your friend or acquaintance loses someone special to her. You don't know what to say or how to convey to her that you understand her sadness or sorrow. Unless you have experienced the same type of death in your family, avoid saying, "I know how you feel." That's one of those unwritten rules of etiquette that you should understand. Instead follow proper etiquette for sending a sympathy card and visiting your friend during a sad time.

1 Sympathy Card and Notes

Expressing your sympathy or condolences when your friend loses a loved one is a kind and thoughtful gesture. It's also a sign of proper social graces and adherence to conventional rules of behavior. Although you can purchase a package of printed sympathy cards so you can have one handy whenever you hear about someone's death, it might be more meaningful if you take time to select a card that conveys your wishes for the deceased's survivors to find comfort in their memories and loving thoughts from friends.

2 Make It Personal

Convey a more personal tone to your condolences by selecting a card that is appropriate for the occasion. For example, if your best friend's husband died, look for a card that is specifically for the loss of one's husband or sympathy for a spouse who has passed away. And instead of simply signing your name, hand write a brief note to extend your personal sorrow for your friend's loss. Hallmark knows that survivors appreciate knowing that "... You Care Enough to Send the Very Best."

3 Attending the Wake or Viewing

Funeral customs often include a wake the night before, or a viewing an hour or so before the funeral. The obituary or death notice will have calling hours for the wake and the viewing. If you attend the wake, you can probably go to the funeral near the end of the viewing period. But if the deceased's survivor is your close friend, it might mean a lot to her that you attended both the wake and the viewing. When you arrive, enter quietly and pay your respects to the family of the deceased. Sit down next to her for a brief time and personally express your sympathy during the wake, but don't monopolize the survivor's time. Some large families arrange the members in a receiving line where people who attend the wake wait their turn to bring greetings and extend condolences. In this case, avoid holding up the line to carry on a lengthy conversation with your friend.

4 Attending the Repast

A repast is a gathering or reception following the funeral and burial, when people who attended the funeral share a meal and social time with the survivors. Some repasts are held at the church where the funeral was and others may be held at a more private setting, such as a community center or country club. A repast usually is the final stage of what some people call a "home going" after someone passes away. You will likely see people smiling and laughing; don't be critical of them and don't think they're being disrespectful just because you might believe funerals must be somber events. Some call this part of the day a joyous time to celebrate the deceased's life.

5 Calling Hours at the Home

Instead of attending a repast at the church or a private reception, many people prefer to pay a personal visit to the survivor's home. Some friends do this as soon as they learn of the deceased's passing and others wait until a day or so after the funeral. If the survivor is up to it, you will usually know by word of mouth. It's also proper etiquette to simply call to ask, "I'd like to spend some time with you. Are you up to having a visitor?" You can go alone or if the survivor has a group of friends who visit together, in some cultures, the friends bring food so the survivor's family doesn't have to worry about cooking and will have food for other visitors who drop by to pay their respects.

Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.