In the past, a set of strict rules and guidelines governed the behavior of the widow. There were guidelines for how she should dress and act at the funeral. Today, the widow herself usually sets the tone of the funeral. Her wishes are followed out of respect for her grief. For this reason, the rules of etiquette are no longer nearly as strict, although expectations will vary according to the religious beliefs of the deceased.
Although black is no longer required, the widow should dress in a conservative manner, as this shows respect for the deceased. Most widows wear nice clothing such as one would wear to a church service or wedding. Dark, subdued colors are usually worn, but in some cases, the widow may wear a color or dress that her husband especially loved or even requested. Veils are a matter of preference. Many widows continue to wear them to hide their tears, while others find them a hindrance. Some religious and cultural groups may require the widow to wear certain colors or clothing. For example, Jewish widows traditionally wore mourning clothes during the seven-day period directly after the burial, but that practice is far less common today.
The widow and immediate family members sit in the first few pews, near the front of the room and close to the coffin. The widow may choose to be surrounded by loved ones, or she may prefer to sit alone. Sometimes, the widow and her family are seated before the coffin -- if a coffin is present -- is carried to the front of the room. Other times, they are seated afterwards.
Many cultures have some kind of grave-site service immediately after the funeral. During this time, the widow may be asked if she wants to perform certain small gestures. These are seen as a sign of respect and love for the deceased. If flowers are placed on the coffin or in the grave, she may be given the opportunity to be the first to lay the flower on the coffin. Or she may be offered a shovel so that she can place the first bit of dirt back into the grave after the coffin is lowered. The latter is more common at Jewish funerals. At military funerals in the United States, the widow is given the American flag that had been draped over the coffin during the grave-site service.
The privacy and feelings of the widow should be respected at all times during the funeral. This is not the time to ask if she might get married again, or how much life insurance she received from her husband's death. Instead, offer words of comfort, such as how much her husband's friendship meant to you. Or share a memory with her. Specific, happy memories of her husband will likely bring great comfort. You can also ask her if there is anything you can do to help, such as take her children to school or bring her some meals, but make sure you ask her before or after the funeral, not during the service.
- George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images