There’s no right way or wrong way to plan a funeral. In fact, a lot of the decisions you make regarding your own funeral or the funeral of a loved one is based on personal preference.
Should you bury your loved one or have her body cremated? Should you have a visitation on one night and a funeral the next day, or should you combine everything into one service?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s an Open Casket Funeral?
- What’s a Closed Casket Funeral?
- Open vs. Closed Casket Funeral: 6 Differences to Know
One of the most significant decisions you may have to make regarding your own eventual funeral or the funeral for a loved one is whether you should have a closed or an open casket at the service. Here are some things to consider.
COVID-19 tip: If you're hosting or attending a Zoom funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you may be able to view the body or casket. Attendees should look over the invitations, to see if it includes times for a virtual viewing. If you're planning a virtual funeral, consult with your funeral director or event planner to see if you can accommodate a virtual open or closed casket viewing.
What's an Open Casket Funeral?
An open-casket funeral is exactly what it sounds like. It is a funeral service where the body of the deceased is displayed in a casket.
To have an open-casket service, the funeral home staff will have to complete the following steps to prepare the body:
- The body will be embalmed. The body begins decomposing soon after death. If you would like for others to see the body at the funeral, it will need to be embalmed.
- The body must be dressed. In some cultures, family members provide clothing in which the deceased's body will be displayed. Most of the time, the family chooses articles of clothing that the dead enjoyed wearing when alive. At times, because the deceased experienced rapid weight loss or weight gain preceding death, the burial clothing may need to be altered. Other times, new clothing may be purchased.
- The funeral home staff will place makeup on the body. A staff member from the funeral home will place makeup on the exposed skin to give it a healthier-looking skin tone. Other makeup will be used to add color to the cheeks and lips to provide the body with a more lifelike appearance.
- The funeral home staff will arrange the deceased's hair. Usually, the funeral home staff will ask for a photo of the deceased so they can arrange the hair as it looked in life.
Once the body is prepared, your loved one is placed in a casket. The top half of the casket is propped open so the people who attend the funeral can see the head, shoulders, and chest of the deceased.
Some may argue that open-casket funerals are not very common. They might say that most of the time, a body is displayed during a wake, vigil, or visitation but not during the actual funeral service.
You may choose to have the casket of your loved one open when people arrive for the funeral, and then ask the funeral directors to close the lid before the service begins. Or you may choose to have the casket open during the entire funeral service.
There are other options, too. You might prefer to have the casket open so close family members can see the body one last time, then close the container when other mourners arrive. When it comes down to it, this decision is based on personal preference, societal norms, and religious traditions.
What's a Closed Casket Funeral?
A closed casket funeral means the body is not displayed during the funeral service. This may mean that the body will never be shown to anyone. It also may mean that the body has been presented during the wake, vigil, or visitation but closed for the funeral.
If the body had never been displayed, it may or may not have been embalmed. Embalming is typically only done when the body will be viewed at one point during end-of-life services.
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Open vs. Closed Casket Funeral: 6 Differences to Know
Are you struggling to decide whether to have an open or closed casket at your loved one's funeral? Here are some things to consider about both choices.
1. Some of the people attending the service will want to see your loved one's body
People tend to have strong opinions regarding the practice of viewing bodies after death. Some cultures and religions may feel that this practice is odd. They may think that putting makeup on the deceased to make it appear "living" is a strange practice.
On the other hand, others find it comforting to see a person's body after they die. It helps some people feel closure. Seeing the body may help them accept that the deceased is really gone.
Have you chosen to have a closed casket service for your loved one's funeral? If so, some people may be irritated and upset. Some may ask to see the body. Some may want to place their hands on the body or even kiss their loved one’s face.
2. Some people attending the service will not want to see your loved one's body
Some of the mourners will not want to see the body at the funeral. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with viewing any corpse or they may find it difficult to see your loved one after they passed.
Keep in mind that those who would be upset viewing the body can avoid it. Most of the time, the casket is placed as the focal point of the service. If attendees enter from the back, the person who does not want to see the body can sit toward the rear.
3. Sometimes having a closed casket is unavoidable
Your loved one may have died as the result of a traumatic accident or injury. In that case, the body may not be in good enough shape to be displayed at a funeral. A body that is severely burned will also not be able to be displayed. The casket of an infant is also often closed during the child’s funeral.
Most of the time, a funeral director will tell you if a closed casket service is necessary or not. Listen to the advice of these professionals. Choosing to reveal a badly decomposed body or a severely damaged body could be traumatic for those attending the services.
4. For some families, choosing to have an open or closed casket at a funeral may be a difficult decision
Perhaps your loved one did not die from a traumatic accident and the funeral director deems that the body is in good enough shape to be displayed.
But what if your loved one's appearance severely changed as the result of a long illness? Maybe your family member lost all her hair from chemotherapy. Or maybe your loved one's face appears gaunt. Even though the funeral home staff can do fantastic work to make your loved one look as lifelike as possible, you may wonder if the work would be good enough to make the deceased recognizable.
You may have to make the difficult decision to protect your loved one's dignity by having a closed casket funeral.
5. A family's culture may dictate whether the casket is open or closed during a funeral
Some sects of the Jewish or Islamic faiths may dictate that having an open casket at the end-of-life services is not appropriate. Note that this may not be true for all Jews or Muslims.
A person's religion, culture, and country of origin all tend to play a complicated role in their identity. It’s difficult to provide a full list of groups that do not view the body of the deceased before it is buried or cremated, so check with your house of worship.
6. Having an open casket funeral may be more expensive than a closed casket funeral
Planning a funeral is a highly emotional process. Many times, survivors don't consider shopping around for the best prices when they are overwhelmed with grief. During this time, many family members are willing to pay any amount of money necessary to send their loved ones off right.
There may be a limit on what type of funeral you can afford. If there are limited funds, you may not be able to afford to have the body of your loved one embalmed.
In addition to the embalming expenses, perhaps you (or your loved one's estate) are unable to afford to have the body nicely presented in the casket. This means that you may be unable to have an open casket during the visitation or funeral.
If you can't decide on an open- or closed-casket funeral, you might choose a different kind of ceremony altogether. This is especially true if you're planning to cremate the body and don't necessarily need a casket (other than a basic cremation casket). Here are some ideas:
- Ash scattering ceremony. If you're going to cremate the body after the funeral, you could have an ash-scattering ceremony instead of a viewing. This gives your attendees one last chance to say goodbye, just as a viewing might.
- Memorial unveiling. Today, scattering ashes or storing them at home in a traditional urn aren't your only options for cremains. You could transform the remains into memorial diamonds or cremation stones, which you can reveal at a memorial ceremony.
- Unique urn options. Instead of placing the casket at the front of the ceremony, you could place the ashes in a unique, one-of-a-kind urn in its place. Foreverence is our choice for 3D printing truly unique urns.
Making the Right Decision
As cremation becomes a more popular choice in the United States, the decision to have an open or closed casket will become moot. Instead of deciding whether or not to pay to have a body embalmed, families will have to select an urn for the ashes. Families will have to research laws for scattering ashes instead of how much it costs to bury a body in a cemetery.
It may be time to start your own end-of-life planning. Make these difficult decisions about your funeral so your family members won't have to do it for you.