Funeral Etiquette for the Ex-Wife's Relatives

Vice President Biden chats with Sen. Edward Kennedy's ex-wife, Joan, during the Mass for the senator in Washington, D.C.
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Funerals offer loved ones the opportunity to pay respect to the deceased and to comfort relatives and friends. When the deceased is separated or divorced, there can be some confusion regarding the attendance of the ex-spouse. Etiquette for ex-wives at funerals should center around the feelings of the deceased’s closest family and friends in an effort to avoid conflict or tension at the ceremony.

1 Private and Public Services

The obituary will state if the funeral is private and limited to invited guests. If the ex-wife is not formally invited to the private service, she should not attend. If the funeral is listed as public, or not specifically listed as private, she may attend but should consider how her appearance may affect others in attendance. She should also consider who should and should not attend the service with her.

2 Choosing to Attend the Funeral

If the ex-wife maintained a positive relationship with her former spouse after their separation, she is likely to want to attend to pay her respects. However, she should only do so if the deceased’s immediate family is aware of this cordial relationship and feels comfortable with her attendance. If there is tension between the ex-wife and the deceased’s family, it may be upsetting for the family to have the ex-wife in attendance in an already difficult time for them. When in doubt, proper etiquette suggests that the ex-wife should contact the family before the funeral to offer condolences and ask permission to attend. If not attending, it is appropriate for the ex-wife to send a sympathy card or flowers.

3 Shared Children

When the ex-wife and the deceased share young children together, the children should attend the funeral with their mother. Adult children of the couple may attend without their mother if she does not wish to attend or feels or attendance would cause tension among other loved ones of the deceased. If the ex-wife attends with the children she shared with the deceased, the children should sit in the pew or row with the deceased’s immediate family, while the ex-wife should sit directly behind them. It is not appropriate for the ex-wife to sit in the row intended for immediate family unless she is specifically invited to do so.

4 Cases of Remarriage

If the deceased has remarried, the ex-wife’s presence at the funeral can cause some contention. The ex-wife should contact the deceased’s current wife for permission to attend, and not attend if there is any concern. The funeral should be supportive first and foremost to the current spouse of the deceased and his family and friends.

If the ex-wife has remarried, it is not always appropriate for her current spouse to attend. His attendance may be uncomfortable to the deceased’s family and is only appropriate if it is expected that the family and all other attendees will be cordial. Again, when it doubt, ask the deceased’s family what they would prefer.

5 Etiquette at the Funeral

The ex-wife’s attendance at the funeral should be guided by some etiquette rules different from those of a current spouse or immediate family member. She should defer attention to the family and not call attention to herself with excessive displays of emotion. She should use the occasion to reflect positively on her ex-husband and avoid any negative statements about him. If the family is welcoming of her attendance, she -- and the couple’s shared children, if any -- can be a great comfort to them, sharing positive stories of the deceased and reflecting on their shared love of him.

E. Anne Hunter has more than a decade of experience in education, with a focus on visual design and instructional technology. She holds a master's degree in education. Hunter has contributed to several professional publications, covering education, design, music and fitness, among other topics.