- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

The father of one of my friends died recently. He was highly distinguished in business and diplomacy. I have been invited to his memorial service in one of the city’s old-guard Episcopal churches. It most certainly will be a more “formal” occasion than other funerals or memorials I have attended, and I’m a little worried about feeling out of place. Are there likely to be rituals or protocols I need to understand? Also, both my husband and I were wondering about appropriate attire. Should we wear black?

A: Funerals can be intimidating affairs, the chief reason being that the event is not a happy one. Apart from sadness over the loss of a family member or friend, we are reminded of our own mortality.

You did not specify how well you knew the deceased, but it seems likely you are attending chiefly out of consideration for your friend. You won’t really be grieving, but you nonetheless want to honor the dead by showing sympathy and respect.

Unlike funerals, most memorial services, even those taking place in a church, involve few rituals. There likely will be prayers and music with a choir, organist or perhaps other musicians (you may be asked to sing) in addition to spoken remembrances of the deceased.

Upon arrival, do not tarry outside the church to chat with those whom you may recognize. After entering, you may be asked to sign a guest book. (Be careful to do so legibly to ensure the bereaved can read your name afterward.) As the service you mention is likely to be a large one, an usher or vestryman no doubt will be present to assist you to your seat. If you did not know the deceased well, you might wish to indicate that you prefer to sit farther back in the church so as not to take a closer seat away from extended family members and close personal friends.

At the close of the service, there should be an opportunity to pay condolences to your friend and her family. If there is no reception, this may happen in the vestibule or outside the church. Keep this exchange brief, especially when many others are waiting.

In the probable event of a post-service reception, you can speak to the bereaved there. You are welcome to partake of food and drink offered by the hosts, although it should be remembered that having more than two glasses of wine or one mixed drink is frowned upon in such circumstances. Refreshments and the presence of familiar faces may make the event seem like a reunion or party, but it would be a grave mistake to liken it to a raucous wake. The occasion is supposed to be about the person who has died, and though a few humorous anecdotes related to a life well lived are perfectly acceptable (and may lighten grief’s burden), excessive laughter and any form of “carrying on” is not.

As far as attire is concerned, black crepe veils and mourning bands worn on the left sleeve passed into the annals of fashion history long ago. So has the necessity of only wearing black to funerals and memorial services — although it remains perfectly appropriate as a sign of respect. Most women have black or very dark dresses or suits that would be perfectly suitable. In general, conservative, tailored clothing (nothing too bright), discreet jewelry (pearls, diamonds, black onyx) and perhaps a tasteful black hat are appropriate. Think twice about wearing dark sunglasses, which are de trop for non-Hollywood types.

For men, a black, dark gray or dark blue suit worn with a plain blue or white shirt is fitting. The tie should be black or suitably muted, at least nothing with a flashy “designer” look.

Address your questions on etiquette and protocol to Kevin Chaffee, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington DC 20002 or send e-mail to civilities@washington times.com.

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