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What to wear to a memorial service

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Losing a loved one is exceptionally difficult. Even if you’ve had time to prepare, the sudden emptiness left behind is often surprising. This pain can sometimes be offset by a memorial service, where friends and family gather to share memories, mourn, and begin the process of letting your loved one go.

But what does such a service entail, and what should you wear to one?

A memorial service — and what you should wear to it — looks slightly different for everyone. What your loved one would have wanted will ultimately decide how you should dress for the service. 

Many memorial services are held in religious buildings like churches or synagogues, but others may occur in nature, on a boat, or even in a favorite restaurant or bar. The space where the memorial is held may also help you determine the dress code; for example, you can expect to wear more formal clothing in a church or synagogue and more casual clothing to a bar.

Because there is so much nuance, it’s important to remember that the family’s wishes will always come first. They may offer clothing guidelines and what to expect from a particular service. Below we’ve provided some general advice about what to wear at a memorial service and what different kinds of outfits might, or might not, be appropriate. 

What to wear to a memorial service

Memorial services can range from somber events to bright celebrations of life, but if you’re unsure what to wear it’s always safe to err on the side of tradition. If you don’t receive instructions regarding what to wear, think business casual and dark or muted colors. Look at your wardrobe for the following pieces:

  • Dark colors, such as black, dark blue, and brown
  • Clothing that covers the skin, like slacks, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, and jackets
  • Skirts that hit at or below the knee
  • Closed-toed shoes
  • If you wear makeup, ensure it’s subtle (and waterproof)

There are also some items of clothing you’ll want to leave in your closet during a memorial service:

  • Flip-flops and flashy high heels
  • Anything with patches or holes
  • Bright, eye-catching colors like yellows, oranges, and reds
  • Tank tops, crop tops, and other revealing clothing 
  • Jeans — unless the memorial is casual 
  • Patterns like plaid and polka dot 

Why does what you wear to a memorial matter? 

Because the memorial service is often a space for people who are still grieving, bright, “happy” colors and elaborate clothing can be distracting and disrespectful to those mourning. In addition, many religions — and portions of modern society — view memorial services as a time to be serious; playful, exciting outfits run contrary to that feeling. Inversely, a memorial service may call for bright colors and flashy clothing — it all depends on what the departed would have wanted. 

Do memorial services always require conservative clothing?

Memorial services are deeply personal for both the person they’re honoring and those who’re planning and attending. While dressing conservatively may be the default for many services, those who are in charge of the event can request attendees wear something more in line with their loved one’s personality or beliefs. This is particularly popular during a celebration of life. 

If you’re invited to a celebration of life or informal memorial service, then you may have some more leeway in your outfit choices. When deciding what to wear to a celebration of life, focus on things your loved one would have enjoyed. For example, if your loved one adored the colors blue and yellow, guests may be asked to wear various shades of those two colors. Or if they were particularly passionate about a sports team, then everyone could show up wearing a jersey for that team.

What should I wear to a religious memorial service?

If the person you’re memorializing practiced a particular religion, then what you wear may be dictated by those beliefs. At Catholic funerals, for example, dark, modest clothing is generally expected, while Jewish services might ask men to wear a kippah or skullcap. If you are attending a Hindu funeral you might be expected to wear white. 

By word of mouth or an invitation, you should learn whether certain religious standards or practices will be followed at a service, but remember — if you’re not sure, ask the hosts. They will be able to guide your clothing choices or connect you with someone who can. 

A memorial service is a thoughtful, safe time to share stories about your loved one and gather with others. Hopefully, your questions about what to wear to a memorial can be answered by the hosts, who can tell you whether the service you’re attending is traditional, casual, or themed. Once you’ve learned the dress code, you can focus on the service’s true purpose: to reminisce about your loved one and begin to heal. 

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