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Time to say goodbye: Visitations and funeral viewings

Mourners pay their respects at a funeral visitation

Funeral rituals help us say goodbye and prepare for a new and unfamiliar journey without that special person in our lives and a funeral viewing is a part of many family traditions in the U.S. While not everyone chooses an open casket funeral for their loved one’s service itself, a viewing is regarded by many as an important part of the way they choose to say goodbye.

Looking upon the face of someone you love after they have died for one last time at a funeral visitation, can be a great comfort to the bereaved. Yet it’s not for everyone, whether for personal or religious reasons. Some faiths, including Judaism and Islam, prohibit embalming, a procedure that is usually carried out by funeral directors to temporarily preserve a person’s body.

In his study of the grieving process, the psychiatrist J William Worden suggests that viewing a loved one who has died may help the bereaved accept the reality of a death, as part of the healing process. Some people lay their loved out at home, as a more informal and private way of sharing time together before their burial or cremation.

Other people may prefer to hold onto a different memory of their loved one, or find the prospect of seeing them no longer alive distressing. Some guests may respectfully choose not to approach the open casket, if invited to a funeral viewing.

If you feel it would be reassuring to look upon a loved one’s face one last time, a good funeral home can arrange for them to be prepared for a funeral visitation or an open casket funeral. Most have dedicated chapels of rest where close loved ones and their invited guests can pay their respects, an occasion that is also known as a funeral visitation and sometimes called a wake.

Guests invited to a visitation at a funeral home need not wear black, but should be soberly dressed to attend a viewing. It’s polite to express a few words of condolence to the bereaved family – but a viewing is not a time for conversation. When you are a guest at the visitation of a person who has died, you might respectfully bow your head, or if you are of faith perhaps say a few quiet words of prayer, when you approach their casket. Unless the family has indicated that they’d prefer you to stay for longer, it’s courteous to spend around 15 minutes at a visitation. Many people bring sympathy flowers, a sympathy gift and a condolence card.

Although embalming is not a legal requirement in most states, you’ll find that funeral homes may recommend embalming prior to a viewing, which may be held several days after a death. The National Funeral Directors Association says that as part of a funeral with cremation, bereaved families can view a body that has been prepared, but is not embalmed.

The embalming procedure involves replacing fluid in the body with chemical formulas, which help reduce the skin’s pallor. The person’s facial features will be massaged and ‘set’ into a peaceful expression. As part of preparing a person for a viewing, a thin makeup base is also applied, matched to their natural skin tone.

Be prepared that your loved one may look slightly different in death, from how they looked in life. For many people who choose a viewing for their loved one, it’s important that their loved one’s hair, makeup and nails are fixed just so, which is where the mortuary cosmetologist, also known as a desairologist, steps in.

A mortuary cosmetologist must be licensed by the state and is skilled at applying makeup, manicuring, styling and cutting hair. Many also work as regular beauticians or stylists and it’s a career option that’s seen a surge of interest over the past 20 years or so. It’s helpful to provide photos as a guideline for the look you hope will be achieved.

Embalming and viewings are a personal choice that can bring comfort and closure to many. Yet even if you opt for closed casket funeral, you should feel confident that your funeral director will give your loved one the best possible care; washing, grooming and dressing them in the garments you chose, before arranging them in peaceful repose with respect and dignity.