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Etiquette Lesson: How to Conduct Yourself When Someone Dies

As a Hearth Witch, there’s more to your life than just, well, magic. Besides dealing with the daily grind with aplomb, it’s also your job to assist with loved ones’ milestones, both happy and difficult. As most of this aspect is non-magical, this is where we all tend to falter a little (or a lot).

When someone very close to you dies, it's relatively easy to know what to do - be a hot mess and go through the motions of putting together whatever kind of funeral rite the deceased/survivors would like to have. But what about when it's not your sister but your sister's father-in-law's brother?

I think a big part of this problem is that the first world is very shielded from death. I know people in my age group (thirty something) who still haven't lost someone close to them and . . .I can't relate to that at all, honestly. One of my first memories is at age six losing my grandma and seeing my dad cry for the first time. I lost my dad at 18 through a very long, painful battle with cancer and the hit parade sort of goes on from there. I've been to significantly more funerals than weddings, the piece de la resistance being my engagement year of my first marriage where I put seven people in the ground, the last being my cousin Anthony a week before the wedding. He was only five years older than me; his widow was my age.

So, having a vast array of funeral rites in every stripe and color that I've attended, I've had plenty of time to be appalled. With a less clear sense of acceptable etiquette in first world societies, some think it's okay to do anything from read, text, have a toothpick in their mouths, pants that reveal one's boxers, etc during death rites. Sadly, I’ve seen that all happen and it’s not a comfort to the grieving to say the least.

If you've had the fortune to not have to go to many wakes, funerals, memorial services, etc., that's a blessing. But it may make you unsure what to do in that setting when you do need to go. Perhaps you’ve only been to one or two death rites and it hasn’t been for anyone you knew and/or you weren’t close to the grieving. In that case, you likely know to slap on a suit, shut off your cell, briefly pay your respects and then go about your business. But it can get stickier if  you’re close to the grieving but not to the deceased.

Tips on How to be a Standup Person During the Grieving Process:

It is always the right thing to do to send a sympathy card. It doesn't matter if you were fighting with the person who passed or their loved ones or if you're not sure how close you are to the deceased or the grieving. It's very hard to offend someone by sending a sympathy card.

Pick a card with an appropriate sentiment. This might sound confusing, but if you aren't close to the bereaved or the deceased, a more generic card is appropriate. If you were close to the deceased or the bereaved, you may want to pick a card with a more personal sympathy sentiment. If you're not sure what to say, it is always appropriate to say, "I'm so sorry for your loss. I am thinking about you and your family in this difficult time." Grieving people are preoccupied with their grief; they're not grading you on your creativity. Don't over think it; just send the card. They probably won't remember what was said, just that you were kind enough to think of them in their difficult time.

Inquire with the family about the arrangements. If they say it is a very small service for close family and friends, don't be offended. Everyone grieves differently. Inquire if the family is receiving donations to the deceased's favorite charity, mass cards (if Catholic) , or flowers. If yes, then find out the funeral home's information so that you may get the proper information to do so. If no, simply send a card to the family, as outlined previously.

Generally, there is some sort of wake, shiva, or calling hours for people who want to pay their respects to the family or the deceased. If you do not consider yourself very close to the family or the deceased, but still would like to pay your respects (and your respects are welcomed by the bereaved) , you would attend the most public part of the death rites. For example, the wake, the shiva and the memorial service are the most public events. Often, the funeral is the most private part of the rites and it's typically by invitation only. 

It is very important that you are dressed properly for this. Many times, the death of someone comes as a surprise which is why it may be helpful to have an outfit for death rites that is always ready to go. Dress in a dark color and make sure all of the lines of your outfit are conservative. Women, no cleavage, knee length if wearing a skirt. Men, no white socks, no "fun" ties. Suits for both genders are always appropriate. I personally always have a long black skirt, an appropriate neckline black short-sleeved top, and a black wool cardigan with pearl buttons. I always wear this for death rites only (I find that it helps me to not have the death energy on my other clothes, but that's a personal choice. I also don't like having psychological associations with death on my other clothes) .  I dry clean it/hang it up immediately after and don't touch it unless I need it. It's always appropriate year round and it's one less thing for me to stress about. 

Special note: Sometimes, the deceased has special preferences such as she hated black and preferred bright colors, he was a teenager who always wore ripped jeans and his friends wore ripped jeans at the wake to show support, she had a beautiful gothic wardrobe and would have liked to see everyone in their gothic finery, etc. Tread carefully with this! If you are close to the grieving and know for a fact that they want you to wear something out of the ordinary to show love for the deceased, do so if you would like to. If you are not close to the grieving (and note, I said the grieving, not the deceased in this case) and don’t know what they would like you to do, error on the side of caution and wear something conservative. If you see a lot of people wearing something out of the ordinary at a death rite, chances are there’s a reason, so don’t get judgey about it.

Keep yourself grounded. It may be helpful for you to have a hematite stone or a small pouch of salt on your person. A family piece of jewelry can also do the same thing for you. It's okay for you to be sad and feel grief too! The tricky part is managing your own grief while still assisting the bereaved. Processing your grief with someone else prior or after the death rite may help you. Doing something you find comforting after the death rite may help too. Personally, what keeps me somewhat sane is going out the night before, drinking two or three martinis, having a big piece of red meat, and smoking a few cigarettes. All the things that could kill me bring me a strange sort of peace in dealing with death.

If it is a religious rite, do a quick Google search on what is typical for that religion so you know how to act appropriately. Following the lead of the bereaved at the rite is the best course of action. Some families prefer quiet and some prefer to be more boisterous to remember the deceased. Again, everyone grieves differently. Obviously, this is not the place to try to impose your personal religious views on others. If you don't feel comfortable participating in any of the religious rites going on, just sit quietly. If you want to say a little prayer in your head in your home religion, feel free.

If you are close to the bereaved family or to the deceased and invited to attend the burial, follow the instructions of the funeral director for the procession. Find out beforehand if the cemetery is far from where the death rite was held.  Program your GPS ahead of time.  Make sure you have enough gas beforehand and that you've used the restroom so that you can follow the procession without needing to stop elsewhere. 

Help the living. This is probably the hardest step. Often, if we ourselves are somewhat removed from the grieving process such as if it was an acquaintance, or a loved one's deceased we didn't know very well, once we work through our own process (which will be faster than the bereaved's) , many of us want to go on with the business of living. For the bereaved, just because it's been a month or two doesn't mean that their worlds still aren't shattered. This is where being helpful is critical. The transition back to daily life after the acute grieving stage is very difficult. The modern world expects people to go back to "normal" after a few weeks - working, taking care of the house, paying bills, taking care of themselves and their children, etc. Despite these expectations, it is very difficult to manage this after the first few weeks.  

If you are nearby, ask if they need any help running errands, if you can do their dishes or walk their dog, or if they need someone to talk to. Look at pictures and photo album of the deceased with the bereaved (if the bereaved wants to) , see if assistance is needed in sorting the decease's effects.   Take the bereaved to do something fun but low key - mini golf, dinner out, for a drink, etc. If the person seems receptive, talk about your life (but keep petty grievances about the bereaved or the bereaved family to your damn self) , talk about the book you're reading, celeb scandal, whatever. A lot of times they want a distraction. But you need to judge this carefully to see if the person wants a distraction or wants to talk about their grief or the deceased. 

Just being present helps a whole lot, even if you don't know what to say. Drop off a casserole. My grove has a saying, "Save your candle, burn a casserole."  Prayers are lovely but the grieving need to eat!  Many people make food for the grieving in the first week or two, but many people aren't ready to make dinner every night for themselves in the first month or two. Dropping off a casserole three weeks after the deceased passed can be really helpful. If you're far away, you may want to consider having a food service deliver to the grieving family. 

Most of all, don't be a jerk

This list includes:

· Cellphone use during the death rites.  If you need to check something, excuse yourself and step outside or into the rest room.

·Trying to hook up with any of the bereaved

·Being overly self-absorbed during this difficult time. Admittedly, this is another tricky one, especially if you're part of the bereaved's primary support structure. It's a delicate imperfect process, but it's okay to draw boundaries so your life doesn't completely fall apart in the process too. It's okay to vent to close friends or family about the bereaved when you are stressed and upset, you need an outside support structure so you can keep supporting the bereaved. It's okay to take care of yourself. You need to or you're no good for anyone, yourself included. However, if you are not part of the immediate support structure, now is not the time to do your usual whining and complaining to the bereaved in most cases, take it elsewhere. 

· Chewing gum, having a toothpick in your mouth and being inappropriately dressed

·Appearing bored at the wake, which includes asking people "what are we doing after this".

·Starting fights of any kind with any of the bereaved

· Calling undue attention to yourself, including starting "pity party" wars (it was worse when MY dad died) 

·Not calling or showing up or sending a card 

·Not following up with the bereaved with at least a text/email/phone call

·Any behavior you even think for a second would be questionable and/or you wouldn't want someone to do when you are the bereaved, don't do it.

Fail-Safe Vegetarian-Friendly Super-Fast Barely-Homemade Ziti

The death happened v. quickly or unexpectedly? Need to be part of the first rush casserole brigade? Don't know what the bereaved family eats? Need to get a casserole done in a hurry and on a tight budget? Ziti is the thing. Again, you're not being graded on your creativity here, the bereaved is barely going to remember to eat let alone what they ate. Unless the bereaved is vegan, Celiac, or has a tomato allergy, a ziti is budget friendly and filling.

1 box ziti pasta 
1 jar tomato sauce (I prefer Francesca Rinaldi's Sweet and Tasty) 
16 oz shredded mozzarella
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pack disposable containers (Gladware, etc) (I prefer this over the huge aluminum tray because it takes up less space and can be heated in the container and the bereaved doesn't need to worry about returning it to you) 

1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Make ziti pasta according to the directions on the box. Add olive oil and salt to the water so your pasta is flavored and it doesn't stick together.
3. Drain pasta.
4. Mix pasta with sauce.
5. Mix pasta with 3/4 of your shredded cheese. Put the rest of the cheese on top.
6. Bake for 20 minutes.
7. Put into containers.

Brief Summaries on Various Death Rites: 

Articles on Care Giver Stress:

Articles on Care Giver Burnout:

Last modified on
Deborah Castellano's book, Glamour Magic: The Witchcraft Revolution to Get What You Want (Llewellyn, 2017) is available: . She is a frequent contributor to Occult/Pagan sources such as the Llewellyn almanacs, Witchvox, PaganSquare and Witches & Pagans magazine. She writes about Charms, Hexes, Weeknight Dinner Recipes, Glamoury and Unsolicited Opinions on Morals and Magic at Charmed, I'm Sure. Her craft shop, The Mermaid and The Crow ( specializes in goddess & god vigil candles, hand blended ritual oils, airy hand dyed scarves, handspun yarn and other goodies. She resides in New Jersey with her husband, Jow and their two cats. She has a terrible reality television habit she can't shake and likes St. Germain liquor, record players and typewriters.


  • Eva
    Eva Tuesday, 28 January 2014

    Thank you for your thoughtful suggestions.:) I am always in a quandary what to say to people who have experienced loss. The overall advice was very good, I especially appreciated the advice on sympathy cards and apparel.

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