What Happens at a Visitation or Viewing Before a Funeral?

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We’ve all seen funerals on TV or experienced them in person. Even if you feel like you are prepared, attending a visitation or a viewing may be unfamiliar and you may be unsure of what to do. Undoubtedly, this uncertainty is compounded if you plan to attend a funeral for a person outside your cultural or religious group.

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This feeling of unease is understandable. After all, if you have little experience going to end-of-life services, you probably don’t know appropriate funeral etiquette. You may not know the difference between a visitation and a funeral, and you may question whether you are supposed to bring a gift. 

Below, we answer some common questions you may have about visitations. 

COVID-19 tip: Pandemics, illness, and other issues can make visitations difficult or impossible. Your in-person visitation might be limited to just a few close family members. But if you're hosting a virtual funeral with a service like GatheringUs, you may be able to officiate the event from a funeral home, church, or temple with the casket or cremains present. You'll need to discuss your options with your virtual funeral facilitator and your funeral director. 

What’s a Visitation?

List of reasons to attend a visitation with images of flowers

A dictionary definition of a visitation is “a gathering with the family of a deceased person before the funeral.” Typically, a visitation is held at a funeral home or religious building. Sometimes the body of the deceased is displayed in an open casket. Other times the cremains of the person may be at the visitation.

When a visitation is announced, you will generally see a range of hours that the event will take place. Visitations are come-and-go events. This means that if the visitation is scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m., you can arrive at any time between 2 and 4:45. You are not expected to stay the entire time.

Purpose

There are many reasons one is invited to attend a visitation. 

First, you may attend a visitation because you want to view the body. Some people feel closure after seeing the body of the deceased. Since cremation has increased in popularity, this may not be as common of an occurrence as it once was, even though some families choose to have an open-casket viewing and, later, cremate the body.

Second, you may attend a visitation to offer condolences to the family members. Some people attend the visitation of a person they didn’t know because they would like to support a friend who lost a parent or spouse.

Next, you might also attend a visitation because you admired or respected the person who died. You may not know members of the deceased’s immediate family, but you may want to attend the visitation to tell them how amazing their family member was. 

Finally, you may attend a visitation because you are unable or unwilling to attend the funeral. Perhaps a scheduling conflict prevents you from attending one service over the other. You might be uncomfortable during religious ceremonies and would prefer to avoid them by going to the visitation. 

Is a funeral visitation different from a viewing?

The immediate family of the deceased is usually available during a visitation. During this gathering, you are given the opportunity to “visit” with the family and perhaps view the body of the deceased.

The focus of a viewing is seeing the body of the deceased and the family is typically present as well. 

A viewing may be held immediately before the funeral service. This gives people one last opportunity to view the body before it is buried or cremated. 

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What Generally Happens at a Visitation?

Visitation protocol varies among cultural, geographic, and religious groups, but there are some common elements that happen at a visitation.

Attendees at a visitation may be asked to sign a guest book when entering the room. Family members who feel numb with grief may wish to look at the list of guests later, and a guest book provides this opportunity.

If the body is available for viewing at the visitation, the casket is generally placed at the opposite end of the room as the entrance. 

If the visitation has a lot of attendees, there may be a long line of people waiting to talk with the deceased’s family members and view the body. If this is the case, you will need to enter the queue and wait for your turn to offer condolences. 

Other visitations may have fewer people in attendance. If this is the case, you may want to seek out the family members you wish to talk with from the crowd of mourners.

Depending upon the placement of the family members that you speak to, you may be able to avoid viewing the body if that is your wish. Some people are uncomfortable seeing dead bodies and may choose to remember the deceased as an alive and vibrant person. 

Sometimes, there are displays of photographs at visitations. 

As soon as you have offered your condolences to the family and have viewed the body, you can leave the visitation. You are not expected to stay for the entire length of time, but you may find yourself doing so if you know many of the attendees. It is appropriate to share memories about the deceased with others in attendance while at a visitation.

Different Types of Visitations Across Cultures

Text about visitations in the Sikh religion with images of flowers

As we mentioned, the protocol for visitations is dependent upon a variety of factors. Here are some descriptions of visitations from various cultures and religious groups.

Christian

Typically, Christian visitations are held at a funeral home. They are often the night before the funeral service, but sometimes they are held immediately before the funeral. Sometimes the body is available for viewing.

Catholic

Catholic visitations are sometimes called wakes. A wake is similar to a visitation. Sometimes the rosary is prayed at a wake. Although wakes used to be held in a person’s home, most of the time, they take place in funeral homes.

Muslim

It is not clear whether or not followers of Islam have visitations. It seems as if it is traditional for a dying Muslim to receive an abundance of visitors while on the death bed. Read this article for more information regarding Muslim funerals

Buddhist

Some Buddhist families may choose to host a visitation. This visitation may occur before the body is cremated, or it may happen after the cremation takes place.

If the body is displayed, expect to see the deceased dressed in everyday clothes. Since Buddhists come from a wide range of cultures and ethnicities, not all may practice the same Buddhist death rites.  

Jewish

Instead of having a visitation before the funeral, some Jewish families sit shiva after the ceremony. Sitting shiva is a seven-day period where the family gathers together to receive visitors and reflect on the life of their loved one. 

Sikh

It is common for friends and family to surround people on their death beds in the Sikh religion. Those gathered around read the writing of one of the Sikh gurus.

Although people gather together to sing hymns before the body is cremated, there may not be any specific event where families receive visitors. 

Hindu

There may be an open-casket wake before the cremation of a Hindu. Family members and friends attend these gatherings. 

Funeral Visitation Etiquette FAQs

Funeral etiquette may vary a bit from place to place, but most of the time a visitation is a quiet, subdued event. There may be laughter when friends and family share stories of the one who has passed, but generally, it is not a time for boisterous behavior.

Do you go to the visitation, the funeral, or both?

No rules dictate when a person should go to a visitation instead of a funeral. Of course, you can also go to both events. 

If you want an opportunity to talk with the family members, you may consider going to the visitation. If you don’t know the family well, but you still want to pay respects to the deceased, you may consider going to the funeral. You may choose to attend one service over the other because of your schedule.

What do you wear to a visitation?

Traditionally, people wear dark, dressy clothes to visitations and funerals. Most will choose to wear more formal attire to the funeral than the visitation if you are going to both services. 

Some communities dress more formally than others, though. If you want to know what to wear to a wake or funeral in your community or cultural group, consider asking others who have attended one in your area.

How long do you stay at a visitation?

Visitations are come and go events. Typically, people do not stay for the duration of the visitation. If you know a few attendees and there aren’t many people present, you may stay only 15 or 20 minutes. You may plan to stand in line for more than an hour if you know that there will be many people at the visitation.

Do you bring gifts, flowers, or cards to a visitation?

Those who choose to give family members flowers or plants typically have them delivered straight to the funeral home or church. If you would rather donate to the deceased’s memorial fund, there is usually a funeral home or church staff member nearby to take those donations. 

Since the immediate family members have to greet people for long periods, it is best not to inundate them with cards. You may find a box or tray to place the cards in at the funeral home, but it is probably best not to give anything directly to the mourners.

What do visitors do at the visitation?

People “visit” at visitations. They share pleasant memories of the deceased with his or her family. Of course, you can also talk with other people in attendance. If the body is available for viewing, you may reflect upon the life of the deceased or pray as you stand in front of it.

Preparing for a Visitation or Viewing

It’s common for people to feel nervous the first time they attend a visitation or funeral. After all, death is a difficult topic for many people, and seeing a dead body may put you out of your comfort zone.

Even if you feel nervous attending the visitation, realize that the members of the immediate family appreciate your support. Merely being there shows that you want to offer comfort to those who are grieving. It also shows that you respected the person who died.

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