Condolences are formal expressions of sympathy offered to people after the death of a friend or loved one. Most cultures have traditions surrounding the use of condolences, and it is generally considered very poor form to neglect to offer condolences to someone after learning that he or she has recently experienced the death of someone close. Condolences can take a number of forms.
In a condolence letter, someone composes a brief message of sympathy with the intention of sending the message to the survivors of someone who has died. Typically, condolences are addressed to the head of the family, even if you are more familiar with someone else in the family. A second condolence letter can be sent to your close friend among the mourners. Some people prefer to send brief cards, while others take the time to write more lengthy letters, with the format being dependent on how well one knows the deceased and the mourners.
Condolences are also given orally, classically at the first meeting after the death. Oral condolences are usually brief, and may be accompanied with a handshake, hug, or another physical gesture. Offering condolences in this context is important, even if the death occurred months ago, because it recognizes that the mourner has undergone significant life changes since he or she was last seen, and it reflects respect and an expression of mutual grief.
In many cultures, people also pay condolence calls, visiting the head of a mourning family to express condolences personally, as well as sending a formal condolence letter. It is not uncommon for mourners to hold a reception or open house, often after the disposition of the body, with designated hours for condolence calls. Food is often laid out at these events, and specific religious or cultural traditions may be observed during this period.
Although paying your condolences can feel very awkward, it is very important. Family members, for example, often enjoy hearing from close friends of the deceased, so even if you don't know the family very well, they will appreciate a letter of condolence or condolence call. Condolences can also become bound up in the politics of family feuds, in which case you should still do your best to express sympathy while remaining neutral on the topic of strife.
A formal condolence letter is usually written on simple stationery, with bright, colorful, or cheerful images being generally unacceptable. In the case of a condolence card, while pre-printed cards are available, choosing a blank card and expressing your own sentiments is highly advisable. On condolence calls, one should generally wear the colors associated with mourning in the culture of the family.
Some cultures and religions have very specific rules about condolences. If you are expressing condolences to someone who comes from a culture which is not your own, you may want to ask someone from that culture to go over condolence and mourning traditions with you so that you will behave appropriately. This is especially important if you are invited to a funeral.