While funerals vary by culture and religion, there are still basic parts that you’re likely to find no matter what type of funeral service you attend. With many people wondering what to expect at a funeral, understanding the general order of service helps bring comfort and understanding during a difficult time.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- 1. Parts of a Wake or Other Pre-Funeral Activity
- 2. Parts of a Funeral Service
- 3. Parts of a Funeral Procession
- 4. Parts of a Graveside Service
- 5. Parts of a Funeral Reception or Repast
Because most people don’t attend many funeral services in their lifetime, it’s normal to question what the “typical” funeral is like. Not only does this lessen the feelings of discomfort and unease, but it helps you plan a service for yourself or a loved one.
What exactly are the main parts of a funeral? While you’ll find some variation depending on the type of service, region, culture, and religion, here are the five main funeral elements explained.
1. Parts of a Wake or Other Pre-Funeral Activity
Before the funeral, there is often a wake, viewing, or visitation. Depending on the culture and religion, there might also be other important steps to take before the funeral service.
A wake is when family and friends are invited to see the body before the funeral. In some cultures, the wake takes place in the family home. However, most wakes nowadays are hosted in the funeral home.
During a wake, the body is usually on display in a casket or bed. Some families choose to have an intimate wake that’s only open to close relatives, while others invite all guests.
It’s also common for the family to hold what’s known as visitation before the funeral. This could be in addition to a wake or separate altogether.
A visitation is when friends and family visit the family to pay respects. It’s common funeral etiquette for guests to bring food, drinks, flowers, and other sympathy gifts.
Cleansing and preparing the body
In many cultures, the body needs to be cleansed and prepared for its final resting place. This could be done before or after the wake. In a cleansing, a skilled professional or sometimes a close family member is tasked with the ritual cleansing of the body.
Even in cases where there is no ritual cleansing, the body is often embalmed or prepared in some way for the viewing or wake. This is to make the body appear more lifelike and restful, to help family members picture their loved one as they were in life.
2. Parts of a Funeral Service
The funeral service is when the close friends and family say their final goodbyes. This is a formal opportunity to honor someone’s life, legacy, and memory.
One of the most well-known parts of the funeral service is the eulogy reading. This is a speech usually given by a friend or family member that honors the life of the deceased. This could also be given by a religious leader or celebrant, depending on the family’s wishes.
Prayers or readings
Another characteristic of funerals is to include religious prayers, hymns, or readings. These prayers are typically a reminder that the deceased soul is with a higher power and at peace. For non-religious families, there might be readings of literature, poetry, or anything else the family finds meaningful.
Sharing stories and memories
For families who want an emphasis on their loved one’s life, it’s common to invite guests to speak on behalf of the deceased. They can share stories and fond memories about their loved one. This is a powerful tribute to a life well-lived.
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Music also plays a role in funerals. Families can choose religious music, traditional funeral songs, or even just a favorite artist of the deceased. Not only does music help convey emotions that are hard to put into words, but it also evokes feelings.
3. Parts of a Funeral Procession
A funeral procession might include a committal service at the gravesite, or it might just be a way to honor the close friends and family of the deceased. These are the typical elements of a funeral procession.
The committal service is when the deceased’s body is committed to its final resting place. This can be accompanied by a graveside service, or it might be a simpler event.
In the case of cremation, the family might accompany the deceased to the crematorium or funeral home. There could also be a cremation committal service at the facility just as there would be at the graveside.
The family usually carries the casket from the church or venue to the hearse. From there, it proceeds to its final resting place, either the cemetery or the crematorium. The family usually follows close behind the hearse in a vehicle procession.
Guests might also be invited to drive in the funeral procession if it’s not limited to close friends and family. These might be escorted by police vehicles, or they might just be on their own. If you’re invited to drive in a funeral procession, be sure to familiarize yourself with procession laws and etiquette.
4. Parts of a Graveside Service
A graveside service is very similar to a funeral service, though much of it will depend on the family’s wishes. This can also be applied if there is a service held at the crematorium.
Prayers and readings
There is usually a religious leader or celebrant present at the graveside service. They will read prayers or other passages at the request of the family. These focus on saying goodbye and finding peace.
The family is usually offered opportunities to say their goodbyes in front of the casket. This can range from 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the guest list. The family may or may not prepare a few words of their own, or this could be led by the officiant.
Last but not least, the body is lowered into the grave. This might also happen after the graveside service, but it’s commonly included within the service itself. The family might throw flowers or dirt in a ceremonial display on the gravesite.
5. Parts of a Funeral Reception or Repast
A reception or repast is held after the funeral or graveside service. This is an informal opportunity to grieve, come together, and share feelings about the deceased. Though optional, these are often a healthy way for the bereaved family to get the support they need.
Meal or appetizers
It’s common for the family to offer food and drink after the service. This could be something small, like appetizers, or a full-blown meal. In many cultures, feasting is common after a funeral as a way to honor the family.
Photo or video slideshow
Because this is an informal gathering, it’s common to also include a slideshow or photo tribute in honor of the deceased. This is a great way to walk down memory lane as a group while remembering someone’s life.
The family might also invite guests to speak at the repast. This is a more informal gathering, and that means it’s easier for many guests to speak up who might have been hesitant at the formal service.
Last but not least, the most important element of a reception is for it to be a place where support is offered to the bereaved family. In many ways, the funeral and reception are for the living, not the dead. This is when guests can pay their respects, offer condolences, and be there when it matters most.
A Healing and Memorable Funeral Service
A funeral service isn’t any one thing alone. It’s a collection of all the elements above, each unique to the specific family’s wishes. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve, and there is no perfect funeral. It’s entirely up to what makes sense for you, whether you’d prefer something small and intimate or grand and over-the-top.
Which of these elements appeals the most to you? Considering these five elements of a healing and memorable funeral are an important way to begin your own final plans.