Should you attend an ex-spouse’s funeral? And what’s the right thing to do, in terms of paying your last respects to a former in-law?
Families can be complicated at the best of times, with big occasions raising all sorts of questions over the rights, wrongs and maybes. Just as families are different, there is no one-size-fits-all rulebook.
Funeral attendance etiquette provides some helpful guidelines to follow, when someone you were related to by marriage dies. Most people agree that when it comes to paying respects at the funeral of an ex, or former in-law, our heads should rule our hearts at a time when emotions can run high.
Next of kin
It’s important to remember that however close you once were, or how difficult the estrangement, the principal mourners at a funeral are the next of kin: their current spouse, children and parents.
If you had still-young children together, then it’s proper for their mother or father to accompany them and support them through the funeral, following the death of an ex-spouse. During the service, your children could sit together with other relatives in the front seats or pews reserved for close family of the deceased, with Mom or Dad sitting immediately behind them.
If, due to the circumstances through which you became estranged, you feel it’s impossible to attend the funeral, you may wish to arrange for your children to attend with another close family member or friend, explaining to them that you’ll be there for them after the service.
If you had older or adult children together, whether you attend the funeral may depend upon their need for your support and respect for your ex's current spouse or partner’s feelings. If relations between you have been cordial, then your attendance and sympathies may be appreciated, although it is respectful to sit a discreet distance away from the close family mourners. As an ex, you’re now a guest rather than a family member.
Get in touch
If you are unsure about whether it would be correct to attend the funeral of an ex-spouse, it is good etiquette to contact an immediate family member prior to the funeral to express your condolences and ask them, or a close friend, whether this would be acceptable. If you are remarried, you should also consider whether it would be appropriate to attend with your new spouse or partner.
A death notice or obituary may state that a funeral is private, or by invitation only. Some people who maintained a cordial relationship with an ex, or remained on friendly terms with wider family members, may choose to pay their respects by attending the memorial service, rather than the funeral itself.
If you feel that it would not be appropriate to attend the funeral, or would be upsetting for your ex’s current spouse or partner, you could still consider sending a sympathy card or flowers to convey your respects, or message of condolence to family members.
A funeral is a time for family to come together and celebrate their loved one’s life. It’s not a time for remembering the differences you had or setting the record straight, but for expressing words of genuine sympathy to mourners. It’s worth having a few well-chosen sentiments or warm words in mind.
Conversely, where families are aware of an ex-spouse or partner, it may be considerate to include them among the people who are notified when a loved one dies, so they don’t simply hear the sad news through the grapevine.
However much water has flowed under the bridge, the death of an ex-spouse, or someone who once factored significantly in your life, can still impact your thoughts and feelings. Grieving an ex-spouse, or being taken by surprise by the emotions the death of an ex-spouse can trigger, is not uncommon.
Many different kinds of relationships can grow out of a marriage or partnership and a divorce doesn’t necessarily mean you sever ties with the relatives of a spouse, especially if they are kin to your own kids.
Whether you feel you ought to attend a funeral to support your children, or to pay your respects to someone who played a significant part in your life, consideration for how the next of kin will feel about your part in the day is key.
Journalist Laurie Graham advises exes and estranged partners not to dismiss their grief – “a loss is a loss” – and recommends you be glad for the good times and lay the bad to rest. Her account of attending the father of her four children’s funeral 25 years after their divorce, led to unexpected feelings of grief and a jumble of emotions. She concludes with list of coping strategies including: “If your ex remarried, desist from tribal warfare and do not rise to any baited hooks.”