Funeral Etiquette
About Condolence letters from Letitia Baldrige’s “New Complete Guide to Executive Manners.”

It is very gracious for colleagues of an executive who dies to write to his or her spouse or family, and by colleagues, I mean anyone from the receptionist to the CEO. A good condolence letter conveys not only feelings of sadness and praise of the deceased but also the offer of a helping hand to those left behind. A well-written condolence letter is treasured, is usually passed around, and is often passed down through future generations. 

Sending flowers to the funeral or attending the funeral is no substitute for a condolence letter. The letter or short note should be sent regardless of any other gestures you make. 

A condolence letter should be written by hand in black ink on good personal notepaper (but using office stationery is better than not writing the letter at all). If your handwriting is totally illegible (like mine), type your letter. 

Never hesitate to write a condolence letter, whether you are a very junior or a very senior member of management and whether the person who has lost someone in death is a very junior staff member or a very senior member of management. The two examples below may seem opposites in a way. One letter is from an executive to a young receptionist whose mother has just died. His letter is circumspect but warm. The other letter is from one executive to another who is a very close friend, on the occasion of the friend’s wife’s death. The same guidelines apply to both. 

Explain how badly you feel about the news. 

To an employee who has lost a member of her family... 

…Elsa has just told me the terrible news, and I want you and your family to know how sorry I am that you lost your mother.
To a colleague who has lost his wife...
 … I don’t know what to say, except that my heart is breaking for you.
Praise the person who has died. If you have some personal anecdote about the deceased, mention it. 
I have heard from several sources that she was a wonderful woman and we all know how close you were. These will probably be among the toughest days of your life. 

Ginny was, quite simply, “the best of the best. Wife, mother, real estate agent, volunteer, she did everything with a careful, loving hand. The last time I saw her I marveled at her juggling abilities as she sold a client an apartment and three dozen Girl Scout cookies for little Ginny at the same time!

Make a concrete offer to be of help.
Your friends in this division are all thinking of you and wishing there was something we could do to help in this time of your terrible loss. Please call on us – for anything … 

We are all wandering around the office in a state of shock. We are actually suffering for you and waiting for your telephone call to press us into service. We are ready to answer phones, cook your meals, and handle any detail that needs handling for the funeral.

Sympathy Expressions (from the Ontario Funeral Service Association)

When a person calls at the funeral home, sympathy can be expressed by clasping hands, an embrace or a simple statement of condolence, like:

“I’m sorry.”

“My sympathy to you and your family.”

“It was good to know John.”

"Jane was a fine person and a friend of mine. She will be missed.”

The family member may say the following in return:
“Thanks for coming.”

“John talked about you often.”

“I didn’t realize so many people cared.”

“Come see me when you can.”

Encourage the bereaved to express their feelings and thoughts, but don’t overwhelm them. 

Links to Related Websites

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