What to Wear to a Memorial Service?

14 answers | Last updated: Nov 06, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

What should I wear to a funeral or memorial service?

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

The fact that you've asked the question signals that you're not likely to offend anyone by showing a lack of care or disrespect when choosing your attire for the event.

What is considered proper to wear to a funeral or memorial service differs according to local customs and geographic region. But a few general guidelines can help steer you.

Mercifully, the old dreary dictate about wearing only black no longer applies -- although, when in doubt, it's still generally a safe bet to choose either black or more muted colors, such as earth tones. Be guided by the general rule that you're attending the service to honor the person who died and to support close survivors, not to attract attention to yourself.

If you'll be attending a funeral rather than a memorial service, or you're related to the deceased or you have a role in the service, such as being a pallbearer or reciting a reading or prayer, choose somewhat conservative clothing.

You're generally safe to dress less formally when attending a memorial service; just make sure your clothes are clean, pressed, and presentable.

If the service is being held close to where you live, you probably already have a good idea of what would be considered acceptable -- or you're acquainted with someone in the know whom you can ask for advice: the funeral director handling the arrangements, the religious leader who will be officiating, a relative or close friend of the deceased.

But if the service is being held out of town, you may need to be a bit more attuned to local customs, or do a bit of sleuthing to find them out. To locate people who can fill you in on local clothing etiquette, such as the funeral director or religious leader who is involved, check the obituary or death notice. When uncertain, dress up: Business attire such as a dress or suit will pass muster most everywhere. But these days, dress slacks are also fine for women, and men needn't wear ties if they have a suitable substitute, such as a silk shirt or mock tee or turtleneck.

And all rules may fly out the window if the service is personalized in keeping with the specific tastes or quirkiness of the person who has died. For example, if the deceased was a clothes designer, feel free to honor that by wearing one of his or her creations. And some survivors choose to create a festive aura by specifying, for example, that those who attend wear the deceased's favorite color or wear specially customized memorial T-shirts. This type of break with tradition will usually be clear from the service's announcement or invitation; if you're uncertain, ask for some wardrobe advice from a relative or friend involved in planning the event.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

Generally, I wear black clothing to all funerals. This answer by Ms Repa makes me feel better about trying different attire as long as I do not attract attention away from the service of the funeral. Since I am a Veteran of the U. S. Army and my Dad is also a veteran of the U. S. Army I plan to be in uniform for his service if he passes before me. I am now and have been for two and a half years his primary caregiver. I am honored and privileged, not only to be caring for my Dad; a WWII Chaplin and Veteran; but I, myself, am a Veteran of Vietnam, 3 years, as a combat medic, and I thank God, I am able to care for one more Veteran.

Ca-claire answered...

My family has always been different about what to wear to end of life services. We always wore what the person who passed would have liked to see us in. I have recently come to question this, however. When I dressed for my husband's memorial service, I wore the blouse that he asked me to wear to the hospital the day of his surgery - he wanted to come to with me wearing bright colors. It felt a bit out of place at the service, but I knew that he would love what I wore. Since his passing, I have been wearing more muted colors, and often in black - unusual for me. As a widow, it feels like the color went out of my world when he passed. I have started wearing some of my bright colors again, but not everyday, and my headband (to keep my hair out of my face) is always black now. I miss him and I miss the brightness that life had around him.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I found this to be extremely helpful. Thank you so much.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I've seen people be self-conscious about just coming from work and not wanting to stop by the funeral home in work clothes. Go anyhow! People will appreciate more that you cared enough to come than about what you're wearing.

Carpandkoi answered...

Caution about the advice. I had packed to attend an out of town visitation - black suit. My father-in-law died suddenly and we hustled to the family hometown during his short illness, death and services. My mother-in-law told everyone that she didn't have and would not be wearing black. We were not expected to wear black also. I went out and purchased an off-white suit for the visitation and funeral. I get there and all of the family is in black.

My off-white suit represented heavenly light. I felt it still was appropriate as the level of dress was consistent with what I would have worn had I been in black. I went on best information. My focus was on my husband who took the loss hard, not on clothes.

Ca-claire answered...

CarpandKoi - I think an off-white suit was entirely appropriate - some cultures consider white to be the 'color' of mourning. It is more important that you attend for your husband and his family than the deceased themselves. Viewings, Memorials, and Funerals are all for those left behind. As long as you are are in clean, pressed well fitted clothing, you honored his father.

A fellow caregiver answered...

When my older brother died, my sister in-law sent out a message to everyone to wear Hawaiian or tropical prints, no black clothing to his memorial service. He had a huge collection of loud Hawaiian shirts and always wore them. So I wore the most outrageous Hawaiian shirt I owned, which was a shirt he was always trying to get me to give him. Those shirts made the sad occasion of his death into a joyous celebration of his life. There were no tears but many smiles and laughs. After the service the funeral director came over to the family and said " Your husband/brother's service has been the most enjoyable one I have ever seen in my life. This was something like you would see on TV or in a movie not in real life. I have never seen so many people have a good time at a funeral, he must have been a very special man. I wish I could have had the pleasure to have known him."

Allfiredup answered...

I'm 37 and I've always hated wearing a suit or even a tie. Job interviews, funerals when I've served as a pallbearer and a few weddings where I've served as a groomsman are the only times I've ever worn a suit.

I usually wear a nice pair of khakis, a starched button-up shirt and a pair of black dress shoes are my usual attire for a funeral or memorial service. For visiting a funeral home, I wear basically the same but sometimes I wear a nice pair of dark jeans instead of khakis. It depends on the deceased and/or what I think their family and friends will be wearing.

Earlier this year (02/11/2012, to be exact), I had the honor of speaking at my precious grandmother's funeral. My sister and I were her caregivers for the last six years of her life. We learned on Thankgiving Day 2011 that she had inoperable stomach cancer. The oncologist told us that 8-10 weeks was all she had left. She almost made it 11 weeks and during that time we had many wonderful conversations and we discussed some really difficult things as well.

I asked my grandmother what she thought about me speaking at her service. Her response, "I don't guess there's any way I can talk you out of it?" Then we both laughed so hard that my eyes watered! =) When we regained some composure, she said "Just don't tell EVERYTHING you know and promise me that you'll make everyone laugh". Then she added, "Don't wear a suit or a tie because I know how much you hate them! Just be sure you have on clean underwear (in case you get in an accident) and that your pants and shirt are ironed or your mama will have a fit"!

I wore a pair of khakis and a light blue Polo button-up her funeral. When it was my turn to speak, I started my speech by sharing the conversation above. By the time I finished with the 'clean underwear' comment, there were 150+ in roaring laughter!

Without her directive, I probably would have felt obligated to wear a suit...but then I wouldn't have had our funny little chat to share! =)

Cateadair answered...

A dress, a jacket and pumps.

If you have any more fashion questions, please ask me (Cate Adair, costume Designer of Desperate Housewives fame). I’ll be happy to help you figure out what to wear.


Calidebra62 answered...

Yes all you're answers was helpful thank you.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I am thinking about sewing a dress for the occasion. Just to keep busy till the event.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I like what you said about dark and earthy tones. It makes sense that they would match the tone of the environment. It's disrespectful to draw attention toward yourself, especially at a veteran memorial service. I will remember to go with darker tones for the occasion.

Plasko20 answered...

I am glad there is advice out there because a funeral is a totally different event than a memorial service, and different etiquette rules apply to both situations. A memorial service can be held weeks, months, sometimes years (e.g. 9/11) after a person is dead and buried. Having never attended a memorial service my gut told me it was less formal than a funeral (I did not want to over-dress by being too formal for the event, people might mistake me for a relative or organizer), and I am glad to read from this advice and other web-pages out there that this is indeed the case. Basically, we are talking subdued business attire. I can do that. Although, as a male, I am still questioning whether a tie might be required or not, I shall slip one in my pocket just in case.