U.S. Funeral Traditions
At the visitation (also called a "viewing" or "wake") the embalmed body of the
deceased person (or decedent) is placed on display in the coffin (also
called a casket). At the viewing, the friends
and relations greet the more distant
relatives and friends of the deceased in a
social gathering with little in the way of
ritual. The viewing often takes place on
one or two evenings before the funeral.
The only prescribed aspects of this
gathering are that frequently the
attendees sign a book kept by the
deceased's survivors to record who
attended and that the attendees are expected to view the deceased's body in the
coffin. In addition, a family may choose to display photographs taken of the
deceased person during his/her life (often, formal portraits with other family
members and candid pictures to show "happy times"), prized possessions and other
items representing his/her hobbies and/or accomplishments.
The viewing is either "open casket", in which the embalmed body of the deceased
has been clothed and treated with cosmetics for display; or "closed casket", in which
the coffin is closed. The coffin may be closed if the body was too badly damaged
because of an accident or fire, deformed from illness or if someone in the group is
emotionally unable to cope with viewing the corpse. However, this step is foreign to
Judaism; Jewish funerals are held soon after death, and the corpse is never displayed.
As well, Jewish law forbids anyone to embalm the body of the deceased.
(See: Judaism Customs)
The decedent's closest friends and relatives who are unable to attend frequently send
flowers to the viewing, with the exception of a Jewish Funeral, where flowers would
not be appropriate. The viewing typically takes place at a funeral home, which is
equipped with gathering rooms where the viewing can be conducted, although the
viewing may also take place at a church. The viewing may end with a prayer service;
in the Catholic funeral, this may include a rosary.
A memorial service, often called a funeral and often officiated by clergy from the
decedent's or bereaved's church or religion. A funeral may take place at either a
funeral home, church or even someone's home.
Funeral services include prayers; readings from the Bible or other sacred texts;
hymns (sung either by the attendees or a hired vocalist); and words of comfort by the
clergy. Frequently, a relative or close friend will be asked to give a eulogy, which
details happy memories and accomplishments.
Tradition also allows the attendees of the memorial service to have one last
opportunity to view the decedent's body and say good-bye; the immediate family
(siblings (and their spouses); followed by the decedent's spouse, parents and
children) are always the very last to view their loved one before the coffin is closed.
This opportunity can take place immediately before the service begins, or at the very
end of the service.
Note: In some religious denominations, for example, Roman Catholic and Anglican ,
eulogies are prohibited or discouraged during this service, in order to preserve respect
for traditions. Also, for these religions the coffin is traditionally closed at the end of
the wake and is not re-opened for the funeral service.
A burial service, conducted at the side of the grave, tomb, mausoleum or
crematorium, at which the body of the decedent is buried or cremated at the
Sometimes, the burial service
will immediately follow the
funeral, in which case a funeral
procession (the hearse, followed
by the immediate family and
then the other attendees) travels
from the site of the memorial
service to the burial site. Other
times, the burial service takes place
at a later time, when the final resting place is ready.
If the decedent served in a branch of the Armed forces, military rites are often
accorded at the burial service. (see: Military Burials)
In many religious traditions, pallbearers, usually males who are close relatives (such
as cousins, nephews or grandchildren) or friends of the decedent, will carry the
casket from the chapel (of a funeral home or church) to the hearse, and from the
hearse to the site of the burial service. The pallbearers often sit in a special reserved
section during the memorial service.
According to most religions, coffins are kept closed during the burial ceremony. In
Eastern Orthodox funerals, the coffins are reopened just before burial to allow loved
ones to look at the deceased one last time and give their final farewells.
Luncheon or Gatherings
In many traditions, a meal or other gathering following the burial service, either at the
decedent's church or another off-site location.
For Irish descendants, a wake is often quite extended and may include drinking and
singing. As it is a type of party to celebrate the person's life, it will often be referred
to as 'waking' the person who has died.
An Irish Wake usually lasts 3 full days. On the day after the wake the funeral takes
place. Family members and friends will ensure that there is always someone awake
with the body, traditionally saying prayers.
On occasion, the family of the deceased may wish to have only a very small service,
with just the decedent's closest family members and friends attending. This type of
ceremony means it is closed to the public. One may only go to the funeral if he or
she was invited. In this case, a private funeral service is conducted. Reasons vary but
• The decedent was an infant (possibly, they may have been stillborn) or very aged
and therefore having few surviving family members or friends.
• The decedent may be a crime victim or a convicted criminal who was serving a
prison sentence. In this case, the service is made private either to avoid unwanted
media coverage (especially with a crime victim); or to avoid unwanted intrusion
(especially if the decedent was convicted of murder or child molestation).
• The family does not feel able to endure a traditional service (due to emotional
shock) or simply wants a quiet, simple funeral with only the most important people
of the decedent's life in attendance.
In some cases (particularly the latter), the family may schedule a public memorial
service at a later time.
Increasingly, traditional funerals are being replaced by memorial services. These are
often less formal than a traditional funeral, and include such things as eulogies, music
A member of the clergy often participates in these services, usually to open and close
the proceedings and offer prayers and a brief message of comfort.
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This topic focuses on all subjects, but
not limited to, topics dealing with U.S.
Funeral Traditions. Explanation of the
usual events that make up a "traditional"
funeral, and the slight variations. It also
includes sections about the other events
surrounding the funeral, and more.
|The Visitation or the Viewing
Within the United States and Canada, in most cultural groups and regions,
the funeral rituals can be divided into three parts: Visitation, Funeral, and
the Burial Service. In this section you will find information on all three
subjects. Also additional information is available about Private Services,
Memorial Services, and Luncheons.
|Funeral or Memorial Service
|Graveside or Burial Services
|Family Get Together After Funerals
|Services for Family and Close Friends Only
|Services When the Body is Not Present
|Funerals in Contemporary North America