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All About Funeral Services: Viewings, Wakes, Visitations, Memorials and More

When a loved one passes away, it can be a difficult moment. At the same time, you may not understand the traditions and protocols surrounding funeral services. 

If you’re not sure what to expect for different funeral services, or you want more details about them, we’ll go through the customs surrounding each one. This way, you’ll know what to do and be able to experience funeral services without worrying about what’s happening and what you need to do.

Let’s go into all about viewings, wakes, visitations, funerals and memorials – so that you have a better grasp of the etiquette and expectations involved. 

The role of funeral services

Funeral services – whether viewings, wakes, visitations, funerals or memorials – are a key part of the grieving process. They allow the bereaved to accept the death, say goodbye and receive support from the community. For many, they are an essential part of moving forward. 

Regardless of the funeral service that you hold or are invited to, it’s important to understand it in this framework. Nobody enjoys attending a funeral, but lending your support and presence is crucial for the good of the deceased’s family. 

Funeral services like these can also help you accept a death that may have been sudden or unexpected. You’ll be able to say your goodbyes and begin the grieving process. 

Viewing

A viewing is a service that typically takes place before the funeral. Most commonly, the body is on display in a casket, though it may be open or closed. Instead of a casket, the family may also opt for a cremation urn or a memorial photo. 

For many friends and family, the viewing is the last chance to say goodbye to a loved one before he/she is buried. Viewings aren’t necessarily religious services. In fact, many are informal and unstructured, allowing for friends and family to pay their respects in their own way. 

When and where does a viewing take place?

A viewing may take place right before the funeral or a few days beforehand. Depending on the wishes of the family, it may take place in their home, a place of worship or a funeral home. 

What should I wear to a viewing?

Though a viewing is more informal than a funeral, attire should be fairly similar. Opt for black or muted colors. Your attire should never draw any attention. 

What should I do when I arrive?

Viewings vary in their formality. Some viewings may have family members set up to receive guests, while others may be unstructured. It’s a good idea to talk with each family member and give your condolences. If you’re don’t know the family well, you may have to introduce yourself and your relationship to the deceased. You may even want to think of a nice remark or anecdote to share.

Should I stay for the full viewing hours?

Viewings are usually scheduled for a few hours to give people time to come by and pay their respects. For this reason, guests aren’t expected to stay the full time. (In the past, the viewing was called “calling hours.”) 

You can decide how long you want to stay. Some guests will drop by for a few minutes, while others may feel compelled to keep the family company for longer. There’s no set etiquette on how long you should stay. Before you leave, just be sure to pay your respects and offer your condolences to the family. 

What is proper etiquette regarding the body?

At a viewing, the body of the deceased is typically present, whether in an open or closed casket. If open, the deceased will have been embalmed. It’s your decision whether you want to spend time with the body, as there’s no etiquette that requires you to approach the casket. 

For some loved ones, viewing the body gives them a sense of closure. Others prefer to maintain living memories of the deceased. 

If you choose to view the body, it’s best to wait when no one else is with the deceased. You can stand or kneel by the casket. This is your time to say goodbye, whether with a prayer, a few words or in silence. This can be as brief or long as you wish, but most guests will spend a minute or two with the body. 

When shouldn’t a family hold a viewing?

An undertaker can make a personalized recommendation for when a family should abstain from a viewing. This is typically avoided when the body may have been changed from injury or illness, or when a full autopsy was performed. Whenever the body may be unsuitable or distressing, a viewing is not recommended. 

Wake

A viewing and a wake are terms often used interchangeably. Both refer to the event of paying respects to the body before the funeral. Being invited to a viewing or a wake will almost always mean the same thing. 

However, traditionally a wake is a slightly different service. Based on the Catholic tradition, a wake may be more religious, including prayers, scripture readings and rosaries. It may even involve a priest giving a short ceremony. 

Like viewings, wakes are an opportunity to pay respects, share memories and offer condolences. Depending on the family, the wake may have a more social or informal nature as well. 

Does a wake last all night?

You may have heard that a wake lasts all night. However, the tradition of “keeping watch” over a body is an old tradition that typically isn’t performed in modern day. In the past, friends and family stayed awake through the night with the body to protect it from evil spirits until burial. 

Visitation

A visitation differs from a viewing in two key ways. First, it may happen before or after the funeral services. In addition, a casket is rarely present. However, a visitation does function similarly to a viewing in the sense that it’s a way to pay your respects and give your condolences to the family. 

When and where does a visitation take place?

While a viewing only takes place before the funeral, a visitation can occur before or after. It usually takes place in a family home, a place of worship or a funeral home. 

What should I wear to a visitation?

A visitation is less formal than a funeral, but you should choose similar attire. Black or muted colors are best. 

What should I do when I arrive?

Visitations are generally less formal than funerals. Like viewings, some family members may be set up to receive guests, while others are unstructured. When you arrive, you should greet each family member to give your condolences. If you haven’t met, you should introduce yourself and your relationship to the deceased. Consider preparing a remark or anecdote about the deceased as well. 

Should I stay for the full visitation hours?

Visitations are typically come-and-go type of events. Like viewings, they’re scheduled for a few hours, which gives people time to stop by and give their condolences. Guests aren’t expected to stay the full visitation hours. 

Is there a body present at a visitation?

There isn’t typically a body present at a visitation. This may be because it’s scheduled after the burial or because the family has decided not to present a casket.

Is there any advantage to choosing a visitation over a viewing?

Families may choose a visitation over a viewing for a few different reasons. For one, they may prefer not to show the body. Or, for scheduling reasons, they wish to have a service after the funeral and burial. Another possibility is that a visitation doesn’t involve funeral home costs, because the body isn’t present and/or is already buried. 

Funeral

Unlike the other services we’ve already discussed, the funeral is typically the moment the deceased is buried. It’s often the most solemn event and is officiated by a religious leader or a family member. 

When and where does a funeral take place?

A funeral is generally scheduled for a day or two after death, but can be done up to a week or so. This may happen especially if many families need to travel for funeral services. A funeral takes place at a family home, funeral home or place of worship.

What should I wear to a funeral?

A funeral is a formal occasion and you should dress nicely. It’s best to wear black or muted colors so that you don’t draw attention to yourself.  

What should I do when I arrive?

A funeral has a set start time. Unlike viewings and visitations, you should arrive on time and expect to stay for the full service. When you arrive, you can sit down and wait for it to begin. It’s important to show respect for this solemn moment, which is why it’s recommended to keep a low voice and support the family with heartfelt words. At the end of the funeral service, you can give condolences to the family. 

Can children attend a funeral?

This will depend on the family and the relationship to the children. Generally, bringing small children isn’t recommended. If you decide to bring your kids, make sure to explain the situation and protocols so that they understand what’s going on.  

What is natural burial? 

Natural burial refers to bodies getting buried without being embalmed or placed in a casket or vault. Families aren’t legally obligated to use embalming fluid or caskets. In fact, the natural burial movement advocates for allowing the body to decompose naturally in the ground. 

During natural burial, a body is placed directly in the ground. Some may also be buried in a biodegradable casket or a burial shroud. Often, the grave site is dug by hand instead of by machinery and allows for only stone gravemarkers instead of headstones. The natural burial process is more eco-friendly compared to a traditional burial. 

Memorial Service

Finally, you may also be invited to a memorial service for the deceased. The idea of a memorial service is to come together and remember the deceased. Like a visitation, this service generally occurs after the funeral. For this reason, the body isn’t present. 

However, memorial services are quite different from visitations. Visitations typically involve unstructured hours to visit with the bereaved family. Memorial services, on the other hand, have a set start time and entail a set order of events. 

When and where does a memorial service take place?

A memorial service may take place in a family home, funeral home, place of worship or another location such as a park. It typically occurs after burial. A memorial service is similar in nature to a funeral in that it has a set start time and you’re expected to stay for the full service. 

What should I wear to a memorial service?

A memorial service is generally as formal as a funeral. You should dress nicely in black or muted colors. 

What should I do when I arrive?

You can take your seat and wait for the service to begin. Memorial services often involve music, poems, prayers and a eulogy. You should attend the full service. Make sure you’re respecting the event by staying quiet. At the end of the service, you can give condolences to the family. 

Why do families choose a memorial service?

Memorial services are generally chosen as a way to bring together family and the community after a death. It’s not usually a religious service, which may appeal to some as well. Memorial services are generally done after burial, which means they can be scheduled at any time.

FAQ: Viewings, Wakes, Visitations, Funerals & Memorials

After giving an overview of these key funeral services, you may still have some questions. We’ll now go over some common questions about them. 

Is embalming the body necessary and/or recommended?

The decision to embalm the body depends on your cultural background. Generally, a body is embalmed for a viewing. If you’re not interested in a viewing, embalming may not be necessary. You should contact your local funeral home for details. 

How is cremation changing viewings and visitations?

If the deceased will be cremated instead of buried, there may be different funeral services offered. Some families are choosing to hold direct cremation ceremonies to observe the process firsthand. Others will simply cremate their loved one and then present the urn during a visitation service. 

Cremation has become a more favored option in recent years, perhaps because it’s a simpler and more affordable process than burial. 

How much do funeral homes charge for these funeral services?

Costs for viewings, funerals and burials will vary greatly according to the funeral home. Some common costs include embalming, using the funeral home for a viewing or visitation, or transporting the body. Some funeral homes charge by day, others by the hour. In addition, the family of the deceased will need to pay for the costs of the casket, burial plot and any additional services – unless the deceased already made pre-paid plans.

How can I pay for these funeral service costs?

Funeral home costs can become pricey. There are a few ways to pay. First, you should make sure the deceased didn’t already pre-pay for funeral services and a burial plot, or leave a stipend in a will for this. 

In addition, the deceased may be eligible for certain burial benefits if he/she was a veteran, for example. Some states also offer funeral and burial aid for low-income families. 

Are there any changes to these funeral services due to COVID-19?

COVID-19 has significantly impacted funeral services in 2020. Some funerals have been canceled altogether due to government restrictions. Other services have been limited to a handful of guests. It’s important to check with your local government about any COVID-19 related restrictions. 

Even if you’re unable to attend funeral services due to COVID-19, you can show your support in other ways. Consider attending virtual events, sending flowers or otherwise connecting with the bereaving family.  

Understanding other end-of-life considerations

As you attend these funeral services, it’s also important to keep in mind other aspects of end-of-life. In particular, if your loved one has passed away and you’re taking care of all the paperwork, here are some key to-dos to keep in mind:

Specifically, we recommend checking out our ultimate guide for what to do when someone dies to get a complete overview. If you need more information or assistance with any aspect of end-of-life, you can find more resources at My Caring Plan.

Ultimately, death is a part of life and funeral services help loved ones come to terms with this. As you plan or attend these services, you can now feel assured about what to expect and how to act.

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