Thank You Notes After a Funeral: What to Write and Who to Thank

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If you recently lost a loved one, the prospect of writing thank you notes to everyone who sent flowers, made a donation, or attended the funeral might feel like an impossible and overwhelming task. And if that’s the case, experts say you shouldn’t feel obliged to send them at all.

“When you are grieving, there are a ton of other things to deal with, and if you can take one thing off your list, I would recommend that this should be it,” says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing. “It’s tough enough to lose a loved one; we don’t need to make it harder by imposing social obligations on them.

Margaret Page, an etiquette expert based in Toronto, agrees that sending thank you notes is not expected. “You’re in a time of mourning,” she says. “If it’s not in your heart or soul to do it at that particular time that’s okay.”

That said, some people find the experience of writing messages of gratitude to those who helped them during a difficult time to be cathartic and helpful with the healing process. For others, it might be a tradition in their family or culture. “But don’t feel that it’s a requirement or that you’re behaving in bad manners if you don’t send one,” Page says.

If you do decide to send thank you notes after a funeral, these tips from etiquette experts can help you determine who to thank and how to go about it.

Who to thank

While it’s certainly not required to send a thank you card to every person who attended the funeral—especially if hundreds of people were there—it is a thoughtful gesture to write a note to anyone who truly went above and beyond.

Page recalls a group of neighbors who got together and ordered a meal delivery service for a bereaved family on their street so they wouldn’t have to cook dinner for three weeks. Although thank you notes are not required, in a situation like this one, she says, a card would be a thoughtful way to acknowledge the generosity of those people.

After thanking those who made an extraordinary effort, you might consider sending a card to anyone who contributed something tangible, such as if they sent flowers, made a donation to a charity in honor of your loved one, or brought over a home-cooked lasagna.

As for funeral home staff or anyone else who assisted with the logistics of the service, “it’s not necessary to send a note, but it’s a nice touch,” says Page.

What to write

Short, simple messages thanking funeral attendees for their love and support are completely acceptable. “You can tell the person, ‘I saw you [at the funeral], and I just want to thank you for coming and sharing the day with me and my family,’” says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California.

If someone sent flowers or a gift, it’s a thoughtful gesture to describe the item they gave to you and the impact it had. For example, “if someone sent flowers, you might write, ‘These flowers brightened my day, put a smile on my face, and reminded me how much Aunt Mary loved roses,’” says Page. “If someone sent food, you could write, ‘I didn’t have to think about cooking meals because of your efforts and it meant so much to me and my family. We can’t thank you enough.’”

Being authentic in your message and describing the positive effect their contribution had on your life will make them feel good that they were able to make a small difference. “They had to make some time and energy to think about this [gift] and put it together, so just acknowledging and being grateful for that is good,” says Page.

Does it have to be a handwritten card?

Although there’s nothing wrong with sending an email, Page prefers handwritten cards (or stationary, if you have more to say), especially if someone went to extra effort to send flowers or a gift.

“We get so many emails nowadays, and they can get lost in the shuffle,” she points out. “We read it, then it’s gone.” On the other hand, people tend to display handwritten cards on their desk, mantle, or dresser and look at them for a period of time, making the message of gratitude long-lasting.

Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, says pre-printed cards are acceptable, too, particularly for very large services or if you’re simply feeling too overwhelmed to hand write dozens of notes. “Sometimes, especially if a death was unexpected, you cannot get handwritten notes out, but you might be able to do a printed card that you express your thanks and sign your name to,” she says.

If sending a physical card is too stressful but you do want to make a point to thank someone who sent a gift, calling them on the phone is fine as well. “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to leave a voicemail as a thank you though, so if you want to make a verbal thank you, make sure it’s directly to the person as opposed to leaving a message,” says Page.

When to send post funeral thank you notes

This is really up to the bereaved, experts say. “People know that there’s a lot that goes on after a death, especially if you’re the sole executor of the will,” says Whitmore. She recommends aiming for six to eight weeks for those people who made an extra effort, but adds that that’s certainly not a hard and fast timeline.

“Even if a thank you note comes months later, that’s okay, such as if you think to yourself, ‘Gosh, that was so good that they flew out here for the funeral from Indianapolis,’” says Page. “When you’re ready to acknowledge that, you may.”

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