What Does ‘Family Viewing Hour’ Mean at a Funeral?


If you haven’t attended many funerals during your lifetime, you may be unsure about some of the vocabulary and phrasing commonly used to describe them.

For example, you may not be sure what happens at a funeral visitation. And you may not know whether you are expected to join the procession of cars to the cemetery after the funeral. 

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This article will tell you what it means if an obituary mentions that there will be a “family hour” at a specific time before or after a visitation or service. We’ll tell you what this means, and whether or not this event is for you to attend.

What’s a Family Hour at a Funeral?

Typically, a family hour at a funeral occurs the hour before the visitation, wake, or service is scheduled to open to the public. It is a time for the immediate family to gather, view the body of their loved one, and offer support. 

Although there is no “standard” for a family hour, it might be more likely if the family chose an open-casket funeral. It may be the first time that the family has a chance to see their loved one after the body was prepared for viewing. Seeing your loved one’s body in a casket is an emotional event, and most families prefer to experience it without anyone else present. 

A family hour may also occur if the body was cremated or presented in a closed casket. Perhaps the family hasn’t had a chance to mourn together since the death of their loved one, and this family hour allows them to see each other before the community arrives.

Most of the time, the family hour would occur before the general public arrives, but it may also be held at the end of the event. It may allow the family to say their last goodbyes before the casket is closed permanently. 

Whether the body is present or not, the event is held before the funeral service or after, a “family hour” usually means that only the immediate family members are present. 

In some circumstances, the phrase “family hour” may indicate a time that people can visit the family. This phrasing is uncommon, and it may be confusing. Use context clues to determine the exact meaning.

For example, if the “family hour” is from 3 to 4 pm and the visitation is from 4 to 7 pm, then non-family members would offer condolences no earlier than 4 pm and arrive no later than 6:30–6:45 pm. You are not expected to stay for the entirety of the event unless you are a member of the immediate family. 

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Difference Between a Family Hour and Visitation

Typically, a visitation is an event that is open to the public. It is a time for extended family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and community members to view the deceased and offer condolences to the immediate family members. 

A family hour is a more private event. Usually, the immediate family members gather to comfort each other and share memories during a family hour. This may be held before a visitation or occur in place of one. 

More than ever, families are personalizing end-of-life services for their particular situation. Individuals are also leaving behind end-of-life plans that dictate how they would prefer their services to be handled. Family hours may become more common as people individualize funeral plans. 

Difference Between a Family Hour and a Wake

Funeral vocabulary and traditions vary among communities. The word “wake” is sometimes used instead of “visitation” or “viewing,” but they are basically the same thing. 

The Oxford English Dictionary’s description of “wake” is: “The watching (especially by night) of relatives and friends beside the body of a dead person from death to burial, or during a part of that time; the drinking, feasting, and other observances incidental to this. Now chiefly Anglo-Irish or with reference to Irish custom. Also applied to similar funeral customs in other times or among non-Christian peoples.”

Let’s break down this definition. Most wakes occur in the late afternoon or evening. While people used to continuously stay with the body throughout the night until it was buried, this practice has been discontinued in most communities. 

While visitations typically occur at a funeral home, wakes are sometimes held at private homes, pubs, or restaurants. Sometimes wakes are raucous parties with food and drinks, but other times they are somber affairs. Wakes for Catholic families may include the Rosary. 

While a “family hour” typically refers to the time when the members of the immediate family gather to support each other and (perhaps) to view the body, a wake usually involves a larger circle of people. 

If you’re confused by the terms for the services used in the obituary or funeral home website, consider talking with a member of the funeral home staff. They will have worked with the family to plan the event, and they might give you a better understanding of what event members of the community are expected to attend.

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What Happens During Family Hour?

Of course, there are no set rules for what happens during a family hour, and each family may use the time as they see fit.

If the deceased is displayed in an open casket, the family members may gather around it and view their loved one’s body. This site may be traumatic, and the family members may comfort each other during this time. 

If flowers and plants had been given to the family, they might use this time to read cards and arrange the plants for display.

If a family member prepared a video presentation or a photo display, this would be a good time for the family to enjoy it without being interrupted by people offering condolences. When members of the community arrive, the family will be busy greeting those individuals. This will make it difficult for them to console one another and share their thoughts. 

Some families may want to use this time to prepare for the upcoming visitation or wake. A light meal or snack may be shared. Perhaps the family may also use this time to plan the receiving line.

Who’s Typically Allowed to Attend Family Hour?

Most people know if they are expected to attend the family hour or not based on their relationship with the deceased. This is not typically published as a part of the obituary since those expected to participate know by word of mouth.

As a rule of thumb, if you were told the time and place for the family hour, you probably should go. If you’re a family member, the time for the family hour was published as a part of the obituary, and you’re unsure whether you are expected to attend, just ask.

For some families, a family hour would be a time for members of the immediate family to gather. If the family is small or incredibly close, the mourners may include aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

It’s important to note that a family hour is different from a private funeral. A private funeral is by invitation only, and the details are not usually disclosed in the obituary. 

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What Do You Wear to a Family Hour for a Funeral?

Appropriate funeral service dress varies from community to community. Still, generally, people dress more formally for a funeral than they do for the events (like the family hour) held before the funeral. Of course, some families choose to have a family hour, visitation, and funeral all on the same day, and you would not be expected to change between events.

Traditional funeral clothes are usually black and modest, but you don’t have to follow those conventions. Some families dress in their loved one’s favorite color or wear a shirt that supports their loved one’s favorite team. Jeans may be appropriate to wear for a family hour in some situations, but you might want to avoid any athletic apparel. 

It is usually considered poor taste to wear something that would draw attention to yourself at a funeral. Your best bet would be to wear simple, clean, well-pressed clothes. 

Don’t become too overwhelmed picking out the perfect outfit for your loved one’s funeral. The purpose of the family hour is to comfort the members of your immediate family who are suffering from the loss of your loved one. Unless your family is known for its fashion sense, most people will probably pay little attention to what you are wearing. 

Don’t become so concerned about your clothes that you don’t attend the event. Consider borrowing clothes that you feel would be appropriate for the event (or purchasing some at a secondhand store) if you are on a strict budget. Most families would rather you attend in less formal clothes than not go to the gathering at all.

Other Etiquette Tips for Family Hour

If you haven’t had much experience attending funerals, here are some general etiquette tips. Whether you are a member of the immediate family or someone attending the event to offer support or honor the deceased, here are some guidelines to make the event go smoothly.

  • Give the immediate family time to grieve on their own. The obituary or funeral home website will give you the appropriate times to attend the visitation or wake. Unless you are a member of the immediate family, avoid going to the event early or late. Most families want some time to grieve on their own before they greet visitors.
  • Ask if you are expected to attend the family hour event. If you don’t know, you don’t know. If you are the deceased’s niece or cousin and have a close relationship with members of the immediate family, you may be welcomed at the family time event. Ask if you aren’t sure what is expected.
  • Try to keep the peace during family time. Your loved one’s funeral is not an appropriate time to bring up past turmoils or family squabbles. Think about how your loved one would have wanted you to behave and try to keep the peace during the family time. 
  • Don’t be afraid to show your grief. Grief comes with a variety of emotions. If you lost someone close to you, you are, of course, going to feel sorrow and pain. Before or after the family hour, don’t be afraid to show those emotions. This is a typical human response, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed by shedding tears.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

Sometimes eulogies are poorly worded, and you may not understand what is expected of you from the information published. If the eulogy lists a time for family hour and you aren’t sure what that means, call the funeral home or church to ask for clarification.

Don’t let a misunderstanding keep you from offering condolences to someone who lost a family member. Even if the family chooses to have a private memorial event, you can still send a sympathy gift, card, or food to the family. The family may choose to mourn privately, but you can always do something to show that you care.

If you're looking for more help with funeral etiquette, read our guides on a funeral order of service and funeral palls.

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