What’s the Difference Between a Visitation and a Funeral?

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You may think that going to visitations and funerals are not pleasant experiences. Usually, they're pretty sad events. You may not know funeral etiquette, leaving you unsure of what to wear and how to act. 

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But supporting a friend or family member by going to a visitation and funeral is usually the right thing to do. Not only is it important to support your friends and extended family, but it also shows respect for the deceased.

Virtual funeral tip: Today, travel restrictions and social distancing might prevent you from attending a funeral or visitation. If many of the guests are unable to attend, your friend or family member could use a service like GatheringUs to host a hybrid funeral. 

Let us help you navigate the world of end-of-life services. We will give you the necessary information to know the difference between a visitation and a funeral, and what you can expect at both. 

What Happens at a Visitation? 

A visitation is defined as “a gathering with the family of a deceased person before the funeral.”

Sometimes, the deceased’s body is present at the gathering to allow visitors to see the deceased one more time. Members of the immediate family are present to hear your words of condolences. Usually, there is no formal service at the visitation.

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What Happens at a Funeral?

You probably already know that a funeral is a “ceremony honoring a dead person, typically involving burial or cremation.” The casket may be opened for viewing before the ceremony begins, but it is usually closed during the service itself. If the body was cremated, sometimes the cremains are present. 

What to expect at a funeral varies, but most are rather formal ceremonies. If the deceased was religious, their faith system will be an essential part of the service. Hymns or funeral songs are either sung or played, and someone usually speaks about the deceased.

Visitation vs. Funeral: Things to Know

Typically, visitations are less formal events then funerals because a visitation is a gathering, and a funeral is a formal service. Besides these differences, here are other things that you need to know.

What to wear

One of the first things people consider when attending an end-of-life service for the first time is what to wear.

Appropriate funeral attire depends on many different factors, but most of the time, people wear somewhat dressy clothes in dark or muted colors. Typically, one dresses more casually for a visitation than a funeral. 

The appropriate funeral attire depends upon the community and age group of the mourners. It is also dependent upon cultural norms. 

Overall, people have become more casual in their manner of dress over the decades. You may notice this at religious services, graduations, and also visitations and funerals. 

Etiquette

If you haven’t ever been to a visitation of a funeral, you may wonder how you are supposed to act. Here are some basic rules of etiquette for most funeral services.

Speak softly

Typically, visitations, wakes, and funerals are rather solemn events. One is expected to speak softly and avoid boisterous behavior. 

People often cry at visitations and funerals. If your crying keeps other people from being able to hear the funeral service, excuse yourself from the room.

People with infants or small children may be mindful of their children’s behavior at a visitation or funeral. While some mourners will be happy to see children in attendance, others may become distracted by the extra noises and movement of restless kids. 

Arrive on time

Typically, a visitation is a come and go event. For example, the funeral home may announce that the family will be available from 6 to 8 pm. This means you can arrive at any time between 6 and 7:45 pm, view the body if possible, offer your respects to the family members, and leave when you are ready. Unless you are a member of the immediate family, you typically would not stay for the duration of the visitation. 

A funeral has a specific start time, and you should make every attempt to arrive on time or a few minutes early. The moments before a funeral begins are typically moments of quiet reflection, and if you arrive late, you may disrupt the solemn atmosphere of the room.

Sit in an appropriate place

Since visitations are come and go events, you may find no need to sit at the event. Funerals, on the other hand, are formal services. The first several rows of a funeral are typically reserved for the members of the immediate family. 

If you aren’t sure whether your relationship qualifies you as a member of the immediate family, you may want to sit close to the front, but not the first or second row. Some wait for invitations to move forward from the spouse or children of the deceased. 

Practice proper phone etiquette

Cell phones should not be seen or heard at a visitation or funeral. While the immediate family members may use the gathering as an opportunity to take family photos, visitors to the event should avoid taking pictures. 

Silence your cell phone before arriving at the event, and if you have to respond to an emergency call or text, do so outside.

Give gifts appropriately

Visitations and funerals are not typically gift-giving events. There are exceptions to this rule, though. Some people like to send flowers or a plant to be displayed at the event. If you choose to purchase an arrangement, have it delivered before the event begins. 

You may also want to donate to the memorial fund to honor the person who died. Do not give those checks or cash to the family members. Instead, look for a funeral home staff member to help you make your donation. 

You may want to give a personal gift, such as a piece of jewelry or a photo frame to one of the family members. Avoid giving such gifts at either the visitation or funeral unless it can’t be helped.

Speak to the family members

It’s hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving. For particularly hard visitations, you may simply remark, “I don’t know what to say.” 

After sharing a brief word of condolence, you may choose to share a pleasant memory about the deceased if there isn’t a long line of people waiting to speak to the family. 

Is it okay to go to the visitation and not the funeral?

It is fine to go to the visitation and not the funeral (or to the funeral and not the visitation.) It is also appropriate to go to both. 

Some choose to go to one event over the other simply because of scheduling conflicts. Others may decide to go to the visitation because they want to have the opportunity to speak to the family members. You may choose to go to a funeral to be comforted by the service.

Know the Differences

Until you lose someone close to you, you may not fully understand how important it is to go to funerals. No, they are not fun events to attend, but there are many reasons why you should go.

Going to a visitation or funeral shows respect and honor for the person who died. Even if you don’t know the deceased’s family members, they will feel comfort knowing that their mom, dad, or spouse played such an important role in other people’s lives. 

Also, attending the visitation or funeral shows support and love for the family members of the deceased. They are going through one of the most challenging days of their lives, and they will appreciate your presence, even if you don’t have the opportunity to speak to them or share a hug.

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